Whales head downriver but stall 60 miles from the sea

Times Staff Writer

A pair of wayward humpback whales continued their improbable trek through the inland waterways of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on Monday, pressing toward the Pacific before stalling out near a steel bridge 60 miles from the sea.

The mother and her calf spent most of the day circling in the Sacramento River north of the Rio Vista Bridge near the mouth of Steamboat Slough, as more than half a dozen boats -- including a Coast Guard cutter -- shadowed their moves.

Biologists had hoped to attach a satellite tag to the mother, but high winds and choppy water hampered that effort. They did get a sample of skin and blubber about the size of a pencil eraser using a low-power crossbow. It will be analyzed to determine the whales’ health and genetic origin.


Scott Hill of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service said authorities believed the pair is part of a group that lives mostly in Mexican waters but feeds off California. Though the whales cannot survive long in fresh water, they are looking healthy and not overly stressed, he said.

“We’re happy the animals have moved 25 miles toward the ocean,” Hill said at an afternoon news conference in Rio Vista.

State and federal authorities said they planned to continue efforts to prod the marine mammals toward the sea by dangling steel pipes underwater and banging them with hammers.

The pair appeared in the delta May 13 and wandered up the Sacramento River to the harbor in West Sacramento, where they spent several days. On Sunday, they headed back downriver, appearing to follow a pair of tugboats as they left the harbor.

But by Monday morning the whales had halted at the Rio Vista Bridge, where they spent the day swimming lazy, two-mile circles as people along the shore snapped photos.

Late in the afternoon, a 600-foot-long cargo ship moved into the area. Authorities said care was being taken to avoid hitting the animals. The whales appear to have suffered gashes from a ship’s propeller.