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In 1995 a Bryde’s whale nicknamed Willy swam up the Manning River near Taree in Northern NSW.

No one is quite sure why Willy swam up the river; however one popular theory suggests that he was associated with a group of dolphins feeding near a sandbar across the mouth of the Manning River. On the evening of 16 August, the dolphins crossed the sand-bar with Willy following. Because of their smaller size, the sandbar posed no threat to the dolphins but it was a different story for Willy. The dolphins eventually swam back out to sea. Willy didn’t.

For the next 101 days Willy roamed the river, swimming as much as 30km upstream, where the salinity of the water is low. Residents watched as the whale breached and tail slapped in the river. Patrons at Foggs Pub at Taree got a shock when they looked out across the river to see a whale.

Several attempts to lure Willy back to the ocean were made. Killer whale songs were played in an attempt to scare Willy downstream, a series of markers were set up to try and guide him back to open water and boats were used to try to herd him towards the river mouth. However, Willy simply snuck under the boats and headed back upstream. He also managed to avoid the nets set up to catch him. 

Eventually Willy became stranded on a sandbar and was rescued by NSW National Parks staff, Sea World and ORRCA (Organisation for the rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia) and many community volunteers.

In an Australian first, Willy was successfully loaded onto an inflatable pontoon built by Sea World and towed 2km out to sea where he was released. Willy’s flukes were last seen disappearing into deeper water off the NSW coast.