May 31, 2007: It wasn’t a Disney ending – no two-fluke salutes or fins lifted in farewell – but the story of the wayward whales drew to a happy conclusion Wednesday as Delta and Dawn slipped unseen through the Golden Gate into the Pacific.
That’s the verdict from scientists who acknowledged the humpbacks’ quiet departure was bittersweet for the whale rescue team.
The last confirmed sighting of the mother and calf was Tuesday night near Tiburon, about four miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.
The lack of other sightings Wednesday – despite a concerted effort – convinced rescuers that the pair made it to the open sea.
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“I don’t think we could reasonably expect them to wave as they left,” said Brian Gorman, speaking for the team. “There is obviously an enormous amount of excitement, both emotionally and professionally, but at some point, we have to bring this to closure.”
Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said emotions ran high during the whales’ odyssey through the Sacramento River Delta, eventually reaching the Port of Sacramento 90 miles upstream.
After dallying in fresh water for more than two weeks, the whales made a final dash for the ocean Tuesday, moving through San Pablo Bay at a brisk 5 miles per hour.
One factor making it difficult to track their departure, he said, is the unusually high number of whale sightings off the San Francisco coast on Wednesday – mostly of California grays. Delta and Dawn may just have gotten lost in the crowd.
The whale multitudes may have been drawn by a huge “bloom” of krill near the Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of the Golden Gate. Krill is sort of a plankton soup – the primary food of humpbacks and other baleen whales.
It is anybody’s guess whether the krill played a role in attracting Delta and Dawn back to the open sea, marine mammal biologist Trevor Spradlin said. But the pair were observed to be feeding Tuesday in the bay, probably their first meal in weeks.
Researchers regret they were unable to attach a tracking device to either the mother or the calf. Gorman said an early attempt to attach a monitor was called off because of concern about the health of the animals.
Dorothy Korber and Bobby Caina Calvan