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Curious spout theories about gray whale's plight

The problem with chasing wildlife stories is that animals can be hard to find. But if they're 45-feet long with a habit of shooting geyser-like exhalations into the sky, not so much.

The gray whale that swam about three miles up Northern California's Klamath River with a calf on June 28 is swimming in circles under the bridge where Highway 101 crosses the river at the little townlet of Klamath, hanging out, drawing crowds, all but smiling for the cameras.

Scientists have tried to chase her back to the ocean using boats to herd her, banging on noise-making devices and playing the calls of orcas, the gray whale's only predator except for humans.

Her 15-foot calf swam back to the ocean July 23. It was about 6 months old, weaning time. But the adult, presumably the mother, remains.

"We're driving to Alaska," says Davella Ryno, of Kerrville, Texas. "To get on a cruise and see whales."

She and her husband hadn't heard about the visiting cetacean, but they saw the crowds. People are parking at the ends of the bridge and walking on narrow, raised sidewalks out to the deep part of the river.

The California Highway Patrol has warned of a "major traffic problem" here, but in the three weekdays of a columnist's visit there was no sign of a problem, major or minor, or any traffic jam either. Caltrans signs warn motorists of pedestrians on the bridge, but the terse warnings don't say what the pedestrians are doing on the bridge, and they don't mention any whales, thus raising more questions than they answer.

The occasional motorist stops on the bridge to see what's happening, but you can't cure stupid.

But how do you avoid Highway 101 if you're going north or south on the Coast? Are you going to drive by a whale and not gawk? Just park away from the bridge and hold onto your kids.

"I've seen a lot of grizzly bears and wolves, but this is my first whale," says Ron Smith, a one-time Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffer who taught environmental science at Western Wyoming College.

The whale doesn't look like the island-like blobs whales usually look like from the deck of a boat. She is a graceful creature gliding along with the merest flick of her 10-foot tale.

When Sandy — there's a sandbar on the north bank here — surfaces to blow, her two nostrils open, and the great lungs expel the breath with a sound like movie scuba noises on steroids: PFAAAPH! The nostrils close before she goes under, forming a neat V. Her slate-gray back is pocked with the gray-white patterns of her species, courtesy of marine parasites.

Gray whales are an Endangered Species Act poster child. Once hunted nearly to extinction by whalers who called them "devil-fish" because of the ferocity with which they defended their calves from the whalers' lances (the nerve!), they now number more than 20,000 in the eastern Pacific. They summer in the rich feeding grounds off Alaska and travel to the warm lagoons of Baja in winter for mating and birthing. They've been extinct in the north Atlantic since the 1700s. There is a very small, highly endangered population on the other side of the Pacific, near Korea.

Some gray whales, maybe a couple hundred, summer off the coasts of Oregon and California and skip the annual trip to Alaska. There's a cove near Port Orford where for years you could pretty much count on seeing a few. Scientists call such resident whales the Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

An almost ineffable sense of delight sometimes descends on people watching magnificent wild creatures go about the business of earning their daily bread. Consider the tourists ogling the elk herds in the Prairie Creek drainage near here, or the wintering bald eagles at the other end of the Klamath, then factor in a whale-sized multiplier.

"It's wonderful," says Carole Kubaska, of Mesa, Ariz. "Just seeing her not in captivity."

Rumors fly. Sandy came here with her mother (gray whales can live to 70) and returned with her calf to complete a circle. The calf is on its way to Alaska (really, without a guide?). It's already been eaten by orcas, no, sharks, and Sandy is grieving. But if she was that worried about the calf, why didn't she follow it? Whatever the calf's fate, people are now worrying about the mother.

"The question we have is can she get enough to eat," says Steve Taylor, of Park City, Utah, a rider with a group of motorcyclists.

"She's beautiful," says Cristen Glover, a third-grade teacher from Portland. "But it seems worrisome. She's just swimming circles."

In contrast to toothed whales, which are a different evolutionary line, baleen whales such as grays feed mainly on tiny crustaceans by turning on their sides and scooping them up in sediments from the sea floor. The balleen, or whalebone, acts as a sieve, straining out debris.

This whale can't be getting much of anything to eat, and the freshwater environment can lead to skin problems. Still, from time to time they come. In 1989 a gray whale nicknamed Bubbles came here in June, stayed six months and went back to sea. One entered the river at Coos Bay about 10 years ago. In 2007 two humpbacks swam up the Sacramento River.

A humpback whale that came to be known as Humphrey swam into San Francisco Bay in 1985 and again in 1990. He was finally driven back to the ocean by a "sound net" of boaters banging on steel pipes behind him at the same time as scientists ahead of him played tapes of humpback feeding songs from a boat heading out to sea.

Meanwhile, the fall salmon season here is set to begin Aug. 21. The Yurok's commercial season runs from the river's mouth just about to the bridge, so if Sandy stays there, it may be no problem. And if she makes a run for the ocean?

"We'll make sure she has a safe passage," says Matt Mais, a spokesman for the Yurok Tribe. "Even to closing the fishery."

The tribe has been assisting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Humboldt State University in monitoring the whale's health, taking breath and skin samples. The results aren't in yet.

Mais says people have been getting in the water and swimming with the whale. Experts say that's dangerous. It's also considered harassment.

"We'd like to encourage people not to do that," Mais says.

Early Thursday on my way out, there's nobody at the bridge, so I park and walk out. In the gray morning light a young surfer dude on a stand-up paddleboard approaches the whale, who submerges and swims off. He follows, trying to drive her downstream, but she turns a uee and moves upstream.

"I believe if I pray sincerely enough God will help her," he says.

There's no known instance of God showing an interest in the fate of any individual gray whale in the last 20 million years or so, but I can't bring myself to mention this to surfboard guy.

"What if he doesn't?" I yell down.

He pauses.

"Then maybe I'm not supposed to be the guy," he says.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.