Humphrey finally high-tails it back to the sea (11/5/1985)

Published: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 12:30 pm | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, May. 18, 2007 - 1:36 pm

Originally published 11/5/1985

SAN FRANCISCO - Humphrey the vagabond humpback whale, who went from deep-sea nobody to international celebrity in 25 days, glided swiftly through the Golden Gate's fog into his natural, salty ocean habitat late Monday afternoon.

The meandering mammal's persistent, plucky, 69-mile detour into the menacing (for him) fresh water of the Delta ended as he raised his flukes at midspan and then dived under the choppy surface.

Lured forward by recorded sounds of banqueting fellow humpbacks and trailed by the clatter of clanking pipes, Humphrey had a 13-ship military escort as he concluded his tour of civilization at 4:36 p.m.

It took an armada of Navy, Coast Guard and private fishing vessels nearly two full days to coax the 45-ton whale from Antioch back to the ocean. Two crossbow-implanted transmitters slipped off the whale late Sunday, and for several hours no one was certain of Humphrey's whereabouts.

But at first light Monday, he was spotted just off Point Richmond by a bed-and-breakfast innkeeper. And so the flotilla regrouped at about 10 a.m.

But Humphrey did not go softly into the night. For some three hours, he frolicked around the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, gridlocking westbound traffic on that span as motorists stopped to gawk at the slicing, charismatic figure whose skin had started turning from its natural black to an ominous gray, indicating deterioration.

He paid no attention to the ersatz whale chorus or the noise of sailors banging on half-submerged pipes. 'He's playing games with us,' said Hal Alabaster, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which coordinated the get-Humphrey-back-into-the-Pacific strategy. 'It's frustrating,' Alabaster said. 'He's got a mind of his own.'

But when the flood tide splashed in at about 1:30 p.m., Humphrey headed south - hastily, averaging 3 knots. Within 90 minutes he reached Raccoon Strait, between Angel Island and Tiburon. By 4 p.m. he was off Fort Mason on the San Francisco shoreline - creating traffic congestion along the marina. But those wanting a look at the wayward whale were disappointed; all they could see through the fog was a flashing red light on the flotilla's point ship, the Bootlegger.

Humphrey had first come into the Bay Oct. 10, on the heels of arriving U.S. naval vessels. He lingered for a few days before heading upstream into the Sacramento River. By Oct. 25 the whale was 69 miles inland, imperiled in a freshwater cul-de-sac slough near Rio Vista. Mammal experts were concerned that Humphrey, a saltwater creature, might be on the brink of death because of the long exposure to fresh water.

But with state Sen. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, leading a government-volu nteer rescue effort, some dredging was done beneath the concrete Liberty Island Bridge so that Humphrey could start heading home. But it was a trip the frisky fellow showed little interest in taking - until the recorded weekend whale 'music' changed his mind.

Even after his round-trip excursion ended, no one could be certain why Humphrey delved into the Delta.

'It's possible,' said Garamendi, 'he had some feelings about those Navy ships, followed them into the Bay, then simply got lost. Or maybe he was drawn by the signals from a Navy transmitter near Shag Slough. Perhaps he thought the transmitter was talking to him. There's no proof of the notion that he knew he was sick and came to the Delta to die.

'What strikes me most is the symbolism of Liberty (Island) Bridge. The fact he was trapped behind what amounted to iron gates. The name of the bridge.'

Jay Ziegler, a Garamendi aide who served as media coordinator in the Delta rescue operation, said, 'The public's identification with Humphrey has been incredible. I think everybody could put themselves in his place: suddenly being trapped in a situation where you have no personal control over how you'll get out.'

When Humphrey did get out into the ocean, he skirted the southern shore here briefly. The armada accompanied him about two miles out to sea - 'as far as they could safely go,' said Alabaster. 'Now all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope he doesn't come back.'

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