SAN FRANCISCO -- In a spectacular rescue of Humphrey the whale, dozens of volunteers and members of the Coast Guard towed the lethargic humpback from the muddy tidal flat where he was stuck overnight and herded him out into San Francisco Bay yesterday.
By nightfall, the Coast Guard reported that the whale was last sighted north of San Francisco and that he was swimming on a course that could take him under the Golden Gate Bridge and back into the ocean.
An estimated 4,000 cheering onlookers lined the shore at high tide in the afternoon to watch as rescuers slipped a harness over the errant whale's head and as a Coast Guard boat pulled him backward into deeper water.
The 40-ton whale welcomed his new-found freedom by promptly beaching himself on the muddy shore several hundred yards away.
"You're going the wrong way," shouted a man in the crowd.
But rescuers, racing against the changing tide, again used the harness and were able to haul him to safety.
When he reached open water minutes later, Humphrey characteristically tried to head south, toward San Jose, but a fleet of eight boats succeeded in steering him northward in the proper direction toward the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Humphrey, who swam into San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento River in 1985, apparently came back into the bay Sunday. He beached himself Monday afternoon in the mud near Candlestick Park and was stuck there for more than 24 hours before rescue crews were able to dislodge him.
Exactly five years ago, Humphrey was trapped in a small slough of the Sacramento River 25 miles south of the state Capitol. In an equally dramatic rescue, volunteers coaxed him to safety through a small opening in a bridge that blocked his path.
Scientists said yesterday that the 40-foot whale apparently suffered no serious ill effects from his latest debacle, despite spending nearly four hours completely out of the water at low tide last night.
Since that first rescue, the humpback has been sighted each year by researchers studying whales off the Northern California coast.
After Humphrey beached himself Monday on a small island 100 yards offshore, dozens of volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center worked through the night to keep him wet and prevent him from overheating. At high tide about 3 a.m. they attempted to push him off the mud, without success.
At the next high tide yesterday afternoon, volunteers freed him from the gooey muck by pumping compressed air into the mud beneath him. At the same time, other rescuers dove into the murky water and placed the harness over his head so that the 41-foot Coast Guard boat could pull him free.
The crowd cheered as Humphrey swam free. Moments later, the Coast Guard boat appeared to cut him off, and he beached himself again.