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Humphrey escapes whale of a jam

Humphrey the wandering whale, freed from one spot in the mudflats of San Francisco Bay, spent most of Tuesday stuck in another spot before he began wandering again. Five years after the 40-foot humpback's much-publicized voyage through the bay to the Sacramento River, he drew a crowd of thousands to a cove near Candlestick Park, where he lay beached by rocks bearing a "No Trespassing" sign.

A team of marine biologists, veterinarians and the Coast Guard nudged the 45-ton whale with their hands, splashed him with buckets of water, towed him with a harness and used an air compressor to suck mud from below him.

"Essentially we were trying to tease him off that mud rock," Frank Griffith of the California Marine Mammal Center said during the effort. "There's no amount of human beings that you could put out there to push him off like you'd push a car down the street. If he's stuck on the bottom by mud suction, you couldn't move him unless he puts some effort into moving himself."

As afternoon high tide rolled in, Humphrey budged a bit from the mud at 2:20 p.m., flipping his fins, raising his tail and blowing water through his spout. The crowd cheered.

A short while later, Humphrey got stuck again, but with more work he freed himself and swam out into the bay while volunteers banged pipes to direct him away from land.

Once Humphrey reached deep water a quarter- to a half-mile away, rescuers hoped to used recorded whale sounds to lure him out under the Golden Gate Bridge to the ocean where he belongs.

"I think the guy likes attention. I think he likes people," said Frank Boyd of San Francisco, who was in the crowd watching Humphrey.

Humphrey became something of an aquatic celebrity in fall 1985, when he spent 25 days swimming in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River Delta before being guided and cajoled back to the Pacific.

His legions of fans heralded him with songs, poems, books and, of course, a T-shirt. The state and federal governments spent $50,000 on the effort to coax him out to sea.

Biologists recognize Humphrey through tail markings with a unique pattern, like a finger

print. They've spotted him in the ocean near San Francisco every year since, in August or September.

Nearly 200 children from five grades in the nearby Bret Harte Elementary School walked out to the edge of the bay Tuesday to watch Humphrey.

"We are studying about whales," said Mrs. Swaraj Gujral, a fifth-grade teacher. "The children are very worried. They wonder how he can survive. They said we should all get together and push him. I think he likes it here. He went away but he left his heart in San Francisco."

Efforts to move him using boards and a tow rope during the early morning high tide failed. For most of the day, Humphrey's white-striped dorsal hump poked only about three feet above the surface while his head and tail remained under water.

"The fact is the animal didn't help us at all," said Denize Springer, spokeswoman for the Marine Mammal Center. "In 1985 when he was stuck, then he helped us."

Humphrey beached himself twice Monday _ the first time blundering onto mud flats near Candlestick Park, snarling traffic for hours as commuters slowed to gawk. The mammal finally floated off on a rising tide but then worked himself into a real jam when he became stranded again north of the stadium.

He was completely out of the water as the tide went out Monday night and again after sunrise. Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center then worked to keep him from becoming dehydrated.

Another fear, Springer said, was that the whale's weight would crush vital organs.

"He's literally lying on his lungs," she said.

Springer said a blood test taken Monday and completed early Tuesday showed nothing abnormal about Humphrey's condition "other than he has been under stress and hadn't eaten."

Although humpback whales aren't known to attack humans, the volunteers trying to help the stranded mammal face the danger of being hit by the whale's strong fluke, or tail, which could cause serious injury or death.

Those keeping watch included Sharnel Jackson, 14, who recalled the whale's first visit.

"We had a big banner in class with Humphrey's name on it," she said as she lifted the collar of her jacket to ward off the cold. "I know Humphrey. I want to see him get free."