Whale Rescue Aims to Save Two Humpbacks

The stranded humpback whales swim in the Port of Sacramento. i i

hide captionThe stranded humpback whales swim in the Port of Sacramento.

Tamara Keith for NPR
The stranded humpback whales swim in the Port of Sacramento.

The stranded humpback whales swim in the Port of Sacramento.

Tamara Keith for NPR

Marine and wildlife experts launched a rescue of two humpback whales stranded in the Port of Sacramento on Thursday morning. From member station KQED, Tamara Keith reports.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In California, marine biologists are trying to coax a humpback whale and her calf back into the ocean. Both whales are injured and they're a long way from home. As Tamara Keith reports from member station KQED, the whales traveled nearly a hundred miles upriver from the ocean of San Francisco all the way to the Port of Sacramento.

TAMARA KEITH: What do you do when you have two endangered whales swimming circles in a small shipping channel nowhere near their ocean home? Scientists here are trying the equivalent of ringing a dinner bell.

(Soundbite of humpback whale feeding call)

KEITH: These are the sounds that humpback whales make when they're feeding and it's these sounds that the whale rescue team started piping underwater this morning from a coast guard cutter with the hopes that the mother whale and her calf will follow.

So far though, the whales just keep swimming in big circles. They almost seemed to be staying away from the boat. Pieter Folkens is with the Alaska Whale Foundation, one of several groups on hand to help with the rescue. He says there may be a language barrier.

Mr. PIETER FOLKENS (Captain, Co-Founding Director, Alaska Whale Foundation): The sounds that we have are from Alaska humpbacks and this is a humpback probably from a different population, probably the Mexico, California population. So it's kind of like speaking Chinese to somebody from Boston, but at least you recognize that it might be another member of the same specie.

Ms. MARCIE DEANDA(ph) (Spectator, Sacramento River): Can you see it? There goes another one.

ELIJAH (Spectator, Sacramento River): Wow.

Ms. DEANDA: Do you see it?

ELIJAH: Yeah.

KEITH: The wayward whales have attracted quite a following. Hundreds of people have gathered along the shore of the Sacramento River for a rare inland whale sighting. Marcie Deanda and her grandson, Elijah, came prepared. They brought lawn chairs, a video camera and an old encyclopedia open to the section about humpback whales. And as the whales came up for air every few minutes, they got giddy.

Ms. DEANDA: Oh, look, folks, there it is. There it is again.

KEITH: Marcie is home schooling her grandson and she says this visit from the whale made for the ultimate science lesson.

Ms. DEANDA: This is something else. This is - because he asks, he goes, why are they out here? Are they - did they come out here to, you know, eat? And I say no, I think they got misdirected a little. And so they're out here and they have to get them back home or they can die.

KEITH: The concern is real. Frances Gulland, a veterinarian with The Marine Mammal Center, is monitoring the health of the animals.

Dr. FRANCES GULLAND (Director of Veterinary Science, The Marine Mammal Center): There are so many unknowns that we really can't be confident in anything that we say or believe that this time.

KEITH: Both whales have large gashes likely caused by boat propellers. And there isn't any food for them in the freshwater river where they've taken up residence. The only model scientists have to follow is the experience with Humphrey the whale who came for a lengthy visit in the Sacramento River back in 1985. He was eventually enticed out with the underwater whale sounds.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

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