Stephens Passage and a Secret Stash of Humpback Whales

There are many special places we go to on the David B, and some, like Stephens Passage, might not seem so out-of-the-way. It’s a place where we often spot a cruise ship, but they are on a busy schedule rushing to their next port. What they and their passengers don’t know is that we’re often tucked into some quiet spot with a secret stash of humpback whales. Imagine, cruising through calm waters and seeing a group of six or more spouts; all of them over ten feet high. It might take us a half hour or so to get close to the spouting whales, but when we do, you’ll be treated to sights and sounds that are beautifully haunting. The sound that the humpbacks make as they feed is indescribable – a sort of whooshing sound that fills the whole of the ocean and penetrates your soul.

Humpback Whale Surfacing
Humpback Whale Surfacing Near the David B in Stephens Passage

In the summer months, Stephens Passage, and Frederick Sound are home to well over a hundred humpback whales that return year after year to feed on the abundant krill and herring. The whales that migrate to Southeast Alaska spend somewhere around six months fattening themselves up for their trip back to Hawaii, where they will breed and give birth.

One of my favorite days in 2010 was whale watching on our Southbound Alaska Inside Passage cruise. On the third day we left our anchorage in Holkham Bay and crossed Stephens Passage towards Gambier Bay on Admiralty Island. I don’t want to give away all of our secret details, but about seven nautical miles north of the entrance to Gambier, Jeffrey spotted whales. There were two. We slowed down to watch. Jeffrey took the David B out of gear. Our antique Washington Iron Works engine, idled with a quiet, soothing pop-pop, pop-pop, instead of it’s regular ching-ching-ching. We all went out on deck. The sun was high and the weather warm enough to be in shorts. We watched as the whales dove, schooled fish near the shore, and then surfaced. They slowly headed past us, up Seymore Canal. We spent about a half hour watching as they headed north.

With the coast clear, Jeffrey was ready to continue on to our evening’s destination, but before he could put the boat in gear, four more humpbacks surfaced out of nowhere. Instead of powering up, he went below and shut down the engine. The whooshing sounds of the whales breath seemed amplified. The sound was everywhere. It was hard to know where to look.

“Hey guys,” I said to Jeffrey and Sonya who were standing next to me. “There are bubbles coming up the side of the boat, hurry. Look.” We leaned over the side a bit to watch a“bubble net” that a whale was making somewhere deep beneath the David B.

Jeffrey was excited as he explained how humpbacks expelled air bubbles around schools of fish to concentrate them for a big gulp. He went on to explain that we sometimes see bubble netting done by a group of humpbacks that are feeding together.

“Where will it surface?” Sonya asked?”

“It’s hard to know, but I’m sure it will pop-up somewhere nearby,” Jeffrey added. “Maybe we should go watch the whales from the top of the pilothouse roof. We’ll get a better view from up there.”

Atop of the pilothouse we had a 360 degree view of the four whales near us, and the spouts of whales miles away. The sounds of whales near and far rolled across the surface of Stephens Passage like distant thunder. It always feels so good to sit in silence and watch whales. It’s an honor for us to get to be alone on the David B and observe these great creatures, I thought as the slow parade of humpbacks went past. We were even treated to a school of Dall’s Porpoises that moved quickly along the shore feeding on fish. Their small staccato breaths filled up the quiet between surfacing whales. A couple of bald eagles circled in the sun and hunted closer to shore.

I love watching whales like this with our passengers. It’s relaxing knowing that we don’t have tight set schedule, like the big cruise ship companies. It’s what makes our trips special — taking the time to observe, listen, and talk, often in hushed voices, as if a magic spell made by the whales will be broken if we speak too loudly.

Humpback Whale Spouts
Humpback Whale Spouts off the Back of the David B

In time the whales had all moved on, and we were again, ready to go. Jeffrey fired up the engine and again we headed towards Gambier Bay. We’d gone about 5 nautical miles, when we spotted more spouts. This time a group of six humpbacks were cooperatively bubble netting. We slowed and watched as they surfaced in unison; mouths wide open and water running from baleen plates. It was a rush to see those huge bodies lunging together. Everyone laughed with delight and we stayed on with them as the surfaced three or four more times.

Later on in the evening as we sat around the dinner table, we reminisced about the whales, and how lucky we were with our own secret stash of humpback whales, far away from the mainstream cruise lines.