Whales pass Benicia bridge, toward sea

Delta and Dawn, the two wayward humpback whales who were stuck in the Sacramento River Delta for more than two weeks, are now within a day’s striking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The whales had lingered for nearly two days at the Benicia Bridge in the Suisun Bay, but moved on toward their ocean home Tuesday morning.

Delta and Dawn, the mother-and-calf pair that swam roughly 90 miles inland to near the Port of Sacramento and captured regional and even national attention, are almost two-thirds of the way to the open ocean, around 30 miles from the 70-year-old iconic bridge, officials said.

Observers hope the whales’ travels are signs that they want to return to the ocean and raise the prospect that they will swim through the Golden Gate to continue their migration north to Alaskan feeding grounds.

“If they take off and travel the way they have in the past two Sundays, that certainly would be within their range,” said Bernadette Fees, a spokeswoman for the state Fish and Game Department.

While the salt water the whales have found near the Benicia Bridge will help with their wounds and skin condition, there are still obstacles to overcome, such as increased boat traffic and alternate rivers they could venture up before finding the ocean.  

The whales, both with gashes apparently from boat propellers, were first spotted May 9 near Benicia before swimming up a deep-water channel to a turning basin near the Port of Sacramento, according to the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, which is assisting in the rescue operation.

On May 20, the whales headed downriver toward the Rio Vista Bridge before stopping. They continued on from the Rio Vista Bridge this last Sunday, swimming roughly 25 miles to the Benicia Bridge.

The whales swam under the Benicia Bridge on Monday but turned around and swam back under the bridge, where they stayed as of early Wednesday evening, officials said.

Marine mammal specialists have given both whales a dose of antibiotics to stave off any infections they might have developed — the first time that has been done to a wild whale, Fees said. The specialists were trying to give a second dosage to both whales Monday, she said.

The rescue operation, which includes representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Office of Emergency Services, the state Fish and Game Department, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Mammal Center, has employed such herding methods as spraying fire hoses and banging pipes underwater, as well as using boats to help steer the whales down river.

But after the weekend activity, there was no “active engagement scheduled” for the whales today, Fees said.

The whales’ slow return toward salt water and the Bay are “hopeful” signs, said Jim Oswald, the communications manager for the Marine Mammal Center.

“I think they’re hopeful, and these whales are certainly showing signs they’re interested in getting back to the ocean,” Oswald said.

DELTA AND DAWN BY THE NUMBERS

20: Number of days since they were first spotted near Benicia.

42: Number of days at most the whales could live in fresh water. “Humphrey” stayed 26 days in 1985 before leaving the Bay.

50 and 20: The length in feet of the mother and calf, respectively.

90: Estimated number of miles inland the wayward whales traveled.

34: Miles from the Benicia Bridge, near where the whales are, to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Source: The Marine Mammal Center; California Department of Fish and Game 

VIDEO, PHOTOS, LATEST UPDATES

Get the latest stories and updates in Examiner's special “Delta Whales” section.

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Check out Examiner's slide show of the humpbacks' 90-mile trip.

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