- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

SYDNEY, Australia A $500 million project to clean Sydney Harbor paid dividends when three rare southern right whales entertained residents with an unprecedented visit deep into the harbor where they frolicked and mated.
Commuters riding a ferry to the central business district from outlying areas got an added bonus for their $1.40 fare at the end of last month. Even rush-hour ferries stopped for 10 to 15 minutes as passengers put down their newspapers and vied for viewing spots of the mating whales.
"It was amazing," said passenger Julian Walsh. "The captain announced the whales over the PA system, and there was a ministampede to the port side of the boat."
Those who missed the morning session took their lunches to catch the afternoon show from a ferry, a choice spot on shore or from the Harbor Bridge.
"This is the first time in recorded history that any whale, not just the southern right whale, has come this far up the harbor," said Robert Bird, the area manager for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
"The water quality has improved, and that's certainly one factor in bringing whales and other sea life back into the harbor."
The government's $250 million Northside Storage Tunnel project has stopped 1.3 billion gallons of sewage, the equivalent of 5,000 Olympic-size pools, from entering the harbor since it began in 2000. A $50 million program to filter rubbish from storm water has also helped to reduce pollution, said Bob Debus, environment minister for New South Wales.
The endangered southern right whales, which grow up to 60 feet long, swam past the Opera House, under the Harbor Bridge and as far as a half-mile west of the bridge. Later in the afternoon, they started to make their way out of the harbor.
"They came in to mate and they did it," Mr. Bird said. The third whale had left the harbor earlier.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are between 1,500 and 4,000 southern right whales. Whalers termed them the "right" whales to kill because they are slow, come in close to shore and are rich in oil and blubber. After almost being hunted into extinction, they were the first of the large whales to be protected in 1935.
The behavior of the Sydney Harbor visitors gave no sign they were suffering from stress, Mr. Bird said. He said they displayed their comfort by breaching lifting their barnacled heads out of the water and rolling on one side with a fin out of the water to rest.
Whales swim north along the Australian coast to warmer waters to mate and then swim back south from June to September. Mr. Bird said it is unusual to see a pod of southern right whales, which usually travel alone.

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