Monday, April 6, 2009

A CA Whale Tale

Kudos to Bill Scribner of North County Recovery on this unusual tow!
Here's the story from the San Jose Mercury News:

SANTA CRUZ -- Friday's removal of a dead whale carcass from a tiny cove near Its Beach was loaded with dire possibilities, and onlookers whispered predictions of explosions, a breaking body, a messy fall.

But thanks to an experienced tow truck driver and others, the 25-foot whale was hoisted from a rocky cove, up the cliff and onto a flatbed truck for a trip to the city dump -- smooth as the bay on a still summer morning.

By 7:30 a.m., a large crowd had gathered on the West Cliff pathway just west of Its Beach, gazing at the 25-foot California gray whale yearling as a tow truck driver and others slowly orchestrated its rise from the cove and up the side of the cliff, scraping through flowering ice plant.

Two large leather straps had been placed around the 2-ton yearling, and its body sagged at both ends as it rose.

But it did not explode; it did not fall apart. It was placed gently on a flatbed, wrapped in blue tarp and then it was gone, down West Cliff Drive toward the Dimeo Lane landfill, a police cruiser following.

"That was awesome," said Kirsten Sharnee, who was among the crowd, holding her 4-year-old daughter, Alesca, in one hand and a camera in the other. Sharnee said she dropped off her 7-year-old daughter at school and ran down to see how they would remove the whale.

The dead gray whale was spotted floating near the

wharf early Wednesday and at noon towed a mile out to sea. But it returned that evening, washing up into the small cove.

Wharf Supervisor Dan Buecher said officials hoped to tow it farther out to sea Friday, but a reef, rocks and sizeable waves would have made that dangerous.

Some onlookers Friday said the whale should be left alone, or towed to sea in a natural burial.

But federal marine authorities and others called the carcass a health hazard and it certainly was fast becoming an olfactory one. The cove was too small to allow the whale to be buried there. The city hired the same North County Recovery and Towing rig and driver they hire to haul out cars that go off the wharf, he said.

Buecher was relieved Friday to see the fluke of the whale disappearing down West Cliff Drive.

"It held together; it was wonderful," he said. "We had a good team out there."

The whale will be buried at the city landfill, Buecher said, saying that at least that was a burial "next to the sea."

"And they'll give me a bill," he said. "We have to pay for it by the pound."

The removal will cost the city a little more than $1,200, he said, which includes a disposal fee of 7 cents per pound for the 8,260 pound whale and $700 for the tow truck. Other than that, wharf employees did not incur overtime, he said, and spent about $15 on gas in a city boat for the attempt to tow it back to sea.

Lab scientists had wanted to perform a necropsy on the yearling female, which had no obvious signs of recent trauma on its body, but they were unable to do that in the populated area and tiny cove where the whale washed up.

Without a full necropsy, it is unlikely that blubber and blood samples taken Thursday would reveal the cause of the mammal's death, marine biology student Robin McClenahan said.

Lab officials said Friday the whale was no longer fresh enough to get good evidence from it, and that there were liability and other issues making an examination at the landfill difficult.

"It's unfortunate, but it's all about the beach it lands on," said Teri Sigler, who coordinates the lab's work for the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Joe Rodgers, a longtime Santa Cruz boat captain and marine surveyor, said he spotted a whale that size this week several times, going back and forth across the bay, seemingly looking for its mother.

Onlooker Bob Davidson of Santa Cruz said it was kind of sad to see the dead whale after a recent trip to Laguna de San Ignacio off the Baja California Peninsula and seeing and touching whales that size.

"It was amazing; they are so friendly," Davidson said. "They come right up to the boats. I saw one about this size right together with its mom."

For others, Friday was the closest they had ever come to a whale.

Jeremy Cain of Scotts Valley said he came to West Cliff for a run and stopped to see the whale, after hearing a news report that it had washed up on the beach. He said it seemed more natural to take it out to sea.

"It seems a little sacrilegious to take a beautiful gray whale to the dump," he said. "But I understand if it's too dangerous to take it out to sea."

Gray whales are in the midst of their annual migration from Mexican to Alaskan waters and are traveling relatively close to the Central Coast.

Kimo Peterson of Hawaii said he thought the carcass was going to break up, which, as he pointed out, would have been "very stinky."

"But it went well," he said. "They did a very good job."

Bill Scribner of North County Recovery orchestrated the whale rising, and he shrugged off the praise, attributing it to 25 years on the job.

He has lifted a lot of things in those 25 years, he said, but never before a whale.

But he did once tow an elephant seal from the beach at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, he said, plus the truck and trailer that got stuck in the sand trying to do it.

Scribner, 52, has lifted several fallen horses too, plus many cars from the water and other places and some big rigs from Highway 17.

"If it can be lifted, hopefully we can figure out a way to do it," Scribner said.

He said he was relieved it didn't break up or slam into the railing along West Cliff Drive as they hauled it over.

"I'm glad it worked out," he said. "It wouldn't have been very pleasant had it been there much longer."

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