Wayward Whales Head Back to Ocean

Two humpback whales that swam 90 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean to the Sacramento Delta were just a few miles from the ocean on Tuesday night. KPCC's Julie Small monitored the rescue effort from a boat.

Julie Small: On Tuesday, the humpback whales meandered through the San Pablo Bay, around 20 miles and two bridges away from the Pacific Ocean.

[Sound of a speed boat ]

Small: An armada of twelve rescue boats tracked their movements to keep commercial vessels from hitting the whales.

[Sound of radio exchange]

Small: It didn't look likely that the whales would make it all the way to the Pacific in one go. But late in the day, they picked up speed, passed under the Richmond Bridge into the San Francisco Bay. By 5:00 in the afternoon, rescue teams reported the pair had zipped past Angel Island at a five-mile-an-hour clip. Soon after, they were seen just 10 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Scientists were elated... and also relieved that deep gashes in both whales – likely from the keel of a boat – were healing, and that blisters from exposure to the fresh water had sloughed off. Rod McGinnis is with the Long Beach office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Rod McGinnis: As far as their health, it appears to continue to be good and they're swimming strongly.

Small: Scientists believe saltier water helped the whales heal as they headed west. A dose of antibiotics also helped, and it'll keep helping over the next week. Jim Oswald with the Marine Mammal Center says giving the whales a shot was no small feat.

Jim Oswald: This is the first time ever that a large whale in the wild has ever received antibiotics, and that's an incredible feat to be able to have done that successfully with positive results.

Small: Oswald says the scientists and marine biologist on the rescue team have been documenting their work every day. They'll use what they learned to help other injured mammals.

Oswald: You know, we study patients, diseases, and then we take that knowledge and apply it to either the same species or other species that are similar to them. So in the case of these humpback whales, everything that we're learning from these whales, for the past two-and-a-half to three week,s can be applied to similar species.

Small: Over the two-and-a-half weeks that the whales swam in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an estimated 20,000 people flocked to see them.

[Sound of mother whale's blow hole, reaction from crowd]

Small: Federal, state, and local government devoted significant staff and resources to rescue the humpbacks. The whales are an endangered species. The California Department of Fish and Game alone says it spent $100,000 in the first week.

But they'll get a great payoff when those whales finally make it back into the Pacific. If the whales make it, the rescue operation will hold a celebration. Late Tuesday, they were trying to find a spot with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

UPDATE: Today, the AP reports:

Two lost whales last spotted near the Golden Gate Bridge may have slipped back into the Pacific Ocean after a two-week sojourn that took them 90 miles inland up the Sacramento River, scientists said Wednesday.

Rescuers launched several boats Wednesday morning in an effort to find the mother humpback and her calf but hadn't found them, said Bernadette Fees, deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game.

The pair were last seen Tuesday night in San Francisco Bay, where few obstacles were left on their route past Alcatraz to the ocean.

"The assumption is if we have not sighted the mother and calf by late afternoon that they have made their way out to the Pacific," Fees said.

Rescuers planned to rely on commercial vessels and Coast Guard patrols on regular duty to watch for any sign of the pair in the bay.