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ANIMALS

The Comeback Whale

October 12, 1986|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | Richard C. Paddock, a Times staff writer based in Sacramento, covered the rescue of Humphrey last year

It was just a hunch, but whale researchers who helped rescue Humphrey the wayward whale last year believed that the celebrated humpback would turn up again, sooner or later. And Humphrey, whose 26-day journey up the Sacramento River captured worldwide attention, did not disappoint them. Twice last August, the 40-ton whale was sighted swimming among more than 100 humpback and blue whales off the coast of San Francisco.

"It's totally unscientific; we just had a feeling that he was going to pop up," says Mark Ferrari, who with his wife, Deborah Glockner-Ferrari, helped inspire the rescue.

The sightings add one more chapter to Humphrey's unusual saga and may provide new insights into the behavior of the animal and its species.

It was a year ago today that the 40-foot mammal ran aground near the Berkeley Marina as hundreds of people looked on. Humphrey (whose sex is not yet known) had entered San Francisco Bay two days earlier and showed no inclination of leaving. Volunteers and the Coast Guard drove the whale to deeper water, only to find the next day that it was heading north--the wrong direction. Ultimately, the humpback swam up the Sacramento River and got stuck in a shallow slough 70 miles from the ocean before rescuers finally herded it out the Golden Gate on Nov. 4. "He just screwed up," says Ken Balcomb, one of the researchers who spotted Humphrey this summer. "Usually, they die or get eaten when they do something like that."

On Aug. 16, however, Humphrey, was alive and well, eating 1 1/2-inch shrimp, known as euphausiids, seven miles west of Point Reyes. He was sighted by Balcomb and members of the Cascadia Research Group, who, under contract with the Point Reyes-Farallon Islands National Marine Sanctuary, are studying the humpback whale population in the Farallon Islands. Following the sighting, the researchers speculated that the notorious humpback had been feeding in the same area last year before it took a wrong turn into San Francisco Bay.

Balcomb wasn't sure it was Humphrey they had seen until a week later when he'd had a chance to develop photos of the animal. "I was real excited," Balcomb says. "I thought, 'We've got a real hero here.' It shows we can really identify these guys. It was like finding a needle in a haystack."

Their study is the first attempt to catalogue individual humpbacks along the central California coast. Members of the species can be identified by the pigmentation patterns on their tail flukes, which are as unique as human fingerprints.

This year, the researchers photographed and identified more than 100 whales--a significant share of the population that is estimated to number between 1,200 and 2,000 in the entire north Pacific. The photos will help determine how many humpbacks migrate to the Farallons and--when compared with pictures taken by other researchers in Hawaii, Mexico and Alaska--will aid in understanding the range, migration patterns and social groupings of this seriously endangered species.

According to Balcomb, the nutrient-rich Farallons area may be as important to the humpback as the feeding grounds off southeast Alaska. This year's research indicates that the California coast is the final destination of hundreds of humpbacks on their northward migration from Hawaii and Mexico. Small groups of humpbacks have also been sighted summering off Monterey and parts of Oregon and Washington. Balcomb suggests that before the species was decimated by whalers, humpbacks frequented a number of feeding grounds scattered along the coast from central California to Alaska.

Photographic comparisons indicate that the same whales return every year to the same feeding grounds. Although humpbacks from California and Alaska do not mix during the summer, they apparently mingle in the tropics during the winter breeding season. For some unexplained reason, no calves have been seen among the humpbacks observed in the Farallons region this year. In addition to humpbacks, more than 60 blue whales and at least one sei whale were spotted in the area.

When first seen this year, Humphrey was swimming with one companion while between 50 and 100 humpbacks fed in the vicinity. On Aug. 29, when Humphrey was sighted again (this time four miles west of Bodega Head), the humpback was swimming with a different whale. Later that day, it was sighted once more, with four whales, including the one seen earlier in the day. Scientists hope that Humphrey's companions will turn up in photographs taken earlier in Hawaii or Mexico and provide a clue to where Humphrey went after leaving the San Francisco Bay last November. Even so, there is little chance of learning the extent of the whale's travels after its traumatic fresh-water experience. For all scientists know, Humphrey could have spent the entire time swimming around the Farallons.

Despite repeated attempts during last year's rescue, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which had official jurisdiction over the whale, was unable to attach a pronged satellite transmitter to Humphrey's back. Although the giant mammal often approached boats involved in the rescue, it seemed to shy away instinctively from vessels used in attempts to tag it. The Fisheries Service even brought in an archer who implanted several transmitters with a crossbow. But Humphrey shook those free within hours and left the Sacramento River as an unmarked whale.

To the Ferraris, the resighting of Humphrey without using a transmitter shows the effectiveness of passive observation as a scientific technique. The Ferraris, who specialize in studying humpbacks underwater in Hawaii, believe that implanting tags in the animals can harm them. "This was a victory for benign science," Ferrari says.

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