Janet Wortman knew something was wrong when she drove by the U.S. Highway 101 bridge across the Klamath River and there were no people leaning over the railing to watch the 45-foot gray whale that had been there for nearly two months.
"She would just swim back and forth right in front of you and at one point go like this, like she was waving at us," recalled Wortman, a member of the Yurok Tribe and a partner in the Requa Inn bed and breakfast overlooking the river. "Silly me, I waved back. It was like she was there to see people. She went back and forth. It was almost like she was going, `Here I am, you guys. Can you see me?'"
Before dawn Tuesday, the whale died after beaching itself on the north bank of the river in this coastal town of 800 people that is the headquarters of the Yurok Tribe. Scientists who had kept an eye on her since she swam into the river with her calf in late June were by her side.
In the afternoon, a backhoe pulled the whale from the river onto the gravel bank amid tall willows and dug a pit. Tribal members sang a song and said a prayer to send the whale on to the afterlife, said tribal chairman Thomas O'Rourke. Then they turned her over to scientists to see if they could determine a cause of death before burying her.
They found the whale's stomach was empty, and took tissue from the skin, blubber and organs to look for diseases and toxins, and to learn more about the whale's genetics, said Dawn Goley, professor of zoology at Humboldt State University.
For many, the whale's strange visit to the river recalled a story that Wortman's great-grandmother's cousin, Fannie Flounder, used to tell, which was recounted in the book, "The Inland Whale," by anthropologist Theordora Kroeber.
"She said when the whale is in the river, it means the world is out of balance ... things aren't the way they should be," said Wortman. "Fannie said you all need to get together and pray and dance and beat your feet on the ground and that will tilt the earth back the way it is supposed to be."
O'Rourke said he agreed that the whale's visit meant the world was out of balance, that ecosystems were failing. He said the whale brought together state and federal agencies and the tribe in a way he has never seen.
"It is acts like this that are going to happen if we are going to stabilize the environment," he said.
There was no obvious reason the whale died, or why she sought refuge in the river, instead of joining other gray whales migrating north to feeding grounds off Alaska, Goley said.
"When she died at 4:19 (a.m. Tuesday) it was a pretty sad moment," the professor said. "As a scientist, it's been interesting to observe a single whale this long and come to know an individual, rather than a species."
The whale came into the river in late June with its calf, gradually working her way upriver until her favorite haunt was underneath the U.S. Highway 101 bridge.
Rich Mossholder would check on the whale with loads of tourists in his Klamath Jetboats tours.
"I believe this was her destiny," he said. "She decided (she would die here) before she came in the river. The baby went on. After that happened, I thought it would probably be the end for her here."
During July and early August, crowds of people would gather on the bridge, running across, oblivious to speeding traffic, to watch when she swam underneath. Some serenaded the whales with violins and flutes. One person jumped out of a kayak to swim with them.
"It was like a rock concert," said Reweti Wiki, Wortman's son-in-law and a partner in the Requa Inn. He is a Maori from New Zealand and has a traditional whale's tooth tattoo on his arm.
Tanya Sangrey, director of economic development for the Yurok Tribe, said people would talk to the whale from the bridge, urging her to go back to sea. But she would not.
The calf swam back out to sea on July 23, about the right time for it to wean and go off on its own. But efforts to drive its mother back to sea, including calls of killer whales played upriver, did not persuade her to leave.
She stayed, sometimes feeding on invasive species of clams and snails in the mud of the river bottom, shooting great geysers of air and water out of her blowhole.
"Early on, it was a novel experience," said Wiki. "People were happy and intrigued. But as it dragged on, people became concerned. Eventually, it turned into a tragedy.
"It was amazing."
Dearen reported from San Francisco.
Jeff Barnard can be contacted at http://twitter.com/JeffBarnardAP
Jason Dearen can be reached at http://twitter.com/JHDearen