J.J. is lowered on the whale gurney and then gently released into the ocean. Photos: Mike Kahle

After a Year of Preparation, J.J. Released! April 1, 1998
To: Journey North
From: Mike Kahle, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Intern.

On the very early morning of April 1, 1998 (at 3 am to be exact) I loaded my camera and foul weather gear into the sanctuary mini-van and headed down highway 101 bound for San Diego. You might ask what in the world was I doing driving at 3 a.m.? The answer:By 7:45 am I was to be aboard the boat LORD HORNBLOWER to witness the long awaited release of J.J. the gray whale.

After washing ashore in Long Beach nearly a year ago, J.J. had since been in the care of Sea World specialists, who had been feeding and preparing the young gray whale for her eventual reintroduction into the wild. Despite the incredible challenge handlers faced in trying to satisfy the enormous appetite of such a giant baby, even more impressive was the fact that this was the first time in history that anyone had ever successfully raised a gray whale in captivity.

However, getting J.J. up to the appropriate size and weight for release was only the first step. There was still the little matter, or not so little matter, of getting J.J. back to the Pacific without harming her, so that she could join up with a pod of migrating grays and successfully complete her natural migration northward to the Chukchi and Bering Seas.

When I arrived at the LORD HORNBLOWER I found that I was but one of nearly fifty others who had come to witness the historic release. Among the anxious crowd were a variety of Sea World personnel, including many of J.J.'s handlers, the director of their educational department, as well as Sea World's founder and its current director. Other agencies represented on board were The Marine Mammal Stranding Network, American Oceans Campaign, and the California Sport Fishing Association, just to name a few.

As the LORD HORNBLOWER pulled away from her slip and eased into the main channel of the San Diego harbor, the USCG Buoy Tender, CONIFER, slipped past us surrounded by an entourage of harbor patrol vessels as well as several J.J. support boats. One boat in particular, the MEGALADON, carried several sonabuoys which were to be placed into the ocean at J.J.'s drop site, in an attempt to track her movements at the time of release.

As the CONIFER passed, J.J. could be seen on the forward deck, held gently in a red "whale gurney," the sides of which were supported by a large crane used to lift massive buoys from the ocean. J.J.'s immense body was additionally supported by a thick layer of foam padding on which the gurney was resting. Throughout the entire procedure, J.J.'s handlers kept her cool and wet with a constant shower of water. Despite the great care exhibited by her trainers, J.J. still appeared noticeably disturbed by the whole ordeal and occasionally threw her great rostrum and tail from side to side.

When we finally arrived at the chosen release site, several miles off the La Jolla coast, the crew of the MEGALADON immediately began strategically placing the sonabuoys so that whichever direction J.J. headed, her movement could be followed, even before she ever surfaced.

Now the critical time had arrived. The crane slowly raised its precious cargo up from the deck of the ship, and began easing the red gurney over the port side so that it hung suspended above the ocean below. J.J. and the gurney were then cautiously lowered over the port side until they came to a rest at the surface of the water. Moments later, the three lines which had supported the left side of the gurney were pulled loose and J.J. was gently released into her new home.

For fifteen anxious minutes all eyes and cameras were on the surrounding water, scanning for any sign of the now free J.J. However, it had appeared that for the moment, she had given us all the slip. With J.J. released and presumably fine, the LORD HORNBLOWER turned around and headed back toward San Diego harbor. Thirty minutes later, the captain came over the PA and announced that the buoys had picked up J.J.'s signal and she was still in La Jolla cove and appeared to be doing just fine.

What does the future hold for J.J.? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: The knowledge and public awareness gained through her plight is sure to have a lasting affect on public perception and awareness of the gray whale.

Updates on J.J.