Sharing the Sea: (Too Close) Encounters with Whales

29 07 2011

Cap’n J and I spent the past 12 days chasing coho. They’re always on the move, searching for a steady food source, and they travel incognito, invisible to our above-water existence. But the meal plan they’re looking for, from tiny shrimp-like krill to massive schools of herring, is equally as compelling to other creatures.  Whales, sea lions, porpoises, diving birds, gulls, puffins; the oxygen-dependent are our indicators of the richness of a particular place. They reveal the presence of our target species as effectively as a Hide-and-Seek player with a bad case of the hiccups. As one of our fishing partners says about these spots, “Lotta good groceries here,” and all of the ocean dwellers shop at the same store.

Some travel great distances to find these particular groceries. Southeast Alaska is the summer getaway for thousands of humpback whales. They cruise up for months of easy feeding, bulk up their blubber, and then head south for winter breeding off the coasts of Hawaii and Mexico. A schedule not unlike many fishermen.

In our island communities, where humans always have one foot in the sea, humpbacks are welcome seasonal residents. Each as individually distinct and recognizable as a Down South-based boat pulling back through the breakwater: I see so-and-so’s back in town. The first spouts on the horizon whoosh assurance that summer is actually on its way, while the final arching tails heave goodbyes like great sighs of relief.  Their role in our community is honored with November’s annual Whalefest, now on its fifteenth year. Renowned whale biologist Jan Straley lives here, keeping Southeast at the forefront of cetacean study. We’ve got the Sitka Sound Science Center.  There’s a fantastic website of humpback info, thanks to all of this local expertise and research, here. Sitkans are serious about whales.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has mandated that all vessels maintain a 100 yard distance from whales. A good rule for safe viewing, these regulations are in everyone’s best interest – theirs and ours. Life gets a little too exciting sometimes, when the creatures under protection aren’t interested in maintaining that distance. Graceful, brilliant, confident, curious, and so much more belonging to the environment than us, they seem utterly unconcerned with our presence.

I can’t explain the unusual attraction humpbacks have for us. Maybe it’s our similar size – our 43 foot vessel is right there with their 39 to 52 foot length.  The Nerka is a double-ender, pointy V-shaped ends at both bow and stern, and maybe they like our curves. Could be that the red of our bottom paint is especially provocative.  I can’t explain the attraction, but it’s real: I’ve had far more close encounters in the 6 years I’ve been on the Nerka, than on 16 years’ of previous boat experience.

Most encounters are benign. Several might pace us as we troll along at 2.5 knots, spouting 50 feet off the side, lollygagging on the surface to study us. Others breach in the sun, flinging their 40 ton bulk out of the water far enough away to be breathtaking rather than terrifying, close enough that their landing cracks like cannon fire. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the worst consequence of our interactions is the impact on my productivity. Tough to keep on task, gaze locked down into the fish you’re gutting, when in the midst of your own private National Geographic special.

Cap’n J and I were on our way South several years ago, the salmon season behind us and just a few days’ out of Bellingham. A perfectly still afternoon of glassy water and late September sun, I’d been on the wheel while he slept. He woke up, joined me in the cabin, bleary-eyed over a warmed-up plate of spaghetti. I chattered about how uneventful my watch had been. The Nerka cruised along at 7 knots, when an unspeakably large black mass broke the blue directly below my port helm window. Time stopped. A deafening exhalation, whale air sprayed the glass. (What kind of cleaning spray would you use to remove whale snot?) Our bow rose several feet and rolled starboard.

That time, I responded properly. Yanked the throttle down and threw the boat into neutral. The whale submerged, still so slow and calm, gently returning the Nerka to her even keel. The delicate quiver in Bear’s water dish was the only indicator of the disruption. Eventually I stopped trembling, and we watched our friend spout casually behind the boat, an itch hopefully relieved from his impromptu back scratch.

Other times, our minds fail in moments of critical impact.  On this last trip, we were surrounded by daily whale activity. One day, it was far too close.

We’d had a good day. Found some coho, kept busy enough that it was a throw-something-frozen-into-the-oven night, rather than taking the time for a prepared dinner. I’d rushed into the galley, still in my dripping rainpants while studying the directions on a lasagna, when I heard Joel yelling from the cockpit.

“Holy shit!”

“What?” I hollered back.

He pointed a rubber gloved hand ahead. “It’s right there!”

I grabbed the camera and jumped into the pilot seat. Sure enough, there was a whale directly off our port bow, its broad back splitting the sea within spitting distance. My heart was already beating overtime, when a flicker of motion pulled my attention to our anchor. This is the video from that encounter.

(Salty language in this one. Entirely appropriate to the circumstances, I think you’ll agree, but depending on where you’re viewing this and who’s around, you might turn the volume down.)

You can see I didn’t handle this one properly. So unglued by what seemed like inevitable collision, I completely forgot that the Nerka’s shifter, gears I’ve handled hundreds of times, were immediately within reach. “Fucking neutral” was about six inches from my right hand. And Cap’n J will tell you that he’s never heard that particular tone in my voice before. But once again, we all got lucky. They went about their day, perhaps a bit irritated by their overly-crowded waterway, maybe grumbling to each other about tourists who don’t know how to drive.  It took quite a bit longer for my legs to become solid again.


For Steve Meier (The Aquila’s Re-Birth)

20 07 2011

This post was originally published on, on June 29,2011. This version has been slightly changed from the original. My apologies for the length; the man himself used a lot of words in his own storytelling, and I couldn’t do any less.

Our last trip’s halibut successfully unloaded, the Charity pulled away from the fish plant and quietly cruised down Sitka Channel toward the fuel dock. Ross and I were putting the deck back together when Martin’s astonished exclamations burst from the cabin.

“Holy shit – get in here, Sis!”

