In one of the more implausible movies of the late-1980s, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” Capt. Kirk and crew travel back in time to rescue a pair of humpbacks that are about to harpooned by venal whalers. Transported by spaceship to the year 2286 when humpbacks are extinct, the whales save humanity by using their ethereal song to ask others flying in a vast “spacewatertank” to spare us.
Conceived and directed by Spock actor Leonard Nemoy, the popular film undoubtedly played a part in convincing nations to more strongly enforce a ban on whale hunting. Compared to a pre-whaling population estimated at 120,000, there are now thought to be a still-healthy number of 80,000 humpbacks worldwide, with perhaps 20,000 of these in the North Pacific.
Because of their mysterious songs and a practice of throwing their massive 80,000-pound bodies out of the water in displays of awesome exuberance, humpbacks are among the “rock stars” of the whale world. When it became apparent during Buoy 10 salmon season this August that they were entering the Columbia estuary in pursuit of schools of bait fish, it was both newsworthy and somewhat worrisome. There is ongoing concern they might have been forced into the river by this year’s warm-water “Blob” and El Nino, or by a vast bloom of algae that sometimes produces a potent toxin.
One researcher offers a much more positive view that they have ventured into river waters simply because there now is a robust humpback population that is exploring new habitats. Because they remember good feeding grounds and pass this information on to their young, it’s possible humpbacks might visit the waters around the Astoria Bridge year after year.
Their presence has already brought a noticeable upward bump in tourist traffic in what should now be a distinctly slowing season. Even before print publication of Josh Bessex’s outstanding whale photos, online humpback coverage in the Daily Astorian and Chinook Observer attracted more than 270,000 viewers.
Exciting as it is to have dramatically huge new wildlife in the neighborhood — biological diversity is a key benefit of living here — it would be hard to overstate how much this could mean for the Lower Columbia’s economy. Efforts at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in the 1990s to nurse Keiko the killer whale back to health poured millions into Newport’s economy. Well-wishers and school children came to see Keiko, who had starred in the movie “Free Willy,” partly based in Astoria.
It’s important that we act responsibly with respect to the humpbacks. This means boaters should give whales the right of way and maintain a significant distance to avoid disturbing them. NOAA publishes a complete set of guidelines and rules at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/education/viewing.htm. Whale watchers should park in turnouts along U.S. Highway 101 and motorists must keep an eye out for distracted drivers and pedestrians — the miles between the McGowan Church and Dismal Nitch reportedly have been something of a circus at times in recent days.
How amazing it is to have humpbacks in our neighborhood, easily observable from shore. This is a rare privilege and there is no certainty it will be repeated. Let’s appreciate these enormous and enormously appealing guests.