Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Whales Wend Their Way To Rio Vista

Whales Wend Their Way To Rio Vista
By Audrey Wong

A Sacramento Sheriff's boat follows a whale in the Sacramento River on Monday in an attempt to herd it back out to sea. (Mike McCoy/Daily Republic)

RIO VISTA - One of two humpback whales swimming off the shores of the Sacramento River has something wrapped around its mouth and back, the Solano County Sheriff's Office said Monday night.

The whale, which appears to have a calf with it, is still able to swim, much to the delight of onlookers who gathered Monday on the shores of the river near Rio Vista.

Today, a crew from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to begin efforts to free the whales, said Paula Toynbee, a spokeswoman for the Solano County Sheriff's Office

Witnesses reported spotting two whales Sunday evening near Sandy Beach close to Rio Vista, Toynbee said. However spectators reported seeing as many as four whales, while some say it is a mother and two calves.

On Monday morning, residents saw whales swimming by the Real McCoy Ferry to Ryer Island. The Solano County Sheriff's Marine Patrol rushed out to steer the behemoths toward the San Francisco Bay. Crews from the United States Coast Guard also helped in the attempt to steer the whales back toward the Pacific.

Daniel McTaggart of Rio Vista wondered why the whales ventured so far upstream.

"How can whales that large get into a small body of water and not feel out place?" he asked.

Whale watchers on Ryer Island speculated how fresh water would affect the skin and eyes of the whales. The same worries were voiced 20 years ago when a humpback whale that came to be known as Humphrey meandered into the same area and stayed for about a month.

Boat crews Monday scrambled back and forth on the river to keep the whales from traveling farther north toward Sacramento. The whales stayed north of the ferry and kept trying to swim further north.

Boats raced after the whales as they headed upstream. They furiously circled around to shepherd the aquatic animals south. But sometimes the whales eluded officials and surfaced farther north of Ryer Island, blowing mist out of their spouts.

"It's like the boats and whales are playing tag," said Neesa Paycer-Mosher, 6, of Southland Park in Sacramento.

Neesa's mother Janiece Paycer-Mosher brought the girl and her brother, Paycer Mensik, 10, to see the whales.

Paycer said the whales were "basically staying in the same area . . they seem to be bouncing back and forth."

The Sacramento woman learned of the whale sighting on television and rushed to Ryer Island at 1 p.m. to watch. Then she picked her children up from school and took them whale watching. They saw two of the whales roll their great backs out of the water.

Several other spectators said they learned of the whales' visit on the news and drove to Ryer Island to see them. Motorists parked their vehicles on the narrow two-lane levy roads and stared at the water. Passengers perched on top of cars and fixed their cameras on the river.

A long line of vehicles clogged the road. As the whales coasted north and south, spectators revved up their vehicles to follow them. Some motorists made 3-point turns on the levy roads and stopped on parts of the road that didn't have much of a shoulder. Spectators scurried on the road and around vehicles to get a better view of the action.

The whale watchers gasped once when they saw a smaller set of flippers break the surface only to realize the flippers were those of a sea lion.

The Coast Guard halted ferry service when the whales ventured too close to the path of the ferry, said Tawfik Marmoush, ferry deck officer. Marmoush said he saw a mother and two calves, but because the smaller whale was surfacing so much he could've mistaken it for two animals. He estimated the mother is 40 feet long while her calf is 15 feet long.

"The mom is very quiet," Marmoush said.

The baby was more rambunctious but stayed away from the ferry. The mother whale approached within 5 feet of the ferry and swam alongside it, Marmoush said.

One local resident compared the whale duo to Humphrey who swam in the same north-south pattern until officials clanged submerged metal pipes to herd Humphrey back to sea.

Reach Audrey Wong at 427-6951 or awong@dailyrepublic.net.

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