Watching Humpback Whales Feed
On our way from Farragut Bay where we picked up our week’s supply of organic veggies, one of our guests noticed a whale’s spout. We stopped for a few minutes and we were rewarded with the opportunity to watch two humpback whales working together to trap schools of fish in nets made by blowing air bubbles.
A Chance Encounter
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some days are simply perfect. The weather’s warm. The skies are blue. The water flat calm, and the line between sea and sky is almost indistinguishable. We had a day like that in August. It was the kind of day that happens every-so-often in the temperate rain-forest climate of southeast Alaska. It was the kind of day where all the conditions were just right for watching humpback whales. Not only could we stop to watch, but we were able to turn off the engine and drift silently. Without background noise from the boat, we were able to experience something different. All around us, and spread out over several miles were humpback whales in groups of two or three, and alone. All foraging. When they would surface, their breath would make an explosive “swooshing” sound. Atomized water particles hung still in the air marking the spot where they had come up. It was hard to know where to look. The sounds of whales surrounded the boat. They would sometimes surface near to the David B. Other times they’d be distant. We just drifted upon the open water; watching, listening, observing.
Our only real plan for that day was to anchor in the evening somewhere at Admiralty Island or Baranof Island. We didn’t have any concrete plans for the day. Having an itinerary means you have to get somewhere, and when nature presents something beautiful and awe inspiring to enjoy, an itinerary means you just have to put on your blinders and keep going. So there we were, sitting around listening to whales. We’d also dropped a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) over the side. The small amplifier on deck that the hydrophone was plugged to revealed all kinds of whale sounds from funny-bawdy to ethereal. From my spot on deck, I could see couple of whales surfacing about a quarter mile away. It soon became evident that they were heading our direction. Everyone on deck turned their attention to these whales. They moved in a straight line. We watched. Each time they broke the surface, they were closer. Soon, one whales was close enough to see it under water –it’s long pectoral fins faintly glowing against the deep dark water. Over the amplifier, a couple barking sounds and some bubbles could be heard. Then a few seconds later, a whale surfaced just off our starboard side. It lifted it’s fluke high and dove under the boat. Farther aft, the second whale surfaced and dove as well. There was a moment of joy, then wonder. I wondered why they chose that path? Where were they going? What did the sounds mean? How long would they remain under water? Where would they surface next?
A few minutes later they surfaced again along the same line. I assumed they were traveling to a spot with more food, but I don’t really know what they were doing or planning. We hung around a little while longer. Jeffrey started the engine up, and we picked our way around other foraging whales. In the evening, we anchored in a little cove at Baranof Warm Springs Bay. As I made dinner, I reflected on the day, our luck, and I thought to myself, “it couldn’t possibly get any better than this.“
Please note – For full screen click on video, then click on” [ ]” in lower right corner.
Watching whales in the Inside Passage
On the second day of one of our southbound Learn to Cruise trips, we came across these two humpback whales foraging near the shore of Dundas Island. As they foraged we stayed a respectful distance to make sure we didn’t disturb them, but we were close enough that with binoculars and a good camera lens we got to see the individual markings on their flukes (tails) when they dove. When they surfaced, we could see the baleen in their mouths that they use to strain the fish or krill that they were eating.
It was fascinating to watch. The whales would often surface close to shore and my guess is that they were probably using the rocks underwater to help school their prey. We stayed with the whales for 20-30 minuets before heading on to Prince Rupert. Besides these two humpback whales we saw two others, several harbor seals, lots of different sea birds, and many bald eagles.
Waiting for humpback whales
I always feel like there’s sort of a Jack-in-the-box element to watching humpback whales forage. When they are at the surface we can see them breathing, flapping their flippers, or slapping their flukes (tails), but when they dive, it’s anybody’s guess as to where they’ll surface next.
I like to think about the wait between surfacing as a time to refocus my attention on my surroundings. I know that they will be beneath the surface for 3-7 minutes. They’ll be rounding up forage fish and doing the things that whales do — the stuff we can’t see. In that time, I like to think about where they’ll come back up, or how funny it is that there are these enormous animals so close, (only a few hundred of feet away) and yet I can’t see them. I like to look into the water for passing jelly fish, or a tangle of kelp that slips along in the current. I watch the gulls for cues about where the whales are. On occasion when they swim right beneath us, the bubbles of their breath will bounce up along the David B’s planks –a reminder that somewhere, just a out-of-sight, but oh, so close, there are whales. I refocus my attention to the whales. I wonder how long ago they were under the boat. I wonder what direction they are going. I calculate the time. I lift my camera and wait. I wait for the thrill of hearing the explosive breath again and seeing these usually invisible giants. It’s like a Jack-in-the-box.