Experts Attempt Major Effort To Help Mammoth Mammal
RIO VISTA, Calif. (AP) _ Rescue workers clanged pipes under water for two hours Thursday in an unusual effort to annoy an errant, 45-ton humpback whale enough to get it to leave the Sacramento River for the ocean’s salty safety.
″Push him 3/8 Push him 3/8 You’ve got him in tight,″ an unidentified biologist advised his colleagues, his message monitored over a land-based radio. ″Now he’s heading out. Give him more pressure.″
The boats, approaching near the whale, formed a slow-moving semicircle, coercing the mammal to move southward toward the Pacific Ocean. At 2:30 p.m., the animal was hesitating at a small wooden bridge midway along Shag Slough, about 70 miles northeast of San Francisco Bay.
The operation was halted because officials feared the confused mammal would become over stressed, said Bev Passerello of the state Office of Emergency Services. The procedure was expected to resume Friday.
If the animal finally proceeds past the bridge along the slough, described by authorities as a key hurdle in the animal’s rescue, experts say they will place sheet plastic in the water to discourage him from turning around.
A construction company was expected to spend the night removing old submerged pilings between the bridge pillars before the pipe banging resumed.
″We know the whale moved with the sound,″ said state Sen. John Garamendi, who is helping coordinate rescue attempt. ″We have a physical barrier (the bridge). ... He’s behind prison bars and those have to be removed.″
Federal biologists staffing a fleet of six boats had said they might work around-the-clock to get the 40-foot-long whale back to its natural, deep-water habitat.
″Our objective is to get a live whale out of this area and into the ocean,″ said Sheridan Stone, a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Scientists ″are prepared to stay with the animal all the way down the river for as long as it takes″ to escort it to the ocean, Stone said.
Mary Jane Schramm, a government biologist, said the pipe-pinging procedure would be conducted for three hours, then halted at least temporarily if the whale fails to move. ″We’re afraid the animal will become accustomed to hearing the sounds,″ she said.
Stone said sharp sounds would be made by striking 8-foot-long pipes, filled with fluid and partly submerged over the sides of a boat, with wooden malletts.
The pipes are hit by workers in boats in a line or semicircle inland from the whale; no divers will be in the water, Stone said. It is hoped the noise will be sufficiently unpleasant or irritating to get the whale to move down the river.
Other officials may place a large silt screen behind the whale to discourage it from turning around, Stone said at a briefing near the Sacramento River.
The whale, which entered San Francisco Bay on Oct. 11, has headed confusedly and steadily into inland waters, finally reaching dead-end Shag Slough, about midway between Sacramento and San Francisco.
Thousands of people have lined banks and bridges to watch the journey of the lost whale, nicknamed ″Humphrey″ and ″E.T.″
″Biologists say the whale will not long survive and is seriously deteriorating in the slough,″ said State Sen. John Garamendi, whose district includes the Rio Vista area.
On Thursday, observers saw some skin peeling off the whale.
″If he stays where he is, he’s in a lot of trouble,″ James Lecky, a Fisheries Service marine biologist, said earlier.
Whales need salt water for cleansing their eyes and require large amounts of food, mostly krill, that exists in salt water.
The whale may have been attracted to the slough by transmissions from an underwater submarine communications facility, operated by the U.S. Navy, said John Passerello of the state Ofice of Emergency Services.
Passerello did not give details about the transmitter but said it was shut down temporarily to aid the whale’s exit to the Pacific Ocean.
If the pipe-clanging, dubbed ″oikomi″ by the Japanese who have used it successfully with porpoises, fails to drive the whale down river, scientists say other alternatives include exploding shells and shining lights.
As a last resort, experts have considered loading the animal onto a boat and shipping it back to the sea.
Underwater whale and music recordings have been tried as has herding the whale seaward with boats. For the last week, scientists left the animal alone, hoping it would return to the ocean on its own.
Sightseers who have jammed country roads to see the whale will be kept away from the operation so the whale won’t be distracted by unwanted noises, the scientists said.
Scientists have said roads will be blocked within one mile of the whale. Civilian aircraft and boats will also be kept away.
Air traffic from nearby Travis Air Force Base was halted over the slough to avoid distracting the whale.