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Humphrey the Whale Is Back, but Beached

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A whale scientists identified as Humphrey, the errant humpback whose 1985 odyssey through the Sacramento River Delta captured widespread attention, fought for his life late Monday after beaching himself in San Francisco Bay.

During a day of high drama, the humpback struggled free after beaching himself in the morning near Candlestick Park, only to re-beach himself during the afternoon off nearby Hunter’s Point.

By nightfall, when the tide ebbed, the whale was left “high and dry,” said marine biologist Marc Webber. “He’s in a bad predicament now. We hope to have enough water to refloat him about 3 a.m.”

Marine biologists from the California Marine Mammal Center threw wet blankets onto the disoriented creature in a desperate attempt to keep him from overheating or becoming dehydrated.

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The 40-ton mammal’s internal organs could be crushed by his own weight if he does not move back into the sea, Webber said.

Ken Balcomb, a marine biologist who assisted in Humphrey’s rescue five years ago and has sighted the animal every year since off the Farallon Islands, made the identification Monday after viewing distinctive markings on the whale’s flukes. Scientists say the underside of a humpback’s tail bears a unique pattern much like a human fingerprint.

Asked whether scientists had determined what was wrong with the whale, Balcomb said: “It’s usual Humphrey behavior.”

Since his first foray into the bay, Humphrey has exhibited an affinity for shallow waters, and last year even swam into Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, without incident.

“I don’t think he’s sick. I think he was feeding, or that was his plan, anyway,” Balcomb said after viewing the whale from a boat.

While scientists said Humphrey could survive until high tide early this morning, they expressed concern about his lethargic and unresponsive behavior.

Although smaller California gray whales frequently wander into the bay, this is only the second time a humpback is known to have strayed. The first also was Humphrey.

The whale’s appearance in mud flats south of the stadium snarled rush-hour traffic on the Bayshore Freeway because of rubbernecking motorists. Within hours, a small armada of Coast Guard and other vessels was mobilized to track the mammal. Hundreds of gawkers and whale lovers from throughout the Bay Area converged on the scene.

“When we first saw him, we thought he was dead,” said a California Highway Patrol officer who arrived shortly after the mammal was sighted. “But then he would flap his fins every once in a while to let us know he was alive.”

Piegin Barrett, head of the marine mammal center in Sausalito, said rescuers were obtaining sound recordings of humpback whales that were used to rescue Humphrey five years ago in an attempt to lure the whale to deeper waters. As in the first rescue of Humphrey, the Navy joined the effort, this time providing a special underwater amplifier for the sounds.

“Humphrey has gotten himself out of some pretty tight places before,” said Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for the marine mammal center.

Initially, scientists had dismissed the possibility that the whale was Humphrey, noting that there are perhaps 300 humpbacks who feed in local waters each summer and fall. “If this is Humphrey, he should know better,” said marine biologist Patrick Brady.

By noon, onlookers had swelled to about 500 as workers in nearby South San Francisco office buildings flocked to the scene.

“Whales are awesome, and this is cheaper than going out into a boat to see them,” said Jim McDaniel, a software salesman for GSI Transcomm.

“With all the terrible things that are happening--the budget mess, the gulf crisis, AIDS--it is heartening to come out here and see something natural and beautiful,” said Elizabeth Jackson of the McCaffrey & McCall advertising agency.

Times staff writer Dan Morain and researcher Norma Kaufman in San Francisco contributed to this story.


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