Wayward Whales Turn Life Upside Down in Rio Vista

Scientists trying to rescue those two wayward whales will try a new tactic today. They'll spray them with fire hoses to keep them heading down the Sacramento River, into the San Francisco Bay... and out to the ocean. The whales started heading west on Sunday. But when they reached the Rio Vista Bridge, they stopped. They've been circling there ever since. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

Julie Small: Having two lost, injured, humpback whales arrive in your town is like a having a celebrity trial get underway. TV trucks with satellite towers dot the banks of the Sacramento River. Reporters corner town residents to ask, "How do you feel about the whales?"

[Sound of kids and parents talking about the whales]

Small: In the mornings, at lunch, and in the evening, cars pull to the dusty roadsides and people tumble out. They bring their children, their friends... their pets. People brandish cameras or binoculars to catch a glimpse of a dorsal fin or a tail breaking the water. Or at least to watch the rescue boats. And when they're done, some of them head up to Betty's Striper Cafe.

[Sound of door bell jingling]

Small: Owner Betty Marlowe came up with the name for today's special on the dry erase board.

Betty Marlowe: We have a whale of a breakfast, which is true. We're famous for our chicken fried steak; (gesturing) It's like this big! (laughs)

Small: Marlowe says right now the whales are running her business.

Marlowe: Yeah, the way it works is if the whales are down here, everybody's down there looking at them. And when the whales disappear, then everybody comes in at the same time and grabs a bite to eat. And then they move up the river or they come in to ask if we know where the whales are. And it just goes in spurts like that all day long. (laughs)

Small: Marlowe's patrons trade information about the whales and debate whether the scientists are taking the right tack.

Julie Small: So you said all you've been talking about this morning are the whales...

Gloria Dexter: All of us, yeah, because it's a big deal. It's exciting and it's kind of sad. I want 'em to get home.

Small: Gloria Dexter admits she and her husband are consumed with the whales' welfare.

Dexter: Well, we go down to the river. We've gone down every day 'cause we live so close. So we go there every day and we watch and I read the paper and I watch the news, yeah. And I talk to people like Betty because she knows a lot, too.

Small: Everybody hopes the mother and baby survive the journey back to the ocean. But Marlowe could also use a break from all the gawkers.

Marlowe: I almost hit two people that stopped dead in the middle of the highway to take pictures – I couldn't believe it – and running back and forth, dodging traffic on the bridge, so that they could look on each side of the bridge to see if there was a whale, ya know?

Small: The residents of Rio Vista have some experience with this. Over 20 years ago, a humpback whale named Humphrey stopped here, too. Linda Lannon sits at her desk at the Rio Vista Chamber of Commerce, in front of a mural of a humpback whale swimming in the river.

Linda Lannon: That is from Humphrey. Humphrey caused quite a stir, and we have a plaque for him down at city hall, and we have the painting here with Humphrey in the background.

Small: Personally, Lannon loves whales, but she says their presence here could deal a blow to some businesses. Rio Vista is a prime destination for boating, windsurfing, and jet skiing. Ten thousand visitors are expected to come for the Memorial Day weekend.

The whale rescue operation has talked about shutting down part of the river to protect the whales. If that happens, Lannon says bait shops and boating operations will suffer. But she imagines many of the visitors will join the crowds watching the whales from the shore.

Lannon: It's exciting to see an animal that – well, actually, it would be exciting for me to see one out in the ocean, too. But in the river, it's so unexpected, it's just a phenomenon that's hard to grasp.

Small: If the whales don't head to the ocean soon, it's a scene that could become hard to watch.