As a chief boatswain's mate yelled one of the most unusual orders ever heard aboard ship--"Release the whale!"--the California gray whale named J.J. was lowered gently into calm seas Tuesday two miles off the San Diego coast.
The 19,200-pound, 31-foot-long mammal--the largest ever kept in captivity--initially began swimming back to San Diego. Then the celebrity cetacean made an abrupt underwater U-turn and headed due west--toward an area where a Coast Guard helicopter had spotted a pod of migrating gray whales.
Whale experts at the Sea World aquatic park in San Diego--where the then-newborn J.J. was rushed 14 months ago after being found near death off Marina del Rey--hope she will join a pod headed north to Alaska, the gray whales' summer frolicking spot.
At Sea World, J.J. proved a boon to scientists because there are no other gray whales in captivity. She also was a popular attraction.
J.J.'s return to the ocean went so smoothly some scientists joked that it was an anticlimactic ending to the story of the sickly calf who was nursed back to health and whose recovery captured the public's imagination.
"You put a year of your life into helping her and she doesn't even say thank you," joked Grossmont College professor Jim Sumich, a Sea World whale consultant.
Sumich and others had hoped J.J. would break the surface of the ocean close to the ship to grab a breath of air, and thus provide a final bit of dramatic film footage of this one-of-a-kind event. Alas, it was not to be.
"J.J. did what a wild animal will do: She got the heck away from human beings as fast as she could," said Sea World veterinarian Tom Reidarson. "It's not that she doesn't like us. It's just that she doesn't need us anymore."
The four-hour operation to take J.J. out to sea was part VIP motorcade, part military maneuver.
At Sea World, she was lifted by crane onto a truck specially equipped with a foam-rubber bed. San Diego police provided an escort to the loading dock of the 32nd Street Naval Station, a journey through city streets.
A second crane lifted the rubbery skinned leviathan onto the buoy deck of the 180-foot Conifer for the short voyage to the drop spot off San Diego's Point Loma. The huge animal thrashed occasionally, rocking the boat slightly. Caretakers used hoses to keep her huge body wet.
Once at sea, a crane normally used to lift buoys was deployed to lift the specially fitted red canvas sling containing J.J. off the ship's deck, over the port-side rail and into the water.
When the sling began to dip into the water, chief boatswain's mate Thomas Young, an 18-year veteran, bellowed the order "Release the whale!"
At his command, a line was pulled to let one side of the sling open and J.J. to swim away. By 10:17 a.m., J.J. was a free whale facing an uncertain future.
Young said later he had pondered on the eve of the high-pressure assignment what words to use when the crucial moment arrived. When a buoy is being freed, the order is "set the buoy."
" 'Set the whale' didn't seem right, so I decided to keep it simple, 'Release the whale,' " said Young. "I knew the instant she felt that water, she would want to get going. That's what I wanted, too."
Within 15 minutes, one of the four electronic transmitters attached to J.J.'s back began beaming information on her location--further proof that the release was a success.
A Sea World boat hopes to trail her for several days. The crew on the boat reported seeing her tail or fluke several times.
But it will be weeks before scientists know whether J.J. is heading north along with others of her species.
The gray whales were on their way south to Baja California in January 1997 when the week-old J.J.--sick and underweight--floundered off Marina del Rey.
An ad hoc squad of whale lovers, police and lifeguards rescued her from the surf and arranged for her to be sped 120 miles to Sea World in a U-Haul trailer. She arrived comatose, hypoglycemic and an emaciated 1,670 pounds.
At Sea World, the whale was given emergency medical care and then months of pampering in preparation for her eventual return to the sea. At one point she was gaining two pounds an hour.
J.J. was named after the late Judi Jones, director of operations of Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.
Keeping her in captivity was never an option; an adult female gray whale can weigh 74,000 pounds and stretch 55 feet.
Although her return to the sea was accomplished without a hitch, J.J. faces several kinds of dangers from which her Sea World caregivers will be unable to shield her.
Still, while in captivity, J.J. displayed a kind of self-confidence that her keepers believe will serve her well in the wild.
"To be honest, she never paid much attention to us," said Kevin Robinson, one of J.J.'s main caretakers. "When we were in there [J.J.'s 1.7-million-gallon tank], she'd cruise by to check us out but then go off to the corner to do her own thing."
Although they travel in loose groups called pods, California gray whales are not known as particularly social animals. As such, J.J.'s keepers do not expect others of her species to be effusive in their response to J.J.
"It'll be like another cow joining a herd of cattle," Robinson said. "It's not like they're going to say, 'Hey, welcome to the gang.' It'll probably be more like 'OK, there's another one. Let's keep going.' "
Initial reports were that J.J. was heading south. But that is not considered alarming to researchers who believe it could be several days or weeks before she heads north to Alaska.
Along with the problem of finding food, J.J. faces possible danger from killer whales and a variety of aquatic bacteria.
Killer whales have been known to attack California grays, including several assaults in the Monterey Bay area. Lacking teeth, young grays are particularly vulnerable.
Bacteria--and the barnacles and "whale lice" that attach themselves to whales--are an imponderable. For 14 months, J.J. has lived in an environment as bacteria free as a team of researchers could keep it.
But researchers have determined that J.J. spent enough time with her mother before being separated to get at least a modicum of the colostrum [the mother's first milk] that provides whales their immune system. "She is quite immunologically competent," Reidarson said.
There is also another enemy lurking along the migratory route that awaits J.J.: whalers.
Although commercial whaling has largely been banned in the Pacific, the International Whaling Commission allows sea hunting by aboriginal peoples whose economic and cultural survival is at stake.
The California gray whale was hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900s but has been protected since the commission was formed in 1946. The gray whale population is now estimated at 21,000, believed to match the pre-whaling census.
The Chukotka tribe in Siberia has permission to take 140 gray whales annually in the Arctic and Chukchi seas, part of the migratory pattern for gray whales. The Unipiat Eskimos in Alaska also have permission but prefer to take the bowhead whale.
The Makah Indians, whose reservation is on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, may soon resume hunting gray whales for the first time in 70 years. In a move supported by the Clinton administration but opposed by anti-whaling groups, the Makah successfully petitioned the whaling commission for the right to take four gray whales a year.
"Just because J.J. is famous and has a transmitter on her back, there is no law to prevent a whaler from putting a harpoon into her and killing her," said whale expert David Phillips of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, which opposes whaling except in "subsistence" bases involving native peoples.
Steps are being taken by the Coast Guard to see that the Makah do not kill J.J.
The satellite information on J.J.'s location will be relayed to the Coast Guard, which plans to provide an escort for the Makah when they take to the sea. The Coast Guard will then be able to steer the tribe away from J.J. if she is swimming nearby.
Sea World has promised to update information about J.J.'s location on its Web site.
The Conifer, home-ported in San Pedro, was chosen for the task of relocating J.J. because its crew is experienced in dropping 20-ton buoys in the navigational channels off Southern California. The return of J.J. was delayed last week because of rough seas.
"'We've done our job," Lt. Cmdr. Richard Brunke, commanding officer of the Conifer, said after J.J. disappeared from sight. "Now it's up to J.J."
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Workers surround California gray whale J.J. as she rests in a sling before being released into the ocean near San Diego. Naturalists are hopeful the whale will join up with a pod of whales on their northward migration.