Scientists are finding that they, too, get swept up in the drama

By Matt Weiser - Sacramento Bee Staff Writer

Last Updated 12:43 am PDT Sunday, May 27, 2007
Story appeared in Sacramento Bee METRO section, Page B1

The spectacle of two humpback whales lost in the Sacramento River has been troubling enough to millions of spectators around the world. But it has been doubly so for the whale experts behind the scenes.

Scientists are trained to remain detached from their subjects and to avoid the limelight. Neither has been easy as the whales' plight has worsened and a media spotlight has blazed for two weeks.

As a result, the experts overseeing the drama have found themselves struggling with their emotions and the intense public interest in the whales.

"I feel so badly because here's a mother trying to protect her calf, and they're stuck up at Rio Vista and they're wounded too," said Laurie Gage, a marine mammal veterinarian at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was brought in to help the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"I wish there was something I could do to help them or lead them out," Gage said.

Delta and Dawn, as the whales have been dubbed, have been meandering in the Sacramento River at least since Mother's Day, May 13. Most likely, they made their way upstream to seek refuge after being injured by a ship's propeller.

For Gage, the experience is especially poignant because she served as lead veterinarian for Humphrey, the humpback who was stuck near Rio Vista for 26 days in 1985, then returned to San Francisco Bay in 1990 and beached himself.

Partly because of that experience, Gage was tapped as an adviser to other scientists working on the current rescue efforts. She has spent a lot of time directing the noise-making experiments that have so far largely failed to lure the whales back to sea.

"It's frustrating because they're not doing what we want them to do," she said. "They're responding very much the same way that Humphrey did. They're doing what they want to do, which is so typical."

Gage spoke by cell phone from the Houston airport Friday. She was called away from the whale drama to inspect some elephants near Houston and was waiting for a flight home to the Bay Area.

The primary veterinarian overseeing Delta and Dawn is Frances Gulland, who replaced Gage in 1997 as chief of veterinary services at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

Taking refuge under a shade tree after a news conference Thursday in Rio Vista, Gulland said the rescue effort has been exciting, though a bit exasperating.

She said all the attention has helped spotlight the plight of whales and rare species in general. But the frenzy also has made saving them more difficult.

For instance, Gulland has been inundated by more than 350 e-mails to her personal account with tips, ideas and criticisms, even though officials have created a special address for input: sacramento.whales@noaa.gov.

"For marine mammals and conservation, all the attention has been very good for the cause," Gulland said. "But, personally, it does hinder efforts to help the whales."

The opportunity to observe two whales so far inland has offered Gulland and others a chance to expand their knowledge. For instance, scientists might learn more about how whales hear by gauging responses to different stimuli. That's important, Gulland said, because the wild ocean has become blanketed with noise from boats, sonar and other sources.

"Clearly, the research aspect is interesting, but personally, I'm committed to getting the whales out of here safely," she said.

Gulland has been working closely with John Calambokidis, a research biologist at Cascadia Research in Olympia, Wash. Calambokidis might have more direct experience observing Eastern Pacific humpback whales in the wild than any other scientist.

He has spent long hours on the Sacramento River since the episode began. Spectators will recognize him by his long, gray hair and his distinctive boat: a white, rigid-hull inflatable with a metal bow pulpit.

He also was the one firing a crossbow Monday to obtain a skin sample from the mother whale. Lab analysis of the sample will help assess the whale's health.

Calambokidis has directed much of the boat activity, partly to keep his own boat close to the whales so he can observe their behavior. He has carefully recorded the whales' activity, amassing nearly 50 pages of data so far that uses measurements from a GPS receiver and a laser rangefinder.

When the whales were at the Port of Sacramento, Calambokidis could be seen constantly adding notes to a clipboard as he recorded the whales' movements. The goal, he said, is to learn what triggers different behaviors.

"It's really important for us to document carefully what we do and our observations and their effects as we do them," Calambokidis said. "Even though we may not learn anything that's going to help us in this one narrow case, maybe it's going to help us in the next one."

It was somewhat ironic to watch Calambokidis firing a crossbow dart at the mother whale to get a skin sample, given man's history of harpooning whales for commercial purposes.

With a few exceptions, whale hunting stopped in 1966, and populations have rebounded. One of those exceptions is in Japan, which claims it must hunt whales for scientific purposes.

Calambokidis said he helped develop the dart technique to prove it is possible to take a sample of whale flesh without killing the animal.

He spoke Thursday shortly after returning to Olympia for a break. He planned to be back in Rio Vista after the weekend.

One of his frustrations was that the mother whale had yet to show her flukes -- the lobes of her tail -- which might allow him to identify her from a library of photographs he has helped assemble. This, in turn, could reveal her habits and health.

Calambokidis might even know her from previous sightings.

"There's some of these animals we've seen over a 20-year period that you relate to on more than a scientific level," he said. "It's great that we become attached to individuals, but we can't forget there are thousands of animals out there that are potentially affected by our behavior and activities."

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