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.
Tin Hat Update – Putting on the Hat
We reached a major milestone in the Tin Hat Project this week, we put on the hat.
Early Tuesday morning just in time for sunrise we got underway. It was cold, sunny and beautiful on Bellingham Bay as we moved the David B from our slip in Squalicum Harbor to the Landings at Colony Wharf where a crane was ready to lift the Tin Hat from the shore and place it on the David B. Check out our latest video update to see us driving the David B as a convertible, the Tin Hat being lifted and set in place, and then heading back to our slip.
Now that The Hat is on, we have a lot of work to do to get it outfitted and ready to go for spring! We hope you’ll keep following our progress and maybe even come along on a trip with us in Alaska, the Inside Passage or in the San Juan Islands this summer to experience for yourself the new and improved David B!
Dalls porpoises riding on the David B’s Bow
Something I look forward to every year when we are running trips on the David B are the occasional visits by Dalls porpoises. These mid-sized sea mammals that looks deceptively like baby killer whales love to surf bow wakes. We often see them in the Inside Passage and Alaska. Usually they are foraging for fish, but sometimes, they turn their attention to the David B. It begins with seeing their characteristic rooter-tail splashing a ways off, and with surprising speed, they soon rush up alongside of the boat, and then they begin jockeying for the prime spot just in front of the boat’s stem. It’s a thrill to watch their speed and their agility.
Here’s a little complication of a few of the amazing experiences we’ve had with surfing Dalls porpoises.
Bowriders on the David B
The ice mountain is well disposed toward you
There’s often a cold breeze blowing off the glacier when we arrive to admire it’s icy blue front. Wind that can make July feel like January. It plays games with my seasonal clock. I remember one time while watching Dawes glacier, a guest told me he was going to go river rafting in a week when he got home. I gave him a quizzical look. It took me a moment to remember that it was July, and the rest of the North America was enjoying water slides and shaved ice, not icebergs sliding into sea water.
Visiting a tidewater glacier in Alaska is pilgrimage. You go observe something bigger than yourself in nature. It’s something you need do. For us, getting to the glacier is part of the journey. It’s more than just checking it off as a bucket-list item. On the David B, we are tuned into the rhythm of the glacier and the ebb and flow of the tide as it carries discarded icebergs up and down the fjord. We watch the glacier’s ever-changing snout and it’s mood. We’re aware that the glacier sometimes makes us work hard for our visit by packing the fjord densely with ice shed from its towering face. Sometimes its bergs are enormous – big like a building. Sometimes they are small – like a basketball. Some are white, some are blue, some have dirt and rocks riding along. Some have seals nursing their young. Some are clear and difficult to see. (We call those sneakers.)
Iceberg sizes have official names too. Most of the ice we see in Endicott Arm or Tracy Arm are growlers, less than 1 meter above the water and and less than 5 meters long. We also see lots bergie bits that are up to 4 meters above the water and and 14 meters long. The small and medium
icebergs, which range in size from 15 meters high to 45 meters high are often floating at the entrance to the fjords. The large and very large icebergs, which top out at over 75 meters high are rare.
Picking our way though the ice is always a challenge, and depending on the mood of the glacier, it can make for a long day. When we travel to a tidewater glacier, we always have two hopes. The first one is that the ice in the fjord will be light and the work of getting there will be easy. The second hope is that when we arrive, the glacier will awaken, and as Captain Tyeen said to John Muir in 1880, when they first saw Dawes Glacier, “The ice mountain is well disposed toward you. He is firing his big guns to welcome you.”
This past year we had several good visits to Dawes glacier, the ice was light and the glacier did fire its “big guns,” but one day stood out. It was a cool day with a strong wind coming off the glacier. Travel was relatively easy. Jeffrey piloted the David B to about 400 meters from Dawes’s formidable blue-white front. The feeling is always the same for me. I feel really small when I’m face to face with Dawes, which towers like a wide-angle skyscraper. At 400 meters, the wind, as if laughing at our smallness, pushed us back away from icy Dawes. We were the only boat there. Jeffrey re-positioned the David B several times, and each time we faced the glacier again. Our reward came with patience, hot coffee, mittens, and hats. The glacier became well disposed toward us and began to “fire it’s big guns”.
It started with a cracking and a rushing sound. Ice sloughed off the center-right side dumping a cascade of bergie bits and growlers. It continued and dumped some more, then something big broke, and more bergie bits and maybe even a small or medium iceberg was cast away from Dawes. The sounds and the sight made my heart beat quickly with excitement. Soon the waves arrived with a long low gentle role. We moved in sync with the nearby growlers and bergie bits.
When the show began to slow up, Jeffrey moved us into the wind one more time. It was time to go. The ice mountain was good to us, other boats were approaching, and a hot bowl of chili and sweet cast-iron-baked cornbread with melting butter was waiting in the galley.
