Whale picked right time to get lost (10/20/1985)

Published: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 12:18 pm | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 1:36 pm

Originally published 10/20/1985

If E.T. the humpback whale had surfaced in the Sacramento River at Rio Vista 20 or 30 years ago, it might have been harpooned. In 1985, however, a humpback whale gets a celebrity's welcome. Awed residents of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have practically adopted him and Rio Vista city fathers would present him with a key to the city, if only there was a way.

Whales, those giants of the oceans, have climbed from obscurity into the spotlight in the last two decades. When a 40-foot humpback swam onto the Rio Vista scene about a week ago it was an instant hero.

There have been numerous documentary films, television programs and articles about whales in recent years. A recording of humpback whale 'songs' produced by an East Coast researcher gained national popularity a decade ago.

While Northern Californians have been exposed to plenty of whale data, hundreds of them got their first real-life look this week at one of the earth's most awesome and intelligent animals.

Some spectators found themselves within a few yards as it spouted and sounded, occasionally providing a glimpse of its long, slender flippers and knobby chin.

The whale-watchers were, in effect, breathing the same air as a 35-ton sea monster.

In the public eye, whales nowadays are monsters only in size. Once viewed as horrifying behemoths of the deep, they are now the symbol of the environmental movement. In short, people have learned a lot about whales.

'Whales are a good symbol of the situation. If we can save the whales maybe we can save the environment,' commented Ron Reuther, executive director of Oakland's Whale Center.

Reuther gave another example of how things have turned around: The International Whaling Commission, founded by whalers to allocate the kill, is now a conservation agency.

It has decreed a worldwide, 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling to begin Jan. 1. Whether the three major commercial whaling nations - Japan, the Soviet Union and Norway - will go along with the moratorium remains to be seen. The IWC's police powers are weak.

'They may be able to buck the commission, but we're optimistic that they can't buck world opinion,' Reuther said. He is confident that the tide has turned against the whale killers.

The IWC in 1965 banned the commercial taking of humpback and blue whales in the North Pacific. In 1971 the U.S. government declared the whales endangered species and halted further hunting in American waters.

California once had a whaling industry of its own, with onshore whale processing plants operating well into the mid-20th century at Eureka and Richmond.

Gray whales moving back and forth between polar feeding grounds and calving lagoons in the Gulf of California were the principal prey until they were depleted about 1875. Then the humpback, which can grow to 50 feet and more than 40 tons, became the prime target for the whalers.

The humpback, which once numbered 15,000 in the North Pacific, was reduced by whalers to about 1,000 by 1965. The North Pacific population is now estimated at 1,200. Worldwide, the estimate is 10,000.

'It's time to stop whaling. It's time to start protecting the whale's environment,' said Erika Rosenthal to the Greenpeace Foundation in San Francisco. 'We've changed the public consciousness so much, but it's not quite done and over. Japan has a whaling fleet that will be used until the ships wear out in several years.'

While there is general agreement that the whale and its environment should be protected, nobody has come up with a quick answer to the Rio Vista whale question.

Biologists agree that it probably had been driven 60 miles inside the Golden Gate by a parasitic infestation. After some initial experiments with whale sounds and soft music, they are now leaving it alone.

But they are concerned about its ability to survive in the Sacramento River, many miles inland from salt water.

Prolonged exposure to river water may cause skin and eye problems, they said.

Another problem is the difference in density between fresh water and salt water, said Debbie Ferrari, a marine biologist who has studied humpback whales in their calving grounds around the Hawaiian Islands.

Because fresh water is less dense than salt water, a whale is less buoyant and requires more energy to swim and surface, Ferrari said.

There have been reports that the whale has been herding schools of fish and feeding on them near Rio Vista. Ferrari said she couldn't verify them.

She said, however, that when she first observed the humpback a week ago in Oakland harbor, it was swimming in what appeared to be a feeding pattern.

Disease or fresh water problems - rather than starvation - are considered to be principal concerns, she said. Humpback whales do their primary feeding in the polar latitudes and can survive for long periods on their accumulated blubber.

'They eat tons of food daily,' Ferrari said. In their cold water feeding grounds the main food is krill, an inch-long crustacean resembling a miniature lobster.

Humpback whales, according to Ferrari, produce a hefty offspring, 13 or 14 feet long. Like most other baleen whales (which sift their food out of the water with bony plates), the female outweighs the male.

Propelled by the flukes of its horizontal tail, the humpback can swim long distances at 4 or 5 knots an hour and can propel itself at up to 12 knots or more, she said.

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