SAN FRANCISCO — Humphrey, the humpback whale that became an international celebrity during its 26-day journey across California, plunged under the Golden Gate Bridge Monday and headed home.
Saluting its fans as it departed, the 40-foot whale glided several hundred yards off San Francisco's waterfront, surfacing every few minutes to the cheers of hundreds of spectators.
Then, escorted by a flotilla of 20 private vessels and U.S. Navy gun boats, Humphrey swam under the fog-shrouded bridge at 4:35 p.m. and returned to the Pacific Ocean.
"He's under the Golden Gate," called out Jack Findleton, a Sacramento fishing guide who led the rescue fleet from little Shag Slough 70 miles inland all the way to the ocean.
As darkness fell, the fleet herded Humphrey two miles out to sea, hoping that would encourage the wayward mammal to resume its annual migration to Hawaii for the winter.
During its extended visit, the rare whale became a hero to thousands, if not millions, of people who empathized with the animal's plight as it wandered, apparently lost, among the bays, rivers and sloughs of the Sacramento River Delta.
The outpouring of support for the animal helped pressure the federal government into joining with dozens of volunteers working to save the whale, one of an estimated 10,000 humpbacks in existence.
"I think we all want to see him in the ocean," said Dennis Daniels, a San Francisco attorney who came down to the city's marina to watch the whale go by. "But it's been a pleasure having him here."
The whale entered San Francisco Bay Oct. 10 and swam up the Sacramento River, past oil refineries and grazing cattle, to the shallow slough where it was trapped for nearly a week.
Biologists feared that the animal would die if it stayed too long in the river, because fresh water would break down its skin's ability to repel salt in the ocean. Already, large skin blisters have appeared on the whale's back, turning its color from black to gray.
Rescuers drove the whale from the slough and down the river, halting in frustration for nearly a week after the animal swam back upstream during the night.
The most successful day of the rescue effort came Sunday, when Humphrey was lured more than 50 miles to San Francisco Bay by the tape-recorded sounds of other humpbacks feeding. The whale came within four miles of the Golden Gate, before turning around after dark near Angel Island.
On Monday, the whale began its day at the north end of San Francisco Bay, near San Pablo Point, about 11 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.
It took the fleet several hours to herd the reluctant whale back under the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The recorded eating noises, which had worked so well the day before, seemed to have little effect.
Rescue crews reverted to their tactic of banging on pipes suspended in the water to drive the whale forward. Finally, with the combination of the lure in front and the prodding behind, Humphrey began steaming towards the ocean.
But before the independent-minded whale would leave, it threw its rescuers one final curve.
Instead of following the direct route past Angel Island chosen by the humans, the giant creature swam south around Alcatraz to San Francisco, leading rescuers past the cheering crowds.
"Everybody . . . is tickled to death," said Hal Alabaster, a spokesman for the rescue operation at its command post in Benicia. "We even opened up a bottle of champagne.
"Now, we're going to keep our eyes open and make sure he doesn't come back."
THE WHALE'S WANDERINGS
For nearly a month, Humphrey the humpback whale has wandered through the inland waterways of the Sacramento River delta.: 1--Thursday, Oct. 10: The whale is first sighted in San Francisco Bay, apparently having taken a wrong turn during its annual migration from Alaska to Hawaii.
2--Monday, Oct. 14: Humphrey swims up the Sacramento River in the vicinity of Rio Vista, delighting residents and tourists, but confounding marine biologists, who fear he will beach himself and die or be injured by prolonged exposure to fresh water.
3--Saturday, Oct. 15: The whale swims up Shag Slough, a shallow dead-end channel south of Sacramento, further alarming scientists.
4--Thursday, Oct. 24: Marine biologists, using a Japanese technique called oikomi, which involves banging pipes under water, herd the whale south, but he refuses to swim beneath a small bridge across Shag Slough.
5--Friday, Oct. 25: Herding efforts continue, and Humphrey swims beneath the bridge after debris is cleared from the river bottom.
6--Saturday, Sunday, Oct. 26-27: Whale swims southward as far as Pittsburg, driven by the pipe-banging boats.
7--Monday, Oct. 28: Whale turns back upstream about 10 miles, and the herding efforts are suspended.
8--Thursday, Oct. 31: Humphrey temporarily detours up the San Joaquin River.
9--Sunday, Nov. 3: Marine biologists try a new method--luring Humphrey downstream by playing tape-recordings of the feeding sounds of other humpback whales. The whale responds by swimming from the San Joaquin River more than 50 miles, to within four miles of the Golden Gate.
10--Monday, Nov. 4: Humphrey swims under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea, urged on by scientists again using the oikomi method.