A Chance Encounter

By Christine Smith

Orca at Wood Spit

Earlier in the day we were underway and heading into Holkham Bay with the intention of going for a hike on Wood Spit. Off in the distance, we spotted a couple of killer whales. They were moving fast and entering the bay. We tried to follow, but lost them as they swam quickly and entered the adjacent Endicott Arm. Jeffrey and I talked about the likelihood of seeing them again after our walk at Wood Spit.

So we anchored the David B, lowered Skiffy-a-saurus into the water, and off our group went for our walk. We poked around in tide pools and looked for bear tracks in the mud and sand. We entered the forest and felt the squish of thick moss on bear maintained trails. We identified plants and talked about ecology, and spotted a black bear.  At one point Jeffrey radioed me to say that Wilderness Ranger Chrissy was nearby and that we could meet up with her on the beach. After a little planning, we set out across the spit covered in shoulder-high ferns to meet Chrissy and talk about the wilderness area that was all around us.

While we were chit-chatting, we heard the distinct blow of a surfacing killer whale. It stopped all conversations. We watched mesmerized as two mammal-eating killer whales searched the bay for food. They came within 200 yards of the beach, and we were transfixed as they skirted shallows and searched icebergs. It was a beautiful encounter and we watched them swim round the end of the point. We thought it was the last we’d see of them…we were wrong.

We said our goodbyes to Ranger Chrissy and radioed for Jeffrey to come pick us up. On our way back to the David B, the whales surfaced next to us. For the next hour the whales showed us how to hunt seals. We sat in the skiff with the motor off. The whales swam in circles at times, or in straight lines. They alternated which one was at the surface. We watched them make a kill. Their speed and grace was amazing. It was pure nature and we got to watch. It was a chance encounter and another chance to discover more about a world we seldom see.

Orca leaving Wood Spit

Unfed – or – Whales Always Eat First

Highlights from our Whales and Marine Ecology of SE Alaska Trip with Josh McInnes

By Jeffrey Smith, Photos by Josh McInnes and Christine Smith

On the  David B we like to do what comes along. We do have a schedule like everyone else, but a lot of times we change it to respond to the moment. We don’t want to miss anything.

Male Killer Whale in Endicott Arm

So that’s why I was a little taken aback when I tried to help out another boat that was nearby so that they would see some orcas we had just spotted. When we find wildlife, especially something as cool as transient killer whales, I typically radio other boats that are nearby to make sure they’ll get a chance to see too, (and hopefully repay the favor later). Then there’s usually a radio discussion about how we can all maneuver so as not to be in each others view.

I politely, and a little excitedly made the call. Then the whales turned around, so we moved to follow them, I called again. All of our guests were out on the deck taking photos and loving the show. Josh McInnes, our guest naturalist and whale biologist was explaining what we were watching as it happened, play by play.

I finally made another call, because I wasn’t sure if the other boat was uncertain of my intentions. They seemed to be staying a long ways away. Finally she explained what they were doing:
“We’re going to be staying away from the whales for about another 20 minutes, because our guests are still eating breakfast.”

What??? I was unable to believe. How unfortunate for those folks, because in 20 minutes the orcas might slip away. Our chef was out on deck with the whales. Our galley was unoccupied. We were with whales!

Over the next few minutes the pod slipped through a narrow passage, so we followed. Then they reversed course, and swam right past us, and caught an unsuspecting harbor seal right in front of us. It was amazing. There was even a brand new unknown calf in the group. We might have been the first humans to see it. We turned around and stayed with them for almost another 30 minutes.

75 feet away from Killer Whales Having Breakfast

The happy ending of the story is that they did finally join us watching the whales, and got to see some amazing breaching, a behavior that the transients do after a kill and after they’re done eating. And we didn’t miss any meals on the David B either. It was good for everyone

I love our ability to be unscheduled. We go where the wildlife is when it’s there and happening. We actually saw the hunt, the capture and the kill. Food, for us, can wait. For the bigger boats, I understand, they need to be scheduled. But I really think our guests get a better trip.

Even if we are unfed.

Brand new Killer Whale Calf

Christine to Talk at Northwest Women in Boating’s November Meeting

Christine will be in Seattle on November 18th to give a talk about her favorite plant and animals that she sees in the San Juan Islands, Inside Passage and Alaska.

Northwest Women in Boating Talk