ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER CONIFER — As a chief boatswain's mate yelled one of the most unusual orders ever heard aboard ship--"Release the whale!"--the California gray whale named J.J. was lowered gently into calm seas Tuesday two miles off the San Diego coast.
The 19,200-pound, 31-foot-long mammal--the largest ever kept in captivity--initially began swimming back to San Diego. Then the celebrity cetacean made an abrupt underwater U-turn and headed due west--toward an area where a Coast Guard helicopter had spotted a pod of migrating gray whales.
Whale experts at the Sea World aquatic park in San Diego--where the then-newborn J.J. was rushed 14 months ago after being found near death off Marina del Rey--hope she will join a pod headed north to Alaska, the gray whales' summer frolicking spot.
At Sea World, J.J. proved a boon to scientists because there are no other gray whales in captivity. She also was a popular attraction.
J.J.'s return to the ocean went so smoothly some scientists joked that it was an anticlimactic ending to the story of the sickly calf who was nursed back to health and whose recovery captured the public's imagination.
"You put a year of your life into helping her and she doesn't even say thank you," joked Grossmont College professor Jim Sumich, a Sea World whale consultant.
Sumich and others had hoped J.J. would break the surface of the ocean close to the ship to grab a breath of air, and thus provide a final bit of dramatic film footage of this one-of-a-kind event. Alas, it was not to be.
"J.J. did what a wild animal will do: She got the heck away from human beings as fast as she could," said Sea World veterinarian Tom Reidarson. "It's not that she doesn't like us. It's just that she doesn't need us anymore."
The four-hour operation to take J.J. out to sea was part VIP motorcade, part military maneuver.
At Sea World, she was lifted by crane onto a truck specially equipped with a foam-rubber bed. San Diego police provided an escort to the loading dock of the 32nd Street Naval Station, a journey through city streets.
A second crane lifted the rubbery skinned leviathan onto the buoy deck of the 180-foot Conifer for the short voyage to the drop spot off San Diego's Point Loma. The huge animal thrashed occasionally, rocking the boat slightly. Caretakers used hoses to keep her huge body wet.
Once at sea, a crane normally used to lift buoys was deployed to lift the specially fitted red canvas sling containing J.J. off the ship's deck, over the port-side rail and into the water.
When the sling began to dip into the water, chief boatswain's mate Thomas Young, an 18-year veteran, bellowed the order "Release the whale!"
At his command, a line was pulled to let one side of the sling open and J.J. to swim away. By 10:17 a.m., J.J. was a free whale facing an uncertain future.
Young said later he had pondered on the eve of the high-pressure assignment what words to use when the crucial moment arrived. When a buoy is being freed, the order is "set the buoy."
" 'Set the whale' didn't seem right, so I decided to keep it simple, 'Release the whale,' " said Young. "I knew the instant she felt that water, she would want to get going. That's what I wanted, too."
Within 15 minutes, one of the four electronic transmitters attached to J.J.'s back began beaming information on her location--further proof that the release was a success.
A Sea World boat hopes to trail her for several days. The crew on the boat reported seeing her tail or fluke several times.
But it will be weeks before scientists know whether J.J. is heading north along with others of her species.
The gray whales were on their way south to Baja California in January 1997 when the week-old J.J.--sick and underweight--floundered off Marina del Rey.
An ad hoc squad of whale lovers, police and lifeguards rescued her from the surf and arranged for her to be sped 120 miles to Sea World in a U-Haul trailer. She arrived comatose, hypoglycemic and an emaciated 1,670 pounds.
At Sea World, the whale was given emergency medical care and then months of pampering in preparation for her eventual return to the sea. At one point she was gaining two pounds an hour.
J.J. was named after the late Judi Jones, director of operations of Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.
Keeping her in captivity was never an option; an adult female gray whale can weigh 74,000 pounds and stretch 55 feet.
Although her return to the sea was accomplished without a hitch, J.J. faces several kinds of dangers from which her Sea World caregivers will be unable to shield her.
Still, while in captivity, J.J. displayed a kind of self-confidence that her keepers believe will serve her well in the wild.
"To be honest, she never paid much attention to us," said Kevin Robinson, one of J.J.'s main caretakers. "When we were in there [J.J.'s 1.7-million-gallon tank], she'd cruise by to check us out but then go off to the corner to do her own thing."