Despite Help, Whale Fails to Head Seaward


A baby gray whale that has veered far off its northward migration route foiled the well-laid plans of rescuers Wednesday, reversing course and swimming back up the Petaluma River after an exhaustive, all-day effort to herd it out to sea.

The 25-foot whale, dubbed Phyllis or Petaluma Pete by its delighted Sonoma County hosts, was about seven miles shy of the river mouth when it put on the brakes and made an abrupt U-turn, forcing a flotilla of escort boats to back off.

At dusk, the bullheaded whale was floating comfortably just north of the Lakeville Marina, where a throng of spectators waited to catch a glimpse.

"It's so spectacular to have a magnificent whale right in our back yard," said Lana Sutton, who runs a Greek restaurant at the marina. "What could be more exciting?"

Scientists were somewhat less thrilled.

"The whale is clearly running the show right now," said Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Our hope is that at some point he'll get bored and remember he has other things to do in his life."

Although it ended in frustration, Wednesday began on a hopeful note, with Navy scientists armed with sophisticated acoustical equipment joining the growing rescue effort.

Hoping to entice the whale seaward, the Navy scientists used an underwater amplifier to broadcast gray whale sounds downriver from the cetacean. Following about 100 feet behind the whale, volunteers on three other vessels herded it by banging with hammers on specially designed steel pipes.

Progress was painfully slow, and it was hard to determine whether the zigzagging whale was responding to the acoustical coaxing or just moseying about on its own. In any case, it has so far shown no interest in swimming 30 miles southwest and out the Golden Gate.

The wayward whale, believed to be between 1 and 2 years old, was first spotted in the Petaluma River on Saturday. Although whales occasionally get sidetracked in bays, it is extremely rare for one to swim up a river, and scientists can only speculate about what diverted this mammal from its seasonal journey to Alaska.

Initially, experts were content to let the six-ton cetacean snoop about the murky inland waters and, they hoped, find its own way back to the Pacific. But on Monday, when it became briefly stranded on a mud flat and snagged between some dock pilings, concern for its safety grew.

"If he gets stuck in the mud, then we'd have to tow him out and that poses the risk of injury," said Peigin Barrett, director of the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center. "So we're hoping these methods will eventually do the trick."

Meanwhile, masses of whale watchers continued to swamp Petaluma, crowding the river's shore and delighting merchants along the normally sleepy waterway. Hundreds gathered Wednesday outside Papa's Taverna, a Greek restaurant the whale had passed the previous day.

"Business has doubled, or maybe tripled," said Sutton, who opened an extra parking lot for the crush. "Today we're serving the whaler's special--bits of halibut wrapped in pita bread, with lettuce, tomato and tzatziki sauce."

As they waited for a glimpse of the slow-swimming celebrity, spectators swapped theories about what had caused the whale to take such a dramatic detour.

One self-described mammal expert, Curt Kinkead, speculated that Phyllis, or Pete (its sex remains undetermined), had come up the river to get rid of the orange lice that coat its back. Scientists politely rejected the notion, noting that all gray whales have lice.

Also abundant on shore were suggestions of methods for urging the whale back to sea. One woman insisted that classical music--especially Beethoven--would work. Another onlooker recommended that the experts broadcast sounds from the killer whale--a predator of the gray whale--to scare it out of the river.

Cordaro said that was an option, but one that must be exercised with care in the shallow, muddy Petaluma River.

"We don't want to panic or stress out the animal, because it's already confused and might strand itself," he said. Today, he added, the rescue team might simply back off and wait for the mammal's next move.

"Maybe it's time for us to just do some whale-watching, like everybody else."

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