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J.J. lowered on the whale gurney and then, J.J. is gently released
into the ocean. Photos courtesy of: Mike Kahle
After a Year of Preparation, J.J. Released!
To: Journey North
From: Mike Kahle, Channel Islands National
Marine Sanctuary Intern.
On the very early morning of April 1, 1998 (at 3 am to be exact) I loaded my camera
and foul weather gear into the sanctuary mini-van and headed down highway 101 bound
for San Diego. What in the world was I doing driving at 3 am you might ask! The answer
is that by 7:45 am I was to be aboard the LORD HORNBLOWER to witness the long awaited
release of J.J. the gray whale.
After washing ashore in Long Beach nearly a year ago, J.J. had since been in the
care of Sea World specialists,
who had been feeding and preparing the young gray whale for her eventual reintroduction
into the wild. Despite the incredible challenge handlers faced in trying to satisfy
the enormous appetite of such a giant baby, even more impressive was the fact that
this was the first time in history that anyone had ever successfully raised a gray
whale in captivity.
However, getting J.J. up to the appropriate size and weight for release was only
the first step. There was still the little matter, or not so little matter, of getting
J.J. back to the Pacific without harming her, so that she could join up with a pod
of migrating grays and successfully complete her natural migration northward to the
Chukchi and Bering Seas.
When I arrived at the LORD HORNBLOWER I found that I was but one of nearly fifty
others who had come to witness the historic release. Among the anxious crowd were
a variety of Sea World personnel, including many of J.J.'s handlers, the director
of their educational department, as well as Sea World's founder and its' current
director. Other agencies represented on board were The Marine Mammal Stranding Network,
American Oceans Campaign, and the California Sport Fishing Association, just to name
As the LORD HORNBLOWER pulled away from her slip and eased into the main channel
of the San Diego harbor, the USCG Buoy Tender, CONIFER, slipped past us surrounded
by an entourage of harbor patrol vessels as well as several J.J. support boats. One
boat in particular, the MEGALADON, carried several sonabuoys which were to be placed
into the ocean at J.J.'s drop site, in an attempt to track her movements at the time
As the CONIFER passed, J.J. could be seen on the forward deck, held gently in a red
"whale gurney" the sides of which were supported by a large crane used
to lift massive buoys from the ocean. J.J.'s immense body was additionally supported
by a thick layer of foam padding on which the gurney was resting. Throughout the
entire procedure, J.J.'s handlers kept her cool and wet with a constant shower of
water. Despite the great care exhibited by her trainers, J.J. still appeared noticeably
disturbed by the whole ordeal and occasionally threw her great rostrum and tail from
side to side.
When we finally arrived at the chosen release site, several miles off the La Jolla
coast, the crew of the MEGALADON immediately began strategically placing the sonabuoys
so that whichever direction J.J. headed, her movement could be followed, even before
she ever surfaced.
Now the critical time had arrived. The crane slowly raised its precious cargo up
from the deck of the ship, and began easing the red gurney over the port side so
that it hung suspended above the ocean below. J.J. and the gurney were then cautiously
lowered over the port side until they came to a rest at the surface of the water.
Moments later, the three lines which had supported the left side of the gurney were
pulled loose and J.J. was gently released into her new home.
For fifteen anxious minutes all eyes and cameras were on the surrounding water, scanning
for any sign of the now free J.J. However, it had appeared that for the moment, she
had given us all the slip. With J.J. released and presumably fine, the LORD HORNBLOWER
turned around and headed back toward San Diego harbor. Thirty minutes later, the
captain came over the PA and announced that the buoys had picked up J.J.'s signal
and she was still in La Jolla cove and appeared to be doing just fine.
What the future holds for J.J. only time will tell, but one thing is for sure; the
knowledge and public awareness gained through her plight, is sure to have a lasting
affect on public perception and awareness of the gray whale.