As a chief boatswain’s mate yelled one of the most unusual orders ever heard aboard ship - “Release the whale!” - the California gray whale named J.J. was lowered gently into calm seas Tuesday two miles off the San Diego coast.
The 19,200-pound, 31-foot-long mammal - the largest ever kept in captivity - initially began swimming back to San Diego. Then the celebrity cetacean made an abrupt underwater turn and headed due west, toward an area where a Coast Guard helicopter had spotted a pod of migrating gray whales.
Whale experts at the Sea World aquatic park in San Diego, where the then-newborn J.J. was rushed 14 months ago after being found near death off the coast of Los Angeles, hope she will join a pod headed north to Alaska, the gray whales’ summer frolicking spot.
J.J.’s return to the ocean went so smoothly that some scientists joked it was a downer of an ending to the story of the sickly calf that was nursed back to health and began growing at the rate of 2 pounds an hour.
“You put a year of your life into helping her and she doesn’t even say thank you,” joked whale expert Jim Sumich, a Grossmont College professor and whale consultant to Sea World.
Sumich and others had hoped J.J. would break the surface of the ocean close to the ship to grab a breath of air, and thus provide a final bit of dramatic film footage of this one-of-a-kind event. Alas, it was not to be.
“J.J. did what a wild animal will do: She got the heck away from human beings as fast as she could,” said Sea World veterinarian Tom Reidarson. “It’s not that she doesn’t like us. It’s just that she doesn’t need us anymore.”
The four-hour operation to take J.J. out to sea was part VIP motorcade, part military maneuver.
At Sea World, she was lifted by crane onto a truck specially equipped with a foam-rubber bed. San Diego police provided an escort to the loading dock of the 32nd Street Naval Station, a 12-mile journey through city streets.
A second crane lifted the rubbery-skinned leviathan onto the buoy deck of the 180-foot Conifer for the short voyage to the drop spot off San Diego’s Point Loma. The huge animal thrashed occasionally, rocking the boat slightly. Caretakers used hoses to keep her huge body wet.
Once at sea, a crane normally used to lift buoys was deployed to lift the specially fitted red canvas sling containing J.J. off the ship’s deck, over the port-side rail and into the water.
When the sling began to dip into the water, chief boatswain’s mate Thomas Young, an 18-year veteran, bellowed the order “Release the whale!”
At his command, a line was pulled to let one side of the sling open and J.J. to swim away. By 10:13 a.m., J.J. was a free whale facing an uncertain future.
Within an hour, one of the four electronic transmitters attached to J.J.’s back began beaming back information about her location.
A Sea World boat hopes to trail her for several days. The crew on the boat reported seeing her tail or fluke above water on several occasions.
But it will be weeks before scientists know whether J.J. is heading north along with others of her species.
The gray whales were on their way south to Baja California in early January 1997 when the week-old J.J. - sick and underweight - floundered off Marina del Rey.
An ad hoc squad of whale lovers, police and lifeguards rescued her from the surf and arranged for her to be sped to Sea World in a U-Haul trailer. She arrived comatose, hypoglycemic and an emaciated 1,800 pounds and 13 feet long.
At Sea World, the whale was given emergency medical care and then months of pampering in preparation for her eventual return to the sea.
J.J. was named after the late Judi Jones of Laguna Beach, a leader in the move to rescue sea mammals in distress. Keeping her in captivity was never an option; an adult female gray whale can weigh 74,000 pounds and stretch 55 feet.
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