A call to the wild: ‘Save your­selves’

The bio-acous­tics ex­pert who used un­der­sea noises to help res­cue a whale in the delta 22 years ago is try­ing to save a mother and calf.

Los Angeles Times - - California - By John M. Glionna

WEST SACRA­MENTO — From a boat in the brack­ish wa­ters of a back­wa­ter delta chan­nel, Bernie Krause and his sci­en­tific col­leagues lower an un­der­wa­ter speaker that emits a stac­cato sym­phony of grunts, squeals and squeaks.

They’re whale noises, some of which the 68-year-old bio-acous­tics ex­pert cap­tured 16 years ago off the Alaska coast as he hov­ered above a pod of hump­back whales in a tiny kayak. Now the gray-haired con­nois­seur of na­ture’s oth­er­worldly sounds is us­ing this whale lan­guage to reach out to an in­jured mother hump­back and her calf cir­cling in the depths be­low.

Krause is a whale whis­perer. And he’s spear­head­ing an ef­fort to res­cue two wrong-way ce­taceans that last week strayed from their sea­sonal mi­gra­tion on a mis­guided 100-mile jour­ney up the San Joaquin River Delta.

Now the whales, both in­jured in an ap­par­ent run-in with a boat pro­pel­ler, have reached a dead end in a murky in­land chan­nel not far from the state Capi­tol dome. Rac­ing against time, a host of gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies for days has tried to coax the leviathans back to sea.

Krause has spent nearly four decades record­ing nat­u­ral sounds world­wide — from pris­tine un­der­wa­ter sound­scapes to jaguars in the Brazil­ian jun­gle to corn grow­ing in Iowa.

He earned an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion in 1985 when he turned his at­ten­tion to a whale known as Humphrey, who had ven­tured many miles into the Sacra­mento Delta. Us­ing tapes of whales’ feed­ing and so­cial noises, the Detroit na­tive helped coax the way­ward hump­back out into the open ocean.

On Fri­day, Krause and a team of sci­en­tists tried, for the sec­ond

[

[ straight day, to reprise that suc­cess. But the two whales weren’t tak­ing the bait.

“The an­i­mals are just not re­spond­ing,” Krause said. “It might be from the noise of the boats or air­craft fly­ing over­head or from the ef­fects of their in­juries. We just don’t know.”

Humphrey spent 26 days wan­der­ing in­land wa­ters, but ex­perts worry that the mother and her calf don’t have that much time.

Al­though the adult hump­back’s wounds are not lifethreat­en­ing, of­fi­cials aren’t so sure about the calf, which they be­lieve was nurs­ing when the pro­pel­ler struck the pair.

The whales’ in­juries have added pres­sure and drama to the res­cue ef­fort as dozens of re­porters wait for up­dates near the Port of Sacra­mento and hun­dreds of on­look­ers watch from a nearby levee.

On Fri­day, the news still wasn’t good. Sci­en­tists var­ied the sounds. They fid­dled with the speaker vol­ume. They changed boats. Noth­ing worked.

“They call me a whale whis­perer,” said a frus­trated Krause. “Yeah, right. Na­ture al­ways has the last laugh.”

A for­mer mu­si­cian who plays vi­o­lin and gui­tar, Krause be­came a pi­o­neer of elec­tronic sound in the 1960s and helped in­tro­duce the Moog syn­the­sizer to pop mu­sic and film.

In 1970, he and a part­ner pro­duced “In a Wild Sanc­tu­ary,” an album that in­cor­po­rated recorded nat­u­ral sounds into the mu­sic.

The record changed his life, launch­ing him on a quest with his mi­cro­phone and recorder to amass what he says is the world’s largest col­lec­tion of nat­u­ral sounds: 3,500 hours, fea­tur­ing count­less habi­tats and 15,000 crea­tures, many of which are now ex­tinct.

Krause has stud­ied whales and their en­vi­ron­ment and un­der­stands why so many peo­ple are cap­ti­vated by the jour­ney of the hump­back and her calf.

