Whale back in SF Bay Humphrey lured 40 miles (11/4/1985)

Published: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 12:28 pm | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 1:36 pm

Originally published 11/4/1985

BENICIA - The team that has been trying to coax Humphrey the whale back to the Pacific Ocean threw away the stick Sunday and brought out the carrot to successfully lure him 40 miles to the briny depths of San Francisco Bay.

Humphrey followed a device emitting underwater whale sounds for 11 hours Sunday. 'He has responded well all day,' said David Kennedy with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 'We got more optimistic as the day went along.'

The whale was led to within five miles of the Golden Gate Bridge -the gateway to the Pacific - when whale rescuers lost the big mammal in Racoon- Strait between Angel Island and Tiburon. But he was spotted 30 minutes later still in San Francisco Bay. The rescue effort was called off late Sunday.

The lure that drew the 40-ton whale all the way from the San Joaquin River Sunday was the tape-recorded sound of whales feeding in the waters off Maui, Hawaii. The sounds were transmitted into the water from a boat that stayed about 100 yards in front of the whale all day.

The pleasant sounds of feeding and whale social activities were like a carrot in front of a donkey's nose.

When the boat turned starboard, so did Humphrey. When the boat zigged around islands, the whale zigged, too.

The approach was a departure from earlier efforts to return the whale to the sea after more than three weeks in the Delta. When Humphrey went about 80 miles inland, researchers used the stick - a type of underwater chimes - to scare the whale from shallow Shag Slough and to a point 14 miles from Rio Vista.

The whale rescue crew also played tapes of killer whale sounds to drive him from the fresh water. But the clanging and killer-whale efforts had only minimal success, and he loitered for a week near the mouth of the Sacramento River across from Pittsburg.

In the boat Sunday were acoustics expert Bernie Kraus and aquatic mammal researcher Diana Reiss, who together produced a tape recording of humpback whales feeding. The tape was played into the water through a device called a transponder and Humphrey followed it 40 miles at 3.5 knots to near the entrance of the Pacific Ocean.

The whale was found Sunday morning five miles east of the Antioch Bridge on the San Joaquin River. He had backtracked those five miles, and entered the San Joaquin for the first time, during the night.

The whale group began the day with plans to hit the underwater chimes if the whale did not move when he heard the recorded sounds of fellow humpbacks.

But Humphrey cooperated beautifully when the whale sounds were played and by 2:25 p.m. he was approaching the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.

Then came a brief scare: Humphrey has been reluctant to swim under bridges and experts believe the vibration from the spans scare him away.

As he neared the Benicia bridge, a train approached the parallel railroad bridge - but Humphrey kept right on going, to the cheers of about 100 people gathered to watch.

Humphrey's next obstacle, the Carquinez Bridge at Crockett, was no problem. The Nantucket Fish Co. restaurant, at the foot of the bridge, was crowded with whale watchers when Humphrey steamed by.

And diners didn't have to leave their seat until the whale appeared, thanks to restaurant staff.

'The whale will be here in 10 minutes,' a waitress announced. 'Our chief cook is on the restaurant roof and he will tell everyone when the whale comes into view.'

When Humphrey came by, everyone, including bartenders, cooks and waitresses, joined the 200 to 300 people gathered on the long pier outside the restaurant to whoop it up.

Hal Alabaster of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the decision was made to continue moving the whale when night fell because 'we have the equipment on the boat that allows us to track him. We have an infrared night-vision device from the Navy and some sonar scanning equipment from the U.S. Geological Survey.'

'I couldn't believe the timing of that train,' said Kay Woodson, a field representative for Rep. Vic Fazio, D-West Sacramento.

Woodson said Fazio has been working to unleash money in the whale rescue effort because the mammal is protected under a federal statute.

'It's a federal whale,' she said. 'I came in to make sure the federal funding was there. I've been on this for 10 days and I feel really excited that he is finally finding his way to the ocean. He appears to be fine. He has flipped his flukes today, so physically he appears OK. He also seems to have passed his sanity test.'

Whale experts have theorized that some sort of illness - probably parasites of the brain or inner ear -caused it to go off course and into San Francisco Bay where it was first spotted Oct. 10.

Sunday it was Humphrey-mania at a fever pitch as the whale steamed downstream. Kristi Thomas, 7, of Sacramento bought an $8 'I saw Humphrey the whale' T-shirt because she thinks the mammal is just great.

John Powell of Stockton's was selling quite a few of the shirts.

'I've got about 40 left,' he said. 'I'm at the tail end of about 500 shirts.

'I thought when he got to Pittsburg last weekend he would be long gone by now. When he didn't leave, we got back into production. He's good for business but I don't want him to stay around any longer. I want him to go home, because I've got a camping trip planned that I don't want to miss.'

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard reported the sighting Sunday of another whale, a gray, far inside the Bay, off the San Francisco shore and about six miles southeast of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The second whale was being left alone. Coast Guard spokesman Grant Bell said the gray could be the same 40-foot whale spotted Friday and thought to have gone back to sea.

The appearance of grays in the Bay for a few days during annual winter migrations is not unusual, but scientists say it is highly unusual for a humpback whale like Humphrey to swim into inland waters.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Bill Lindelof



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