A humpback whale stranded in the Sacramento River Delta for four days turned homeward for the first time Wednesday and began swimming toward San Francisco Bay followed by more than a dozen boats, including one that broadcast soothing musical sounds underwater.
Boat traffic in the path of the 40-foot mammal was halted to clear his way and hundreds of people lined the banks of the Sacramento River to watch.
Late in the day, the whale's seaward progress halted at the Rio Vista drawbridge. The whale, dubbed "E. T." by marine biologists, balked at swimming under the noisy, traffic-filled bridge.
Nonetheless, the downriver progress of the rare whale, after four days of swimming upstream, cheered scientists and spectators who fear the 40-ton mammal will beach itself and die in the freshwater delta.
"This is the first day he's gone in the right direction," said Lynn Amaya-Sherman, assistant director of the California Marine Mammal Center of Marin County. "We're very optimistic about the animal continuing."
"He does have the ability to get himself out of there. We're just hoping he finds the way," said Jan Roletto, curator at the center, which has tracked the whale's journey.
Whale watchers withdrew their fleet of escort vessels Wednesday night and expressed hope that the whale might find his way under the bridge after traffic quieted.
"He would have the best chance of going under the bridge on his own, the way he did on his way up," said Harold Smith, officer in charge of the Rio Vista Coast Guard Station.
The whale, one of fewer than 1,200 humpbacks believed to remain in the world's oceans, took a wrong turn a week ago at the Golden Gate Bridge and entered San Francisco Bay.
Apparently confused and disoriented, the whale swam into the river delta Sunday and by Tuesday night ended up in Cache Slough, about 35 miles shy of Sacramento and about 55 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
On Wednesday morning, he was spotted wandering in and out of several other shallow sloughs about five miles north of Rio Vista.
Marine scientists, who earlier had tried to scare the animal back downriver by broadcasting the sounds of killer whales, changed tactics and tried playing soothing musical tones.
Led by an Armada
Soon, an armada led by the Coast Guard and the Sacramento and Solano County sheriff's departments began herding the whale downriver.
The authorities recruited private boats to block off dead-end sloughs so the whale would not take a wrong turn. And they halted all other boat traffic in the path of the whale so it would not be frightened back upriver.
Spectators came from as far as Sacramento, Stockton and the San Francisco Bay Area. Outside Rio Vista City Hall, young and old alike gathered in hopes of seeing the whale if it passed under the nearby bridge.
"If I looked up and saw a bunch of strange people like this, I'd hide too," said Patsy Lane, who brought seven children aged from 1 to 4 from her day-care center for a whale-watching picnic.
But some of Rio Vista's elderly said they believed the whale was looking for a place to die and should be left in peace.
"He's a senior citizen," said 68-year-old Toni Archibald. "Let nature take it's course."