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Humphrey the Whale is arguably the most widely publicized humpback whale in history, having errantly entered San Francisco Bay twice, departing from his Mexico to Alaska migration. This behavior is not normal for any Humpback whale, and Humphrey became well known on national television and press coverage for his misadventures in the years 1985 and 1990. Humphrey is a member of the species Megaptera novaeangliae, and each episode of his bay excursions resulted in a dramatic estuarine rescue of this giant mammal by the Marine Mammal Center, based in Marin County, California, assisted by the United States Coast Guard and hundreds of other volunteers. Humphrey (sometimes known in the media as Humphrey the humpback whale) is 40 feet (12 m) long. Humphrey’s last sighting was in the vicinity of the Farallon Islands in the year 1991.
In 1985, Humphrey mysteriously entered San Francisco Bay and was followed closely on the evening news by all Bay Area television stations. Each evening the Bay area audience would tune in for the latest update on Humphrey’s plight, until – even more amazingly – he swam up the Sacramento River into a freshwater habitat. Then national media coverage began and the whole country watched the ensuing story. The whale, first spotted at Oakland's Outer Harbor October 10, 1985, swam up the Carquinez Strait, the Sacramento River and under the Rio Vista Bridge to a dead-end slough 69 miles (111 km) from the ocean.
After numerous attempts failed to coax him back to the ocean, Humphrey's inability to find his way out of the slough kept the nation and eventually the world enthralled. Several weeks of being trapped in the fresh water of the Sacramento Delta brought signs of physical stress in the whale. His skin was graying and he was becoming more and more listless. None of the traditional herding techniques were working, and Humphrey appeared to be dying.
As a last-ditch effort to save the whale, Louis Herman, a researcher of humpback whales, postulated that it would be possible to lure it out by playing acoustic recordings of vocalization of a whales feeding ground. Dr. Bernie Krause, an acoustician, offered the recordings he had made of humpback whale feeding songs as a possible way to lure him out. No one knew if this would work, but it was their last shot at saving Humphrey. However, to get the sounds into the water required a powerful speaker and amplification system that only the Navy was likely to have. Krause contacted Greg Pless who was in charge of the underwater acoustics research laboratory for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where one of the few high-power J-11 underwater transducers existed in the country. Greg and his colleague Dale Galarowicz quickly gained Navy permission and rushed the equipment to Rio Vista, CA where Humphrey was last seen.
Early the next morning, the equipment was loaded onto the private yacht, Boot Legger, donated by its owner for the rescue effort. Directed to the location in the slough where Humphrey was last seen, the speaker was lowered over the side of the boat, the sounds were played, and everyone stood quietly while the eerie songs reverberated through the hull. Suddenly, Humphrey emerged from the water at the bow of the ship right where the speaker was playing, and gazed at the startled crew. The captain quickly started down the river with Humphrey close in tow. With the assistance of numerous fish and wildlife agencies, including the Army's 481'st Transportation Company (Heavy Boat), the crew led him the many miles back down the Sacramento river, alternately playing and not playing the whale songs to keep his interest.
As they approached the San Francisco Bay and the water gained in salinity, Humphrey became visibly excited and began sounding (diving deeply) to everyone’s delight and amazement. The air was filled with helicopters, and the river banks were lined with thousands of spectators all cheering Humphrey on to freedom. Though the crew lost sight of him that night, they picked him back up in the morning and led him out through the Golden Gate bridge, to the freedom of the Pacific Ocean November 4, 1985, at 4:36 p.m., where he promptly headed South to parts unknown.
The town of Rio Vista considers the Humphrey visit to have given it national recognition. To this date there is a granite marker at the harbor commemorating the visit. and many local restaurant menus remark on his stay in Rio Vista.
Humphrey stayed a considerable time in 1990 in the embayment immediately north of Sierra Point in Brisbane, California where occupants of the Dakin Building could observe his antics. Humphrey became beached on a mudflat in San Francisco Bay to the north of Sierra Point and to the south of Candlestick Park. He was extricated from the mudflat with a large cargo net and support from the Marine Mammal Center and a U.S. Coast Guard boat.
This time, he was successfully guided back to the Pacific Ocean using a "sound net" in which people in a flotilla of boats made unpleasant noises behind the whale by banging on steel pipes, a Japanese fishing technique known as "oikomi." Simultaneously, the attractive sounds of humpback whales preparing to feed were broadcast from a boat headed towards the open ocean. Researchers Louis Herman and Bernie Krause led a team of scientists who used sound recordings of natural whale feeding vocalizations to guide Humphrey back to safety. These sounds were produced for a swimming trajectory of fifty miles (80 km) until Humphrey reached the Pacific Ocean sometimes attaining speeds of thirty miles per hour (48 km/h). Humphrey has been seen only once since the second misadventure, at the Farallon Islands in 1991. A film “Humphrey the Lost Whale” was produced and opened at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, Savannah, Georgia on September 24, 2005.
Humphrey and other humpback whales can readily be identified by a stocky body with well defined humps and black upper elements. His head and lower jaw are covered with knobs called tubercles, which are actually hair follicles and are characteristic of the species. The tail flukes, which are lifted high in the dive sequence, have wavy rear edges.
Humphrey's long black and white tail fin, which is approximately one third of his body length, and pectoral fins have unique patterns that enable scientists to positively identify Humphrey, in a similar way to the bill markings on Bewick's Swans. Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the evolution of the Humpback's pectoral fins, proportionally the longest fins of any cetacean. The two most accepted hypotheses are that the higher maneuverability afforded by long fins is a significant evolutionary advantage, or that the increased surface is useful for temperature control when migrating between warm and cold climates.
The humpback whale is a mammal which belongs to the baleen whale suborder. It is a large whale: an adult usually ranges between 12–16 m (40–50 ft) long and weighs approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 pounds), or 36 tonnes (40 short tons). It is well known for its breaching (leaping out of the water), its unusually long front fins, and its complex whale song. The humpback whale lives in oceans and seas around the world, and is regularly sought out by whale-watchers.