A whale of a tale
June 17, 2011 | by: Lucinda Coulter
The 12-mile delivery from Sea World of California in San Diego to the ocean more than 13 years ago is one that Ron Ford likely never will forget.
After all, few truckers have hauled a 19,000-pound whale.
Overdrive’s September 1998 issue chronicles the delivery of J.J. the gray whale to the San Diego Naval Station, from where she was taken safely to a final destination, to her Pacific Ocean home.
Nearly 15 months earlier, veterinarians nursed the newborn calf after rescuers with the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network of the National Marine Fisheries Service had found her abandoned and washed ashore in Marina Del Rey. They trucked her to Sea World, and when she had recovered, Sea World contacted Lakeside, Calif.-based Bill Signs Trucking. The fleet had hauled dolphins, manatees and beluga whales for Sea World.
Ford, a 24-year veteran driver and known as “The Whale Man” by colleagues, was a natural choice for the job. “I had a lot of fun and met a lot of great people,” Ford told Overdrive. “I’d love to do it again.”
His cargo’s tendency to shift was surely unlike most other hauls as well. “J.J. started wiggling her tail and the truck started rocking,” Ford told the magazine. “I just looked at the officer and said, ‘Whoa, take it easy back there, girl.’”
To prepare for the then-record haul, the fleet designed a topless, 40-foot container lined with foam rubber and chained to a flatbed to transport the whale. Ford made several practice runs.
On delivery day, March 31, 1998, Ford picked up J.J.’s container, the magazine reported, and “waited by the fish tanks at Sea World for about four hours until officials arrived to load the whale.” An attentive caravan accompanied Ford, including a backup truck, 21 motorcycles, four patrol cars and two helicopters.
“Once I left Sea World, I never stopped,” Ford said of the 20-minute transport. “They took me through red lights, stop signs and everything else. I had a commercial police officer in the cab with me. There was constant communication between us and the officers on motorcycles.”
Although Ford is now with a different carrier, Bill Signs Trucking employees remember the delivery and excitement of national media coverage, fleet president Bob Neal says.
Biologist J. Antrim wrote about the renowned trip in the Aquatic Mammals journal in 2001: “All aspects of the event went flawlessly, and J.J. became the largest animal ever returned to the wild and the first orphaned neonate baleen whale rescued, rehabilitated to independent status, and then returned to the ocean.”
Watch “The J.J. Story” on YouTube for footage of the whale’s legacy.
Photos courtesy of SeaWorld Inc.