Officials, Volunteers Work to Guide Lost Whales Back to Sea

Two whales that swam from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Port of Sacramento are heading back out to sea. At least, that's what it looks like. By last night, they'd traveled about 25 miles back towards the ocean, with a huge rescue operation in tow. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

Julie Small: The mother and baby humpback whales swam to where the Rio Vista Bridge straddles the Sacramento River in the San Joaquin River Delta. That's a long way from the Pacific Ocean. The whale rescue team followed by boat and by land. Early yesterday morning, the new command center, located half-mile south of where the whales frolicked, bustled with volunteers and federal, state, and local officials. Steve Edinger is with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Steve Edinger: We have approximately 21 boats that are on the water assisting in this operation. We are enforcing a 500-yard restricted area keeping private craft away from the whales and we're also trying to keep any aircraft away from the area.

Small: Edinger admits that sounds like a lot just to rescue couple of whales. But the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act call for it. Besides, says Edinger, people don't need much persuading to help out these extraordinary mammals.

Edinger: It's an opportunity that people will have once in a lifetime, to see a mother whale and her calf, which people just don't get to see. It's an important thing. California values its wildlife. And having people out here like this is an outstanding use of resources.

Small: The whales spent the day circling a two-mile stretch of river just north of the Rio Vista Bridge. Traffic officials raised the drawbridge, hoping the creatures would pass on through. They did, but they turned back again – numerous times. Officials hoped the whales would keep moving west on their own. But now, they might have to resort to some old tricks.

[Sound of banging on pipe]

Small: That's the sound of a hammer hitting a metal pipe. The rescue boats are equipped with pipes that dip into the water. Hitting those pipes with a hammer may annoy the whales enough to get them to move.

Laurie Gage, a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says it worked for a humpback named Humphrey 20 years ago. He swam far upstream from the San Francisco Bay, but eventually was coaxed back into the Bay and out into the Pacific Ocean. Turns out Gage was Humphrey's vet, too.

Laurie Gage: We did learn from Humphrey that we could drive him with the pipes if we needed to. We needed the pipes to get him past the bridges. And once past the bridges, we used the humpback feeding sounds, which worked like a charm. Humphrey followed the sounds all the way back out to the Pacific.

Small: But with the mother and the calf, Gage says the rescue operation hasn't resorted to banging on pipes just yet. They don't want to cause the pair undue stress. They've also tried playing recordings of those humpback feeding calls that Humphrey liked so much, but Gage says this female didn't seem to respond. U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Sean Ryan says the days ahead will be tough for them.

Lieutenant Commander Sean Ryan: They've come the easiest way so far. It's pretty straight shot, fairly narrow canal from Sacramento to Rio Vista. So I'd say the hardest part is yet to come.

Small: The two whales still have to navigate their way through three bays and 45 miles before they reach the Pacific.