SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A wayward mother whale and her calf were
headed through a deep water shipping channel toward the Pacific
Ocean Sunday, nearly a week after taking a wrong turn and swimming
inland 90 miles to the state capital, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
By 9 p.m. on Sunday the whales had traveled 20 miles southwest
from the Port of Sacramento, where crowds had gathered to catch a
glimpse of the celebrity humpbacks. As darkness fell, the Coast
Guard escort that had followed the whales all day ceased trailing
the duo so the vessels would not accidentally hit them.
Nicknamed Delta and Dawn, the humpback whales started moving
toward the Pacific at around 3:30 p.m., swimming at about 6
miles-per-hour toward Rio Vista, a town located about 45 miles from
Sacramento. From Rio Vista it is another 60 miles to San Francisco
Bay, and officials are hopeful the whales will make their long
journey home without complications.
Vessels carrying Coast Guard officers and wildlife officials
will start following the whales again at 7:30 a.m. Monday. A
helicopter will try to locate the pair when the sun rises, said
Coast Guard Petty Officer Brian Leshak .
No one is certain why the whales decided to change course, but
Jim Oswald of the Marine Mammal Center said the change may have
been spurred by tug boats. The tugs' engines fired up about 100
yards away from the pair, and the sound may have had an influence.
"The tugs were out in the basin and the whales decided to
follow them. They've been on the move (ever since)," Oswald said.
If the whales maintain their current speed and direction, the
pair would be in the Benicia area, just east of San Francisco Bay,
sometime after midnight, officials said.
"We need to do whatever we can to stay behind them and keep
them going in the right direction," said Carrie Wilson, a marine
biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, from the
deck of a boat following the pair.
Wilson said boats will be positioned at the mouths of
tributaries where the whales could possibly go off course. "We've
got a bunch of metal pipes and hammers, and if we need to, ... we
can give the other boats pipes to bang on to persuade the animals
not to turn in the wrong direction," she said.
The whales still have a long way to go and obstacles to overcome
if they maintain their course. Officials said there are sloughs
leading to muddy deltas that could trap the injured whales, which
appear to have been wounded by a ship's propeller.
Wilson said there was no indication Sunday that the whales were
in poor health. "They have been very consistent, and moving along
at a good pace," she said.
The whales will also have to make their way through the pylons
of four bridges to reach the San Francisco Bay, and will have to
swim under the Golden Gate Bridge to return to the ocean.
The whales' plight has been followed closely, and hundreds of
people have gathered along the banks of the Port of Sacramento to
get a glimpse of the pair. People were also appearing on the banks
of the Sacramento River trying to get a glimpse of the retreating
whales, Wilson said.
Wildlife experts decided on Friday to leave the whales alone for
the weekend, since heavy recreational boat traffic in the delta
could have complicated any efforts to move them.
If the whales don't continue on their current course toward the
ocean, marine mammal rescue crews will resume trying to lure the
pair in the right direction by playing recorded sounds of other
humpbacks feeding. That strategy worked in the case of a humpback
named Humphrey, who in 1985 swam in the delta for nearly a month
before returning to the Pacific.
Associated Press writer Marcus Wohlsen contributed to this
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.