Because of the peculiar cast of supporters she has attracted, they could include the rhythmic beat of native drums, courtesy of the Yurok Tribe; the reading of prayer, or harmonious tunes strummed on a ukulele by a man on a stand-up paddleboard.
The whale and her calf made headlines after they were first seen inside the river on June 23, having taken a right turn into the waterway instead of continuing north from Mexico’s nursing grounds to Arctic home waters. The whale is presently 3-4 miles upriver, just below the California-Oregon border, beneath the Highway 101 bridge.
Marine mammal experts, working with the Yurok Tribe, tried several methods — mostly after the calf swam out of the river two weeks ago — to persuade the mother to leave. These included banging on pipes, spraying water cannon and broadcasting the sounds of killer whales.
Because nothing worked, experts now simply are monitoring the movements and condition of the 45-foot cetacean, which is somewhat thin but has been feeding on the river bottom, and apparently boasts good health. “She looks typical for a female that has just finished lactating,” said Sarah Wilkin, stranding coordinator for the NOAA Fisheries Service. “She’s not super fat, but she does not look emaciated.”
This is remarkable considering that today is her 50th day in the river. That’s believed to be more time than any other whale has spent in a river; it’s more than twice as long as the three weeks “Humphrey” the humpback whale wandered in California’s San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta in 1985.
Surely, no river whale beforehand has been showered with so much personal attention and peculiar, especially since scientists nearly two weeks ago abandoned attempts to drive the whale from the river.
People have swum alongside the whale; they’ve also boated, canoed and kayaked with the leviathan. She has been serenaded not only by ukulele but by flute and violin. Poems have been written about and for the whale. Chants also have been issued in the hope that “Mama,” as she’s affectionately called, will leave before the water level drops to a dangerous level.
Said Wilkin: “There are definitely some folks who are trying various things. It is part of the Yurok reservation so there have been some cultural practices and efforts from cultural leaders, and then there are the members of the general public.”
Intentionally approaching whales is illegal, as is acting in a manner that alters a whale’s behavior and can be perceived as harassment. But so far enforcement agents have issued only warnings, while an outreach effort intends to educate locals and visitors that it’s probably best just to leave the whale alone.
Said Dave Hillemeier, a fisheries manager with the Yurok Tribe: “People are getting really close, swimming, wading and kayaking. That’s pretty dangerous because that’s a 30-ton animal and it could inadvertently cause a lot of damage to somebody, so people really need to respect the fact that it is an extremely large wild animal and give it its space.”
That, however, is not likely to happen unless the whale decides to leave.
– Images are courtesy of Ashala Tylor and protected by copyright laws. Those interested in publishing Tylor’s images should contact her directly