Just as humans do aboard massive cruise ships, humpback whales migrate to Southeastern Alaska’s coastal waters throughout the summer months. From May through September humpbacks feed off Alaska’s nutrient-rich waters, which provide a strong food source for these marine mammals. Humpbacks are seasonal feeders, for they feed all summer long in these waters and fast during the winter, when they migrate to warmer waters to breed and give birth.
The humpback whale is just one lure of Southeastern Alaska in the summer. Of course the beautiful waterways, fjords, snow capped peaks, and glaciers are the other draw. From cruise ship, the most popular way of traveling the inside passage, all of these things can be viewed directly. Traveling in this manner only grants a short stop at each port on land, leaving most of Alaska a mystery to those aboard. Cruising doesn’t suit everyone’s traveling preference; other options of exploring Alaska’s waterways include the Alaska Marine Highway System, daily boat tour excursions, and chartered boats.
I wanted to spend a long length of time exploring Alaska’s wilderness, and thought no better way to do so than guiding tourists and sharing my love for the outdoors. Of course the landscape and wild were huge attractions to me, but the main source of my interest, which really surged after spending time in Alaska’s waters, was the humpback whale.
I was guiding kayak tours daily in Fritz Cove, north Douglas Island, just a short drive from Juneau, Alaska. Because these waters were shallow they weren’t common grounds for deep diving marine giants like whales, rather perfect for a short leisurely paddle amongst bald eagles and harbor seals.
My first whale sightings began as I stood on the back of the Taku ferry, traveling from Skagway to Juneau (Juneau only being accessible by boat or plane). From a large ferry boat getting a good glimpse of a whale is difficult, as whales move and dive quickly and the captain has other things on his mind. This is what initiated my fascination, though, whales diving at a distance and never getting the perfect view. I literally spent my nights dreaming about paddling right up to these magnificent giants. My dreams didn’t become reality for many months to come.
I had read that one of the best places to view whales from land in Juneau was St. Therese Shrine, located about ten miles north of Auke Bay. Every time I frequented this spot I heard blasting blows and gazed at the shimmering humped backs of the brilliant creatures, always letting out a squeal myself and attempting to capture a raw photo. I still don’t know whether a figment of my imagination, but one day I swore I saw a young calf breach just off shore. Somehow my whale fascination became fuzzy, confusing dreams with reality. Five minutes later and not far from the estimated splash though, I saw a whale come up for air.
Humpback whales feed continuously off Alaska’s shores for about twenty-three hours per day, fattening up in the summer for their grand migration to Hawaii or Mexico in the winter where they won’t be eating, rather focused on mating and rearing young. Common sightings off Juneau’s shoreline include solitary whales, mother and calf traveling together, or even sometimes a group of whales, mostly comprised of male escorts competing for female attention. The whales of course must surface often for breath, in which they may come up anywhere from 1-10 times repetitively before diving to fill their large baleen filters with food beneath.
By whale watching boats that depart Juneau daily, (my favorite a locally owned company named Dolphin Jetboat Tours) one may be lucky enough to see some tails (flukes) during a deep dive, pectoral fin slapping the surface in happy whales, and even breaching whales, in which the whale propels himself out of the water and into the air, giving a full view of the whale’s enormous body. By their activities and beautiful song, it’s quite clear to viewers that whales have a mind and personality of their own. Every day they successfully spread their calmness and happiness to the people gleaming. Witnessing the beautiful creatures’ activities stems deep fascination in whales by many watching.
Another magnificent and common sight from June through July is when groups of whales, whom normally feed independently, group together and feed cohesively, sharing the feast. In this mysterious feeding pattern, whales dive deeply underwater, begin blowing bubbles and singing underneath the fish they hope to consume, and swim upwards. All of the whale heads then emerge on the water’s surface as they extend their throat pleats to fill with water and food. Called bubble-net feeding, this behavior is thought to be a recent phenomenon, is certainly a stunning sight to witness, and is still exciting whale experts themselves.
Humpback whales begin to disappear and migrate south starting in September. Sitka, Alaska, an island farther west along open ocean, receives a sudden surge of whales from late fall to early winter. Perhaps this is one of the late feeding grounds before humpbacks travel farther south to their breeding grounds. I chose to hop on the ferry (Alaska Marine Highway system) and follow the whales. After posting on craigslist that I was hoping to borrow a kayak, I was lucky enough to have a nice fellow offer me his boat for my week stay in Sitka. Close to Silver Bay is a Whale Park with viewing platforms, binoculars, and a broken hydrophone with potential to listen for whale songs. I found a quaint spot to push in not far from there, hoping this would be the best location to encounter some humpbacks. After about two hours of slow leisure paddling I heard a loud blow, followed by a tower of water and air spewing, then witnessed a giant whale back and dorsal fin blast the water. I was so excited, and instantly began following the whale.
The humpback was moving relatively fast, diving and staying underwater for about eight minute increments before exposing himself at the surface and taking breathes. I didn’t realize how difficult following a whale by small arm-powered boat would be, so I traveled at a great distance behind the whale. After about an hour of witnessing blows, a few flukes, and dives, I got a bit behind and slowed as I headed back to shore. Not long after I began to hear some loud eruptions and monstrous spurts emerging from the water, but no whale was to be seen, something I had never witnessed before. I sped up my stroke, hoping to get closer and discover what was going on. A huge surge of activity broke from this place, where gigantic pectoral fins from not one, but two whales starting slapping, followed by breaches, and some full whale rolls and somersaults. Notes of whale song began to fill my eardrums as the whales started to get closer and closer to my small, humble kayak. Eventually just some twenty feet away or so, I was locked between two humpback whales, likely a singer and joiner who were certainly interacting with one another.
Positioned in the exact equation I had dreamed all summer, I felt much more fearful than excitement. While I was in complete awe of the spectacle surrounding, I was suddenly bewildered by the whales’ enormous sizes. A teardrop fell from my right eye as the humungous whale began to fluke slap repetitively, at least twenty times or so, the vibration and splash rocking my boat. Not sure whether the whales were conscious of my presence, were sending me a warning, or just playing with each other, my long awaited experience became encompassed by dread. I turned and began paddling as fast as I could away, still trying to keep my mesmerized eye on what was going on between the whales much too close by. I felt alone, but a part of the miraculous festivities.
Once again I had found myself humbled by nature; my small power compared to the grand natural forces around me, in which I have no control. I am now ashamed by my fear of the graceful animal. I somewhat hope to witness a similar spectacle another time in my life, but this of course is very unlikely. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. My excitement quickly turned to fear, making my summer awaited dream turn a bit more intimidating than I had ever anticipated.
Again, I pack my bags and follow the humpback whale south, trying to overcome my newly discovered fear of the beautiful, singing humpback whale which will continue to marvel humans for some time to come.