Sheriff's deputies and others managed to coax a possibly ailing baby gray whale out of Dana Point Harbor and back out to sea on Tuesday.
Harbor patrol unit deputies started hearing CB radio chatter about 8 a.m. regarding a baby whale in the harbor, said Orange County sheriff's Lt. Lane Lagaret.
The whale appeared to have left, but returned about 11 a.m., then swam back out to sea at 1:45 p.m., Lagaret said.
The whale is about 20 to 25 feet long and "looks really skinny," said Justin Greenman, assistant stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Barnacles on its top side and other signs led experts "to believe its health is compromised," he said.
It's uncommon for gray whales to be seen in these parts at this time of the year, Greenman said. Gray whales typically pass through from the south, where they breed, to the north, where they feed, he said.
"It may be that this guy is trying to make his way north," Greenman said, adding that the whale "might be a straggler who hung out in Mexico too long."
Gray whales are "bottom feeders" so they need the habitat up north for that, he said.
"Unlike the other blue whales and humpback whales, who are mid-water feeders going after schools of bait, these guys are bottom feeders filtering through sand, so they really need the right kind of bottom habitat to successfully forage," Greeman said.
Since whales rely on sound to essentially see their way through the water, loud harbor noises can be very disorienting, Greenman said. It can take until nightfall when the harbor is more quiet for a lost whale to find its way out, he said.