Alaska Humpback Whale Encounter
For maximum delight, I recommend watching the video first, without any preparation for what it shows. The focus is in and out and the lighting is bad, but there are reasons for this. It’s less than a minute-and-a-half long. Mark, set, go.
One of the goals of my recent visit to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge was to enjoy a day off with Mike. He’s twice taken the skiff out to Granite Island at the head of the bay, between Aialik and Northwestern fjords. There’s terrific scenery along the way and, once there, a good place to catch rock fish just off the island. I had not yet been there in the skiff, and Mike was eager to share this trip with me.
The first day we planned to go, we woke up to thick fog down to the deck, the proverbial pea soup. Not the best condition in which to sightsee, so we opted to stay in camp and work. The fog eventually burned off, revealing a clear blue sky and bright sunshine, which along with calm seas is a somewhat rare and special day in this part of the world. We worried we might have missed our chance, but the forecast was similar for the next day, and we decided we’d go, even if we again woke to fog.
We did, and we did: We awoke to fog, and we went anyway.
The trip that usually takes Mike an hour took us three hours as we putt-putt-putted slowly in and out of coves, keeping the shore in sight so as not to get lost in the soup. Every now and again, the fog would thin, and we’d see outlines and shadows of the tops of mountains above us. Rock formations rose up out of the mist as if by magic, and I thought that this, all by itself, was exciting and beautiful. If the fog didn’t burn off, this would still be a good trip.
And then, not far away, we saw a dark shape rise above the water then melt back into it. We knew what it was: a humpback whale. There were two: a larger and a smaller one, a female with a calf. Like us, they seemed to be following the shoreline. It was just sixty feet deep where we were, and they seemed to be resting, staying up near the surface, breathing frequently. We putted along with them for a while, never forgetting to keep the shore in sight; it was still very foggy. Our paths began to converge, so we turned off the motor and sat still.
The boat rocked gently and waves swished on and off the rocky coast. Occasionally a gull squawked, and every so often a sharp pwhoooo exhaled not far away. We watched the dark backs of the whales rise and fall, coming quite close–fifty feet, I estimated–to where we bobbed in our little boat.
Then they seemed to disappear; although, there had been no evidence of a deep dive. They can remain under water for twenty minutes, so we sat, waited, and listened. The fog snugged in around us. Mike claimed he could still see land, but I could only hear the waves lapping gently on shore. No sights. Few sounds. Just us rocking in a boat. Serene.
The next thing we noticed was a vague dark shape several feet underwater, not far from the boat. I could make out the white spots that are barnacles and scars and whatnot on a whale’s skin, but my first thought was that it was just a jellyfish. The spots were gone before the second thought surfaced in my brain.
But then it made a second pass, a bit closer to the surface. This time, I could make out the shape, particularly the tail, and I was keenly aware of how much bigger it was than our boat:
A humpback whale can be 50 feet long; our boat is 18 feet long.
A humpback whale can weigh 40 tons; our boat might weigh…what?…half a ton?
If it had a mind to, it could flip our boat with nothing more than a shrug. Who knows what kind of day it was having. Mike was thinking along the same lines. “Is your life jacket zipped?” he asked. Of course it was.
It came back for a third pass, this time breaking the surface. My camera was on and at the ready. If you listened to the video, you know we both saw it underwater as it rose up right beside us. I sound breathless in the video, which I probably am; although, I am also whispering because that’s what you do around wildlife. But even as I type this now, almost a week later, I inhale deeply and my stomach feels hollow at the recollection. What a thrill! Awesome, exciting, scary. Amazing.
I could have reached out and touched its tail.
And the day was young. Though this was unquestionably the highlight, the next six hours weren’t too shabby, either. More about that next time.