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Who is Humphrey the Whale?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Humpback whales are intelligent animals. They travel in pods, migrating south for the winter and north in the summer. Although they generally stay together and travel the same course year after year, there are the occasional mistakes. One memorable one was a whale who came to be known as Humphrey.

In October, 1985, Humphrey the Whale left his pod and swam under the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay. This was an exciting treat for the people of San Francisco, because humpback whales usually stay in very deep parts of the ocean. Humphrey was 45 feet (13.7 m) long and weighed approximately 40 tons (36,287 kg). Tourists and residents alike came out to see Humphrey.

Instead of swimming back out into the open sea, Humphrey the Whale swam up the Bay into Sacramento River. The Sacramento River became smaller and narrower as Humphrey traveled upstream looking for the ocean, but in the wrong direction. The river was too small for him, as well as being fresh water, not the salt water that whales need to survive.

The mission was to turn Humphrey back around toward the ocean so he would be free. However, he just kept going upstream, farther away from his food source and the environment he needed. Humphrey finally got himself stuck under a small bridge in a slough branching off of the Sacramento River.

Scientists, the Coast Guard, and others developed a surprisingly simple plan to save Humphrey the Whale. They planned to bang long pipes together underwater to scare him away from the direction he had been heading, while simultaneously playing a recording of whales eating in the other direction. They hoped this would lure Humphrey toward the ocean in search of food and his pod of whales.

Humphrey began swimming in the opposite direction of the banging pipes, but stopped when he arrived back at the little bridge. The pipes kept banging, and Humphrey seemed to become angry and confused, thrashing around in the water, but not getting anywhere. Finally, a crane was brought in to clear away some of the old pilings of the bridge and create enough space for Humphrey to swim through. Although for a moment, it seemed he would get stuck in the remaining pilings, he finally broke free and swam to the other side.

Humphrey spent a day swimming around the Bay, slapping his tail, leaping out of the water, and entertaining the people who were watching. Then he swam under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the open water, 26 days after getting lost.

Scientists were able to identify Humphrey later during his annual migrations by his distinctive markings. He was seen in 1986 by the Farallon Islands and in Bodega Bay in 1988. In 1990, Humphrey the Whale was in trouble again, found beached in the mud near Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It took three days for rescuers from the Marine Mammal Center and the United States Coast Guard to free Humphrey, which they finally did by pumping air under him during high tide and towing him into deeper water, freeing him once again.

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Discussion Comments
By anon66522 — On Feb 20, 2010

hopefully someday they will see him again!

I sure hope he is still alive. RachelK. age 12

By anon26559 — On Feb 15, 2009

I read that they haven't seen him since 1991.

By anon17478 — On Aug 30, 2008

Do they know if Humphrey is still alive today?

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