“Peo­ple as­so­ci­ate with th­ese wild crit­ters. There’s some­thing atavis­tic in our genes, mak­ing us long for a sim­pler time,” he said. “Whales just have a pres­ence, be­ing so gen­tle and com­ing back from the brink of ex­tinc­tion.”

Twenty-two years ago, when asked to take part in Humphrey’s res­cue, Krause had not yet made any of his own whale record­ings. So he used those col­lected by a pair of Univer­sity of Hawaii grad­u­ate stu­dents who stud­ied hump­backs. Krause took the scratchy tapes into his stu­dio and spent hours work­ing on the sound qual­ity.

He re­called the mo­ment Humphrey re­acted to the sounds. He and Diana Reiss, a col­league from Marine World in San Fran­cisco, were aboard a 42foot boat south of Sacra­mento. The whale had been wan­der­ing for weeks and au­thor­i­ties were los­ing hope in the res­cue.

So the two went to work with their whale sounds.

“I have never seen an an­i­mal move so fast. That whale was hy­droplan­ing,” Krause said. “He

[

[ was a quar­ter-mile away and got to our boat in 15 sec­onds. He nearly swamped us.”

A flotilla of boats be­hind Humphrey slowly moved the whale to­ward the ocean. Each time he veered off course, of­fi­cials played more whale sounds, along with pipe-bang­ing noises from be­hind to herd him along. Mean­while, tens of thou­sands gath­ered along the delta shores to root the whale on.

“Ev­ery time the whale sur­faced, an in­cred­i­ble roar arose from the crowd,” Krause said. “Ev­ery so of­ten, he swam to­ward shore and did a tail slap. It was an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.”

This time around, Krause has played a pre­re­corded loop of sounds he de­scribed as a “whale din­ner call.”

“It’s a long clear tone, lower than a B flat in pitch, and then it slowly as­cends,” he said. “It’s very pow­er­ful, very force­ful.”

Whale roundups are an inex- act science. Stud­ies show that hump­back whales re­spond to recorded stim­uli only 10% of the time. But Krause is fo­cused on the task, spend­ing most of his time on the wa­ter, away from the news con­fer­ences and re­porters’ ques­tions.

“They’re say­ing we failed on Thurs­day,” he said early Fri­day, with a sigh. “I don’t think we failed. Th­ese an­i­mals don’t re­spond to pro­to­col, the way we un­der­stand the world. They’ll re­spond when they’re ready, not when we’re ready.”

On Fri­day, he con­tin­ued his work with Ja­son Mul­sow, a UC Santa Cruz re­searcher who helps han­dle the speak­ers and acous­tics.

“OK, five sec­onds,” Krause an­nounces to the crew, “two . . . one . . . trans­mit.” Then an­other blast of whale sound re­ver­ber­ates through the wa­ter.

Res­cuers say they will take a break over the week­end and re­sume their ef­forts Tues­day. But Krause won’t be there.

He will leave his record­ings with the res­cue crew and go back to his Wild Sanc­tu­ary head­quar­ters in Sonoma County, where he has other projects in the works.

He’ll keep pulling for the mother hump­back and her calf, in the hopes they make it back to sea, he said. But he won’t give them names or adopt those cho­sen in con­tests run by North­ern Cal­i­for­nia news­pa­pers and ra­dio sta­tions to name the two whales — with re­sults rang­ing from Marco and Polo to Dumb and Dumber.

“Th­ese whales are not car­toon char­ac­ters. You can’t an­i­mate them like at Pixar,” he said.

“Try and hu­man­ize them and you’re go­ing to have hu­man ex­pec­ta­tions they can­not de­liver. They’re go­ing to do what they’re go­ing to do.

“They’re wild.”

john.glionna@la­times.com

Robert Durell Los An­ge­les Times

EX­PERT: “They’ll re­spond when they’re ready,” Bernie Krause says.

Robert Durell Los An­ge­les Times

IN­JURED: The gash vis­i­ble in the side of the mother whale is be­lieved to have been caused by a boat pro­pel­ler and is not thought to be life-threat­en­ing. The ex­tent of the calf’s in­juries is not known.

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