First try fails to put lost whales back on course

Times Staff Writers

With hundreds of cars parking in a rutted field and a horde of camera-toting spectators slathering themselves with suntan lotion, a mile-long levee outside Sacramento could as easily have been the entrance to a county fair Thursday.

Instead, it was a gathering spot for folks intent on eyeballing the elaborate rescue effort launched to turn around two injured, wrong-way whales that have cruised 70 miles inland from the Pacific.

Thursday was the first day of the effort, and no apparent progress was made. A crew was planning to keep tabs on the whales overnight.

The Coast Guard, National Fisheries Service, California Highway Patrol, sheriff’s deputies from four counties and a slew of whale experts from nonprofit agencies have converged to set the humpbacks -- a mother and her calf -- back on course.

Throughout the day, the Coast Guard cutter Pike lowered a speaker into the murky waters, broadcasting encouraging whale sounds to the pair, which apparently had veered into the Sacramento River while migrating north from the coast of Baja California. They were first spotted Sunday.


The sounds are “gurgles and chirps and whistles,” said Pieter Folkens of the Alaska Whale Foundation. Recorded underwater after Alaskan humpbacks had mated or finished a meal or simply socialized, the sounds may -- or may not -- be decipherable to the lost leviathans.

“It might be like speaking Chinese to someone from Boston,” Folkens said, “but at least they’re recognizable as members of the same species.”

In theory, the sounds will help lure the whales, both bearing gashes apparently made by a ship’s propeller, back to sea. It’s a journey that could take days, or even weeks, experts said at a news conference.

But the humpbacks Thursday failed to respond to the undersea chatter, instead swimming in lazy circles around their makeshift sanctuary in the narrow shipping channel. Scientists said that attempts to attract whales with sound flop 90% of the time, but also stressed that it’s too early to judge the current effort.

While the Coast Guard kept boaters at least 500 yards from the stricken whales, onlookers crowding the levee gazed at the gray-green waters through binoculars and cameras, gasping each time one of the huge mammals surfaced.

Some sat in beach chairs and popped open cold beers. Others were as awestruck as pilgrims approaching a shrine, preserving the moment with digital photos and downloading them into laptops ready at hand.

Parents hoisted up their young children for the spectacle. Elderly folks using walkers and wheelchairs maneuvered onto the levee, scanning the channel. Late in the afternoon, a bored West Sacramento police officer who had been on whale duty for hours pulled his cruiser up to a group of watchers and deadpanned: “Call me Jonah.”

With temperatures rising into the 90s, cook Brian Robertson stripped off his shirt, displaying a skull tattoo on his chest and a Sagittarius zodiac sign on his ample belly.

“To heck with sounding,” he joked. “I’m going to dive in and lead the whales back to safety. I’m going to be a hero!”

Scientists had other methods in mind. With their barrage of “positive sounds,” they hoped to draw the whales down the Sacramento River, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific. They were planning for a small flotilla to block tributaries in the Sacramento River Delta. Other vessels would trail well behind the humpbacks, discouraging them from reversing course and heading back toward Sacramento.

Fearing that noise from the busy Port of Sacramento nearby could distract the whales, the Coast Guard on Thursday asked officials to halt the unloading of cement from the freighter Jin Quan. The port complied.

However, scientists acknowledged that, like the whales, they were wandering into uncharted territory.

“We’ve never had a baleen whale this far up a freshwater river,” Folkens said, adding that rescuers also have never dealt with a stranded cow and calf, both injured.

“We can’t have very high expectations of a positive outcome,” he said. “This is relatively new for all of us. It’s essentially an experiment.”