Travels with Humphrey

``SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall,'' as the poet Robert Frost once noted. Whether the ``wall'' is of stone or merely an intangible barrier does not matter: Mankind objects to restrictions and delights in seeing barriers of any kind surmounted. Thus it was that so many Americans closely followed the peregrinations of Humphrey, the 45-ton humpback whale. Over the past three weeks he swam where no self-respecting humpback was supposed to go -- out of the Pacific Ocean, through San Francisco Bay, and into the fresh water of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers.

Each year thousands of Americans take to boats to watch whales, mostly at a respectful distance, off both West and East Coasts. Usually it is the people who do the traveling in search of their entertainment.

But the whales seem to enjoy the meetings and performances as much as the humans do.

Perhaps Humphrey had not had his share of ocean-bound attention, for -- like the mountain that came to Muhammad -- he set off and found his own human audience.

Unusual as it is for the whale to do the trekking, it is not unique. During the 1960s a whale entertained thousands by cavorting for days in Narragansett Bay at Providence, R.I.; he was quickly dubbed Mobil Dick, after the refining company nearby.

And there's Walt Disney's 1946 Willie the Whale, a movie segment about a whale with an operatic voice and ambitions to sing at the Met. Using Nelson Eddy's voice, he performed splendiferously for his oceangoing friends, but could not sing on stage.

That Humphrey had designs on singing at the Met we doubt; but in his quieter fashion he entertained the thousands who lined the rivers to watch his meanderings.

Whales can communicate with each other by verbalizing, and in the end it was whale sounds that lured Humphrey off his riverside stage and again out to sea. Scientists towed ahead of him a recording of whales feeding, and he followed it back to the Pacific. ----30--{et

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