R: Tom Kieckhefer; L: Two Unidentified Members of California Marine Mammal
Center putting wet blankets on Humphrey's back to protect him from the sun
We Still Think About You
By Maris Sidenstecker and
Thomas R. Kieckhefer
A reader’s question on Facebook asked about the fate of Humphrey, the wayward whale. He had garnered a lot of interest in the 80s and 90s. Who better to ask than our Marine Ecologist & Educator, Tom Kieckhefer, who has done research on many whales, including Humphrey.
When we first heard about Humphrey, he was lost in the Sacramento River. He was being pursued by members of the public hoping for a glimpse of a whale in a river, scientists, researchers and the media.
On October 11, 1985, the 45-ton male humpback whale entered San Francisco Bay. He then meandered through 70 miles of the narrow, brackish Sacramento Delta waterways before going under a bridge and reaching a dead-end. For a week he was trapped circling counterclockwise in an inlet (the size of a football field) named Shag Slough.
In an effort to get him out of the predicament he was in, a flotilla of boats used underwater pipe banging and played humpback whale feeding/social sounds succeeded. After 25 days of effort and lots of publicity, he was escorted into the Pacific Ocean. This successful rescue effort was directed by The Marine Mammal Center. Several sightings of Humphrey in August 1986 and 1987 were made between the Farallon Islands (23 miles off of San Francisco) and Bodega Bay by the ongoing research of Cascadia Research Collective. He had been seen associating with other humpback whales and his condition looked good.
However, on October 1, 2 & 4, 1988, Humphrey was seen alone swimming with his left-dominated circles (counterclockwise) in the shallow water of Drakes Bay, Bodega Harbor and Bodega Bay, respectively (areas above San Francisco Bay). On August 19, 1989 he was sighted outside of San Francisco Bay, but he did not enter it. It was not until October 22, 1990, that he entered San Francisco Bay swimming in counterclockwise circles and only breathing out of his left nare. He finally beached himself for over 24 hours at Double Rock Cove near Candlestick Park (now torn down, once home to San Francisco Giants). Once again, The Marine Mammal Center organized a rescue team. Humphrey displayed nystagmus and later in the evening his left eye stopped moving and was insensitive to touch. In the morning, with the help of the US Coast Guard, he was freed from the rock during high tide and guided into the open ocean, but his condition had gotten worse since his previous strandings.
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH HUMPHREY?
Humphrey's aberrant behavior in 1985, 1988 and 1990 included respiratory dyspnea, facial paralysis, bilateral nystagmus, body tilting, incoordination with consequent drifting and circling in a left-dominated counterclockwise direction. Also, in 1985 his respirations out of his left nare were weak (based on his visual exhalations) with an aperture opening one-third the size of the fully dilated right nare, and in 1990 the left nare was not functioning at all. These patterns are all symptomatic of lesions to the facial nerve and vestibular system. Similar symptoms have been documented in horses, dogs, and cats as well as humans.
The causes of Humphrey's neurological dysfunction (e.g., parasites, trauma, and/or abscess) iare unknown. If trauma from a ship strike, there were no abrasions on his head or body. However, evidence in cetaceans (Morimitsu, et al., 1987, 1992) suggests that parasitism can be responsible for facial and vestibular nerve degeneration. Seeking out calm bays and shallow waters could alleviate pain in the affected inner ear due to the absence of ocean swell. Indications of this ongoing degeneration of the facial and vestibular nerves between 1985 and 1990, as well as optic and oculomotor nerves suggest that Humphrey's condition continued to deteriorate.
Humphrey was last sighted on 23 October 1990 as he headed out from the Golden Gate Bridge on the day he was freed from the rock at Double Rock Cove near Candlestick Park.
So, a fond farewell to Humphrey. Many years ago, you captured our imagination and brought widespread excitement into the lives of whales.
Recordings & Videos:
Humphrey in 1985 when he temporarily beached himself on a shallow shoal in Shag Slough. He inch-wormed himself off with his massive flippers and with each lunge forward he grunted, as if he was getting the Heimlich-maneuver with all his weight coming down on his chest. These were the only sounds he made except for occasional "whoop" sounds when he was swimming in the murky water before pipe banging brought him out of the slough (click here to listen).
Liberty Island Bridge trapped Humphrey for a week in Shag Slough. It was reconstructed over the years leaving old broken pilings that created a jail cell unless he went under it during high tide (click here to view).
Recording of what Humphrey was hearing with the pipe banging and ratchet noise of the boaters’ engines going in and out of gear (click here to listen).
KCRA-3 video coverage of the pipe banging and finally pushing Humphrey under the Liberty Island Bridge and out of Shag Slough during a high tide (click here to view).
*Note: You can see the shadow of the bridge on the water he avoided in his repetitive counterclockwise circling. Shadows and noise from bridges (especially the Rio Vista Bridge) created problems escorting him to freedom in the Pacific Ocean.
For more videos and information about Humphrey click here.
Abscess - An abscess is a collection of pus that has built up within the tissue of the body. Signs and symptoms of abscesses include redness, pain, warmth, and swelling.
Dyspnea - Difficult or labored breathing.
Facial Paralysis - Loss of facial movement due to nerve damage. Can happen on one or both sides of the face.
Nares – nostrils
Neurological Dysfunction - Disorder of the Central Nervous System and affects the efficiency of brain processes.
Nystagmus - Rapid involuntary pendular movement of the eyes.
Vestibular System - The system is part of the inner ear. In most mammals, it is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement.