Westward ho! Herders help wayward whale move 15 miles closer to Bay (10/28/1985)

Published: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 12:21 pm | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 1:36 pm

Originally published 10/28/1985

RIO VISTA - The humanitarian herding of a humpback whale went swimmingly Sunday as the errant animal was finally coaxed to the mouth of the Sacramento River and turned west toward San Francisco Bay.

The prediction of the whale movers was that Humphrey - or E.T. to some - could be in San Francisco by late today after a more-than two-week odyssey through inland waters.

'We think he is doing wonderfully,' said Mitchell Ryan, a spokesman for groups trying to return the whale to the Pacific Ocean.

Ryan, a press office intern for state Sen. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said the armada of U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Army ships and private boats had succeeded in moving - in fits and starts - the 40-foot whale nearly 15 miles downstream Sunday.

By nightfall, the troubled whale found itself in deep water near Pittsburg in Contra Costa County and about 40 miles from San Francisco Bay.

Humphrey dropped from sight at dusk, but the whale experts were hopeful that they could find him at daybreak today.

The flotilla of boats Sunday included four Army landing craft, which are normally used to get soldiers from ship to shore. Two landing craft trailed the whale, while two others blocked the whale from turning left or right.

'He does not like going under bridges or boats,' Ryan said. 'Those are very formidable boats.'

An 82-foot Coast Guard clipper, dubbed High Point by whale herders, had the command position, Ryan said.

The 14 private boats, captained by volunteers, filled in the space between the large craft and also were stationed at the mouths of sloughs to keep the whale from heading the wrong way again.

The scientists trailing the 40-ton humpback lost sight of the giant mammal Saturday night, the day after it was coerced into leaving Shag Slough in the upper Sacramento River Delta, where it had been entrapped most of the week. However, Sunday morning the whale was found again near the Rio Vista bridge.

The whale cowboys herded Humphrey downstream again by using the 'Oikomi technique,' a system of banging pipes suspended in the water. The technique was developed in Japan as a method for moving porpoises and some whales to slaughter. It generates acoustic underwater vibrations similiar to a low chime in a frequency that causes the whale to move away from the sound.

Until the move Friday in Shag Slough, the Oikomi technique had not been tested on larger, baleen whales such as humpbacks.

The escort of boats will continue to follow the humpback until it enters the Bay.

Scientists have been unable to explain why the whale swam into San Francisco Bay on Oct. 10, or why it turned upstream into the Sacramento River at Rio Vista four days later.

Humpbacks normally are in migration this time of year from polar feeding grounds to the waters around Hawaii.

At midmorning, the atmosphere outside of Rio Vista on narrow, dead-end Sherman Island road was something like that of a carnival, with whoops, hollers and smiles when the whale came up for air.

About 90 minutes later, the whale was passing Pittsburg. On the other side of the Sacramento River, about a dozen whale-watchers scanned for the creature at the tiny, isolated Collinsville Resort.

The resort, a rustic bar and a collection of motor homes, charged some people $3.50 to get near the water's edge for a look at the whale. Tom Morris of Vallejo paid the $3.50 and figured it was money well-spent.

'It doesn't bother me,' he said. 'That's not so bad. I was just glad to see the whale, even though it was so far away.'

Plans were being made Sunday to insert a satellite tracking device behind the dorsal fin. Jim Lecky of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that would involve scientists using darts to pierce the whale's skin and attaching the device in his blubber.

'The procedure has been done on gray whales, and they have shown no significant response, showing it doesn't cause them great pain,' he said. ; The whale has shown reluctance to swim under bridges on its way downstream. When the whale was in Shag Slough, it balked at swimming under a narrow two-lane bridge. It also had trouble getting under the Rio Vista bridge.

Only four bridges, all of them high, remained to be navigated by the whale.

The rest of the journey has few obstacles, said Jay Ziegler, spokesman for the whale rescue effort.

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