On June 24, 2011, a 45-foot gray whale swam up the Klamath River in northern California approximately three miles to the 101 bridge crossing with her calf. She immediately became a tourist attraction and fascination of locals. Yurok tribal leaders viewed the whale’s presence as both a “great gift” and a sign our world is “out of balance, that ecosystems were failing”.
The calf left about three weeks ago, and its status is not known. It left at weaning age, and many fear it has not survived. Efforts to locate it in the ocean have failed. The mother remained swimming around the bridge entertaining crowds on the bridge. Yesterday, she passed away after beaching herself on the shores of the Klamath.
About two weeks, I went to see the whale. It was an amazing sight but very sad at the same time. When she appeared to head downstream, the crowd optimistically thought she was finally leaving. Unfortunately, she turned around and continued her obsessive swimming around the bridge.
The longer the baleen stayed, the closer people got to her. Some would swim, some would kayak causing even more stress to the whale. Scientists tried to coax her out of the river by playing orca sounds, which could have caused further stress to her. The extended period in fresh water also caused her health to deteriorate.
Why did the grey whale enter the river with her calf? Some suspect Navy sonar along the West Coast is to blame. The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) reports:
Whales and other marine mammals rely on their hearing for life’s most basic functions, such as orientation and communication. Sound is how they find food, find friends, find a mate, and find their way through the world every day.
So when a sound thousands of times more powerful than a jet engine fills their ears, the results can be devastating — and even deadly.
Is the Navy sonar program to blame for the whale’s behavior and ultimate death? The mainstream media has avoided this connection, but it does seem plausible. Other whales have entered the Klamath before, but we can’t rule out the negative effects of sonars on whale behavior.