Humpback whales

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Back in the 1970s, I built a little cabin overlooking Sumner Strait from the very north tip of Prince of Wales Island at Mile 742. The tidal current sort of made a big sharp turn there at the point and the current seemed to always ball up herring close to shore. The result was that most summer days at least one whale was working in the rip right in front of my cabin and sometimes two. They were so close that if there was no wind and if the tide wasn;t running hard enough to make noise, I could lay in my bed at night actually hear them breathing out in the strait as they came up for air.

2 whales crossingSometimes, usually at night for some reason, a ball of herring would wander into the narrow entrance to the constricted harbor at Point Baker, just a half mile from my cabin, and usually the whale or whales would just follow the herring right in. The harbor isn’t very deep so when they whales did come in, they would bump against the hulls of anchored boats or boats tied up to the floating bar, sometimes hitting them hard enough to throw the fishermen inside almost right out of their bunks.

For many years the same whale would come each summer – we could tell by the distinctive chew marks on his tail. That one got the nickname of Ma Baker. There were a lot of small outboard boats operating of Point Baker, trolling for salmon, and once Ma Baker came up under one of the small boats, lifting it briefly completely out of the water, much to the surprise and anxiety of the couple in the boat!

And once I was exploring remote Kootznahoo Inlet on the west side of Admiralty Island. I had anchored up for the night when I noticed a Buoy whale blowingschool of herring starting to flip around my boat. And sure enough, a few minutes later, here comes a humpback, winding through the very tight entrance, following the fish with the incoming tide. He hung around chowing down on the herring until the tide changed and the current started running out of the inlet, and just followed the current out into the deeper, open water outside.

What’s the best place to see whales? Well, in reality, they are pretty much everywhere along the coast of British Columbia and Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. And the good thing is that they are easy to spot, as being mammals like us, they breathe air, and have to surface, exhaling as they do, creating the familiar plume of water vapor as in, “Thar’ she blows!”

Many cruise ships have a naturalist on board with a pager, so that if whales are spotted from the bridge, the naturalist can be paged to narrate the whale sighting over the loudspeakers… But.. there are a lot of a activities aboard ship and sometimes the staff doesn’t like to be disturbed by whale announcements. So the best way to see whales is to carry your binoculars with you when you leave your cabin if you have them, and to keep your eyes peeled, as you can see a whales spout from almost a mile away.

Mile 510 HS bowtieThe second night aboard most Alaska cruises is often formal night and when the Captain might host a cocktail party. Consequently, many folks spend getting dressed, getting their hair done, having their picture taken, but forgetting to take a walk out on deck of see if they are any whales about. When I’ve been aboard on such nights, I always see whales out there, almost begging for attention1

Humpacks are gregarious, often traveling tHump breachogether, often with mother and calf, and have all sorts of behavior that you might be able to observe. The most dramatic is breaching when they leap, sometimes totally out of the water, often multiple times once they start, making a loud boom and very dramatic splash when they hit the water again. It is common Flipper vertenough that on all the many Alaska cruises that I have been on, I have seen at lest one breach. Another common activity is a flipper roll, when they lay just beneath the surface and basically wave a flipper in the air, literally like they are waving.

The most dramatic activity that whales do is called bubble feeding, sort of a group effort to herd a school of herring into a compact, easy to eat bunch. A number of whales – sometimes as many as five or six – circle the school of herring as they exhale slowly, creating a ring of bubbles which serves to concentrate them. Then the whales open their mouths and shoot up vertically through the school, often erupting on the surface in a very dramatic display!

The humpbacks that you see along the Northwest coast in the summer are chowing down on herring, etc, building up their body fat so that they can spend the winter in the waters off Hawaii, which are much warmer, but with much less available food. Kind of like some Alaska commercial fishermen..!