Tin Hat Update – Mast, Stairs, and Coolers
There’s been a lot of progress on the Tin Hat Project in the last couple of weeks. We ended our 2016 cruising season on October 9th, and starting on October 10th with the help of some friends and family, we began removing everything from the David B to prepare for the new pilothouse.
We also welcomed back employees Greg K. who worked for us on the original rebuild project 12-years ago, and Tim A. who’s worked with us off and on for ten years as both a kayak guide and a jack-of-all-trades.
One of our first big projects was to remove the mast. It took a day or so of preparation before we
took the boat to Seaview North Boatyard. The weather was perfect. We pulled into the bay where we are usually hauled out of the water, but instead of having the TraveLift pick us up, they brought out a large crane came. The crew then set up some rigging and in less than half an hour, the mast was lifted out of the boat and onto ground. Later we removed all the hardware and bucked up the mast. Back in 2006 when we placed on the boat we followed an ancient tradition of placing coins under a new mast. The lore is that if the boat ever goes under and the crew lost, the crew will have money to pay the ferryman to cross the River Styx. After the mast was removed, Jeffrey carefully picked up the coins and stowed them away until the new mast is installed. We’ll be sure to add a 2017 coin to commemorate the year of the new mast.
Back the boat, Greg has been making the new Grand Staircase that leads to the cabins, and Tim’s been removing structures from the boat, like the skylight, navigation station, and pilothouse trim. He’s also been helping Jeffrey lay the ground work for the new systems.
The new custom fridge and freezer, which Eli S. began work on in the spring, moved out of the shop and onto the boat.
While we’ve been busy on the boat and in the shop, the actual Tin Hat has been in construction. Sean and Nigel from Fluid Fabrication, in Bellingham have been working hard welding the structure.
There’s been a lot going and we’ve been thankful for all the help we’ve had so far. The first few days were filled with lots of mundane things, like carting load after load of David B stuff up the dock and into the storage locker. Thank you to Carol and Steve W., Dan K., Craig T. Jack M. and Eli S. for helping to make that workload much lighter!
PS- Here’s a video of removing the David B’s mast:
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.
Verney Falls in August
When we enter Nettle Basin on our Southbound Inside Passage cruise between Ketchikan and Bellingham, we always hope we’ll find bears at Verney Falls. In mid-August the salmon come home to spawn here and the bears come for the feast.
Nettle Basin, at the base of the falls will be alive with hundreds of splashing salmon. Sometimes we’ll kayak right up to the waterfall to watch eagles, ravens, and bears feeding on the salmon. It’s exciting to watch bears fishing but I’ve often found myself more mesmerized by the great schools of salmon that gather in the pool at the base of the waterfall. When they jump, it sends a splash of water on to me and my kayak and as they swim their fins cut the surface like sharks.
There’s a lot of energy packed into in this small space. It’s nature’s raw energy of life and survival. I find myself rooting for both the fish and the bears, and I root for the eagles and the ravens too. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama at the waterfall, it’s why we like to come here.
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.
Project Management Mastery – The Inside Passage Project
New Project Management Course Offered on the David B
Cheetah Learning Services has partnered with Northwest Navigation Co, to offer a unique new project management certification course. This course, Project Management Mastery – The Inside Passage Project recognizes that a long voyage requires a large amount of planning and strategy and yet it encapsulates all the concepts of Project Management with a strong emphasis on Risk Management and Team Building. The course is a 12-day voyage through the Inside Passage to Alaska and takes place aboard the Motor Vessel David B.
The instructor, Captain Jeffrey Smith will guide participants in learning to make real time decisions, and to play a part both as a member of the technical team producing the deliverables but also as a manager assessing the execution of the project/voyage as well. Cheetah Learning Service’s founder Michelle LaBrosse, CCPM, PMP, PMI-ACP, RYT, and Northwest Navigation’s Captain Jeffrey, developed the Project Management Mastery – The Inside Passage Project after Ms. LaBrosse attended his Learn to Cruise – Passage to Alaska course.
The concept behind Project Management Mastery– The Inside Passage Project is to utilize the skills that Captain Jeffrey Smith has acquired over 20 years as professional mariner in the context of project management so that the participant learns to engage his/her skills in planning, sourcing, risk management and team building.
Project Management Mastery – The Inside Passage Project – 12-Days – Northbound
May 7-18, 2016 – Bellingham, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska
May 6-17, 2017 – Bellingham, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska
Project Management Mastery – The Inside Passage Project – 12-Days – Southbound
August 11-22, 2016 – Ketchikan, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington
August 10-21, 2017 – Ketchikan, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington
Credit: – 60 PDU or 6 CEU
Tuition: – $6200 USD
About Cheetah Learning Services:
Cheetah Learning – Headquartered in Carson City, Nevada, Cheetah Learning has training centers around the world and is a proven global leader in Project Management Performance Improvement and Project Manager Professional Development. Cheetah was founded in 1999 with the commitment to enable people to achieve significant bottom line improvements, fast.
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.