‘Mama’ whale charms Morro Bay photographer

Morro Bay resident Ashala Tylor’s intimate photographs of “Mama” — the gray whale that swam three miles up the Klamath River with her baby in June to frolic 53 days before mysteriously dying — have circulated worldwide a story as magical as it is sad.

Tylor spent the summer in the 800-person town of Klamath — just 36 miles from the Oregon border — as a part-time RV park attendant, an ideal summer job for a freelance photographer hoping to explore Northern California’s wild coastline and redwood forests.

When the whales arrived in the river just outside her window on June 23, Tylor was immediately immersed in their lives.

She had photographed killer whales from a kayak in Canada and gone whale-watching in Morro Bay, but nothing compared to this 45-foot-long cetacean and 15-foot-long calf rolling and lazing in the river.

Tylor was there every day for hours on end, capturing the rainbows created by the whale’s spray; close-ups of Mama’s face and blowhole; and the boaters who nearly bumped into the whale, which never retaliated.

When the whales moved a quarter-mile upriver to play in the shadow of the Highway 101 bridge, hundreds of people gathered atop the span each day to watch in glee — running across the highway to follow the whales when they crossed to either side.

“This marine mammal emissary brought so many people together — little children giggling and screaming, people young and old just in awe,” said Tylor, who is 60, in a telephone interview with The Tribune.

According to the American Cetacean Society, gray whales can reach approximately 45 feet in length and weigh 30 to 40 tons.

News agencies such as The Associated Press used Tylor’s photographs to show the whales to the world, and thanks to a widely published image of a paddleboarder near Mama, Tylor’s Flickr account lit up with 52,000 views in one day alone. Her photo was a Sports Illustrated Picture of the Week, was No. 1 on Yahoo! News Philippines and will be featured by National Geographic online.

Tylor — who worked for 30 years as a court reporter before retiring — uploaded her photos and observations to a blog so that tourists to Klamath could stay connected with the whales after leaving.

Nearly a month after the whales arrived, for unknown reasons, the baby whale swam back to the ocean, leaving the mother circling alone. And as the river’s water level dropped, spectators’ awe turned to anxiety over Mama’s fate.

The Yurok Indians, whose reservation is along the Klamath River, as well as scientists, students, a local fire department and musicians, together tried to coax the whale back to sea. Techniques ranged from playing the calls of killer whales upriver to spraying Mama with a high-powered hose to banging pipes or serenading her with a violin — but she showed no interest in leaving.

Tylor shared a canoe with a friend, who played a flute for Mama. “She came right next to us, and this 40-ton animal ever-so-gently tapped the canoe with her tail, as if to say ‘hello,’ ” Tylor remembers.

Fittingly, her photos also captured the day of Mama’s death — which occurred at 4 a.m. Aug. 16 in the river just in front of Tylor’s RV — the same spot where the whale had first arrived.

Tylor had spent the late-night hours watching Mama swim as normal, despite being trapped on a sandbar earlier that day.

The Yurok Indians believe that when a whale swims up a river, the world is out of balance.

Experts do not know why Mama entered the river, nor why she died. Scientific studies are under way to determine the cause of death.

“To this day, I don’t know why it swam up the river,” Tylor said of Mama. However, she added: “I think there’s a reason we don’t know.”

Today the Highway 101 bridge over the Klamath River is empty of spectators. Mama’s remains are buried beneath willows beside the river, having undergone Yurok spiritual ceremonies. Next summer, the skeleton will be unearthed and turned over to the tribe.

And then Tylor, who will remain in Klamath until November — will finally get around to taking pictures of the redwoods.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune