A rescue team freed a massive transient killer whale that became entangled in commercial fishing gear off the coast of Salt Spring Island Thursday.

The entangled animal was reported to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at around 7:30 a.m., but officials said it was first spotted at a buoy around 5:30 a.m.

Salt Spring residents Keith Simpson and Suzanne Ambers were heading out on a morning fishing trip when they first saw the whale.

"We just got going, it was not even five minutes from Vesuvius, and Suzanne yelled "there's a killer whale!" said Simpson. " It quickly became apparent that the animal was in distress. It was circling a big red ball in the water, a prawn ball for commercial traps."

Pictures sent to the DFO showed that the animal wasn't moving far and that it was trailed by a long line holding as many as 50 prawn traps.

"It went down and it would pull the ball underwater, and it came up and it would breathe for a little while, then go back down," said Simpson.

"We knew we had a serious issue because killer whales are not as resilient in terms of their ability to have a lot of stamina with lifting gear like the large whales," said Paull Cottrell, DFO Marine Mammal Coordinator for B.C. and Yukon.

He said Simpson and Ambers were hugely helpful, keeping an eye on it while crews raced to the scene.

"When we got there we could see this animal was within five metres of the buoy…it was very restricted in terms of its movements," said Cottrell.

He determined it was a large male transient killer whale, so the team had to be cautious in its approach.

"We went in close and were able to work with the buoy, put some tension on the buoy, and the animal actually rolled out of the entanglement," Cottrell said.

Even after it was trapped for around five hours, the animal seemed to thank its rescuers by putting on a show before heading back out into the ocean.

"It took off right away and started breaching all over," he said. "It was quite something, and just a relief that the animal was free."

Ambers called it a "Free Willy moment."

"It was interesting to watch a professional go in and do the right thing," she said. "It really made us want to learn a lot more about approaching an animal in the ocean like that."

Anyone who sees a marine mammal in distress is asked to report it to the BC Marine Mammal Response Network at 1-800-465-4336.