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Lost Whales

photograph from Nature story

(5/24/2007)

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Two humpback whales have swum up a river in northern California. They need to get back to the Pacific Ocean. Scientists are trying to figure out a way to get them to go back to where they belong.

The whales are hurt. Veterinarians believe that they suffered cuts probably caused by a boat propeller. They are not healing well in the fresh water.

In order to try to coax the whales back out toward the ocean scientists have tried a few different things. They played different sounds underwater. One recording they played was of banging metal pipes. Another was a noisy mix of unnatural sounds. They even tried playing sounds that they thought the whales would like. These were of humpbacks feeding. The whales did not respond to any of these. They also tried using a small fleet of boats to herd the whales downstream. None of this worked.

The whales have been very active. One day they started slapping their tails on the surface of the water. This behavior concerns the scientists. They think that this could show that the whales are distressed. They also noticed that the whales’ injuries have gotten worse. Their skin is being affected by the fresh water. It has changed from smooth and shiny to irregular and pitted. The scientists are worried about their health.

The U.S. Coast Guard will help protect the whales while they are in the river. They are making boaters stay at least 500 yards away from them at all times.

Scientists have backed off some of their efforts for now. They are concerned that the whales will become too stressed.

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Footnote: The whales referred to in this story made it safely back to the Pacific Ocean. It took one week for them to swim back to their natural habitat.

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