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Delta & Dawn: Sacramento River Rescue

During the month of May 2007, the nation wondered if a pair of injured humpback whales, an adult female and her female calf would make it back to the ocean alive.

The pair, nicknamed Delta and Dawn, swam 75 miles up the murky, fresh water of the Sacramento Delta on May 9.  Researchers would learn that the whales were part of the Eastern North Pacific Stock – an endangered population of fewer than 1500. Delta and Dawn's journey is thought to be the longest ever taken by this species inland in fresh water. A week after the whales swam to the shallow, narrow channel of the Port of Sacramento, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi and the Office of Emergency Services appointed Dr. Frances Gulland, Director of Veterinary Science at The Marine Mammal Center, as animal rescue leader for the Unified Command, which was comprised of local, state and federal agencies.

On location, Dr. Gulland saw that the whales had sharp trauma wounds on their backs likely caused by at least one vessel strike. The rescue team tried persuading the whales to swim back to sea, but to no avail. By the whales' 11th day in fresh water, their situation was looking grim. Their skin condition was deteriorating rapidly and their wounds had become infected. The longer they stayed in fresh water, the greater their risk of dying became. Dr. Gulland, along with the Center's staff veterinarian, Dr. Felicia Nutter, assembled a team of experts to try something never done on whales in the wild – they administered carefully calculated doses of an antibiotic called ceftiofur into each whale using a specially designed dart gun. The next day, the whales appeared to show signs of healing and they began making their journey back to the ocean.

On May 29, after swimming under three bridges, Delta and Dawn made their way back to the open sea.


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