It's hard to ignore a 40-ton humpback whale, particularly if you're personally introduced.

At least that's the hope of whale welfare workers at the Whale Adoption Project, sponsored by the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare. The idea surfaced last year when IFAW staffers performed an aerial survey of humpback whales making their annual spring return to Stellwagen Bank off the northern shores of Cape Cod.

"We were surprised to discover that the scientists called almost all of the whales by name," says IFAW executive secretary Ruth Walicki. "Each was identified by the shape or color of its tail flukes or dorsal fin."

Inspired by the scientist's personal relationship with the marine mammals, the animal welfare group developed a creative fund-raising drive modeled after those soliciting adoption of Third World children.

"Dear Friend," reads the appeal penned by IFAW director Brian Davies. "We want you to meet face-to-face with one of the largest animals ever to live on this planet. We want you to actually adopt, BY NAME, a real live Humpback Whale!"

The "whale adoption list" features names and personality sketches of 70 of the endangered species, so prospective foster ptal Studies, and to send IFAW teams wherever they must go to help stop the cruel suffering and/or needless slaughter of any of the world's remaining whales." (Only a few thousand humpbacks remain.)

Literature fans may be distressed to learn that there is neither a Moby nor a Humpback of Notre Dame--but there is an Othello. History buffs might like Churchill; for star-gazers there's Orion and for military tacticians, Domino.

Although foster parents have no special visiting privileges, they will receive "First Aid for Stranded Marine Mammals," a booklet being prepared by IFAW.

Thus, if you should come upon a beached whale, you can do more than just blubber.