People poured into the Port of Sacramento by the thousands over the weekend. After parking in fields, young and old made their way to the river banks, on foot, bike, stroller, and cane.
Everyone has come to see two hapless whales – a mother and her calf – that have stranded themselves far up San Francisco Bay in the Sacramento River. The humpbacks have captured hearts across America and given many local residents their first close-up view of a whale in the wild.
Move over Arnold. "Delta" and "Dawn" are the big stars now in Sacramento, eclipsing the week's infighting here over budget revisions and healthcare plans. Instead, the visitors from the deep brought out a rare moment of unity.
"You've got people from all races and walks of life coming here," says Makeba Ellington of Sacramento. She laughs at her own giddiness: "Many of us are under 30 and we've got nothing better to do on a Saturday evening but to whale watch."
Every few minutes the crowd – English mingling with the immigrant sounds of Spanish, Urdu, Arabic, and Chinese – breaks into excitement as the whale backs rise above the surface. It's as if July 4 fireworks came early this year.
The errant whales aren't the only animals to hold the spotlight recently in northern California. Peregrine falcons in San Jose and San Francisco are celebrities among office workers watching their nests on webcams. San Franciscans hung on every move of a high-wire operation this year to relocate falcon eggs from a precarious nest on the Bay Bridge.
The Bay Area is known for its love of animals, ranking No. 1 on the humane index put out by the Humane Society of the United States. But Americans as a whole have a weak spot for animals. Five million of the 45 million dog owners in the US say they are more attached to their dogs than to their spouses, according to the American Pet Association.
Why the fascination with falcon webcams and misguided whales?
"Animals that can survive and thrive, or animals that suffer, tug on our heartstrings. In many regards there are parallels with children, and children who are surviving or thriving in environments that you really wonder about," says Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University's college of veterinary medicine.
Whether rescue efforts are misguided is a matter of debate. Some ecologists focus less on individual animals and more on the welfare of entire populations or species, says Whit Gibbons, professor of ecology at the University of Georgia. Rescues can tamper with evolution and may not be the best use of funds.
Rescuing wildlife "takes a lot of time and effort," he says. "If you took that same amount of taxpayer funds and preserve habitat, you'd save a lot more animals."
Dr. Gibbons is the first to concede, though, that he's the kind of guy who talks to his dog and throws stranded starfish back into the sea. "Even though I can give you the evolutionary argument" against trying to save stranded whales, he says, "I would do it. I would love to be that close to a big old whale and helping out with it."
As for Delta and Dawn, they might have become stranded due to injuries from a boat. Efforts to use recorded whale noises to lure them back down the river and into the bay have so far failed. This week rescuers plan to goad them more forcefully. The whales will eventually run out of food in the fresh water.
On the shore, onlookers offered prayers and heartfelt hopes for the whales' safety. Many also came with family just to connect with nature.
"How often do you get a chance to take your boy out to see a whale in the river? It's a once in a lifetime – well, twice in a lifetime – experience," says Shane Morey, standing by the river with his wife, Cathy, and son, Nick. He's lived in Sacramento long enough to remember the last whale, Humphrey, to come up the river.
The whales have added to teenager Danielle Carter's desire to be a marine biologist. As for whether Delta and Dawn will make it to safety, she smiles and says, "I'm going to say yes."