Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whale Tales and Tango Lines

Sunday, July 25

Very early on in our cruise, I was in Ketchikan with Sharon browsing through a delightful bookshop on Creek Street that specializes in books on Alaska, when I came across a large book devoted entirely to humpback whales. Thumbing through it, I wondered if there really could be that much information about this slow moving immense mammal to keep 436 pages interesting.

Since then, rarely a day has gone buy when we haven’t passed at least one humpback while cruising. Usually more. And I am filled with questions about the behavior of these grand animals.

Consequently, rarely a day has gone by where I also haven’t kicked myself for not buying that book when I had the chance …out in the middle of Alaskan waters … it’s hard to surf the net for answers like I normally would!

Before leaving Pelican, our friend John from Morning Mist lent us a beautifully produced PBS video about the abundant wildlife in Glacier Bay. People in Alaska seem to be both proud and generous in sharing information with “outsiders,” and I was particularly intrigued to watch the video because it included an entire section on humpback whales and how they fish for food.

For humpbacks, fishing is a team sport! A pod comprised of several whales will fish along the shores where schools of salmon tend to congregate. When they find fish they spread out to surround them and basically stun them into submission … which is when the real fun begins for spectators.

We were fascinated to watch this on the video  … but absolutely astounded the very next day to see it upfront and personal when we came upon a pod of whales in Icy Strait, after we left Pelican on our way to Sitka. So we put the boat in neutral … and in a stretch of about 20 minutes I think Roland and I took more than 400 photos between us (oh the joy of digital photos!).

First thing we saw were whales spouting. One, then another further away, and then enough that we were able to see there were at least six. Next we both heard and saw two whales next to each other pounding their huge flukes up and down in the water … bam, bam, bam, bam ... nonstop noise and spraying water. We were about a half mile away and the crack of those tails was loud, I can’t imagine what it sounded like to the salmon below.

No sooner had the tail flapping stopped that we saw one of the whales breach straight up and out of the water. And then another one breached next to him.
Within a few minutes, the whales had tightened into a line around their prey … the tail flapping began again, simultaneously another whale breached, while others next to him were surfacing and spouting … all in a line.

It was a phenomenal display … and with a smile I couldn’t help but think of those tango lines you see at weddings where everyone does their own dance move. Just a simple act of nature … an experience I will never forget.

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Engelenbak is a custom-built 62-foot steel trawler ... designed to cruise anywhere in the world.