Martin has a strict no-halibut-slime-in-the-cabin rule. I called back, “I’m in my rainpants!”

“I don’t care; come look at this boat right now!”

He gestured at an oncoming vessel. “Tell me what boat that is.”

I squinted. It was a serious hulk of boat – steel bow poles speared the sky, a covered deck provided all-weather protection, and the pristine white hull was blinding in the midday sun. Identifying boats from afar is a point of pride to both Martin and I, but I was stumped.


“You know that boat better than you think,” Martin said. “That’s the goddamn Aquila.”

My breath sucked in, and we stared at the passing boat as if it was a ghost ship. It may as well have been.

Beautiful day, beautiful boat


Joel and I were Down South when he got the call. We’d tied the Nerka up in Bellingham two days earlier, after running south with the Aquila. I watched as Joel’s face drained slack.  “Oh my god, oh my god,” he repeated into the phone. “We just made the trip down with him.”  Thoughts that were cohesive suddenly slid against the walls of my skull, as solid ground gives way under our feet after weeks at sea.  Steve Meier had died, and nothing was right in the world anymore.

We were in a code group with Steve for 5 years, lucky enough to spend our salmon seasons trolling alongside the Aquila. Every group has an undisputed highliner, and Steve was ours.  If there was one fish in the ocean, he’d catch three.  Salmon, halibut, ling cod, dungies; the fishery didn’t matter.  Steve was a driver, out there to harvest, and that’s just what he did.

Unlike some highliners, Steve was humble.  When one partner asked if anyone was catching, Steve reported what he had. The partner joked, “Oh, you don’t count!”  Steve came back all offended, “Whaddaya mean?”  The rest of us knew exactly what was meant: if any of us used Steve as the bar that we measured our day’s success against, we might as well go find land jobs.

There’s an entry in our 2007 log, “We beat Aquila Steve today!!!”  Three exclamation points; it was that big of a deal.  He congratulated us that day – “Yeah, you had a good day” – then came back with a vengeance, thoroughly whupping up on us the next.  We shook our heads, knowing that was the natural order of our group’s universe, and imagined him chuckling to himself.  “Heh heh heh.”

Lots of trollers get stuck in a geographic groove, a mental force-field blocking them from venturing too far west, nosing too far south.  Not Steve.  He would go anywhere, try anything, if there were fish to be caught.  He made us all bolder, better, than we would’ve been without him.  We’d have followed him to the ends of the ocean, just for the pleasure of going there with him.

Steve was honest in a way few people are.  He liked you, or he didn’t; he agreed with you, or he didn’t. Either way, he’d let you know. We counted on hearing at least one good “Steve rant” over the radio every season, and man, there were some doozies. With the uninterruptible power of a keyed mic in his fist, Steve was a gale that couldn’t be stopped. So many can dominate a conversation with their views, but few can step back and poke fun at themselves afterwards.  When Steve finally wore himself out, his tempo slowing down and volume mellowing, he’d pause with a self-conscious chuckle.  “And that’s enough out of me for today.  Heh heh heh.”

Here’s the thing about Steve: he found deeper value in people than their differences, focused on the common ground he had with folks whose beliefs he was worlds opposed to.  He told one of our group’s more conservative members, “You’re way over there on the right, and I’m way over here on the left, so we should just talk about fishing.”  And that’s what they did, with mutual respect for each other as fishermen and friends.  “He tried to save me when we first met.  That didn’t go too well,” Steve remembered with his deadpan delivery, followed with a signature smirk. “I did find myself saying ‘fuck’ about every other word around him after that.”

Ferocious as he was, Steve was strong enough to admit his wrongs.  When Joel crewed for him out of Crescent City, he and the other deckhand were packing crab pots from the storage barn to go down to the boat.  They decided to work together, each on either side of a pot.  Steve showed up, took one look, and laid into them.  “What the hell is this?  You’re gonna take all goddamn day doing it that way!  Every man to a pot!”  He ran over to the barn, grabbed a pot, and rushed it over to the trailer to make his point.  Slamming it down, he slowly stood up, hands immediately going to the small of his back as he surveyed the scene.  “Jesus, these are heavy.  You guys must be fucking tired,” he said.  “Keep doing it the way you’re doing.”  He went gingerly back to the truck, nursing a tweaked back that would give him trouble for the upcoming days.

There was no one like Steve Meier.  That was evident at his memorial, where fishermen from all up and down the Coast crowded a North Seattle backyard. One after another, we told stories of this extraordinary man. He’d inspired many there to face their battles with alcohol; everyone agreed, “If Steve could get sober, anyone could.” He’d bailed deckhands out of jail, tried to help young men whose struggles he surely saw his own young self reflected in. One fellow crabber, a mountain of a man, curled his fists and wept openly before the crowd. “At least the sea didn’t get him.”

As devastating as his sudden death was, the thought of illness weakening his body and spirit was worse.  Joel said it best: “Death would have to sneak attack Steve, there’s no way it’d be able to take him head-on.”  Head-on… How Steve lived every moment of his life.


The Aquila glided past, her new captain lifting a hand in acknowledgement of our stares.  An unexpected relief swelled through me. “That’s not Steve’s boat anymore.” A beautiful boat, one he’d be impressed by, but not one that wielded the power to gut-stab me when we pass it on the drag.

It’s hard to believe this is our second season without Steve. He’s always with us – smirking from a photo at the helm, constantly memorialized in dock conversation. I walk by the Aquila and can’t take my eyes off of her. Turns out her new owners are a real nice couple. That helps. Seeing the care they’ve poured into making her their own, that helps, too. The raw edge of loss shifts into a quieter, gentler pain.

But Christ on toast, we miss you, Steve. We’ll conk some kings for you, old friend.

A Word After Kings: Wrapping Up the July Opening

16 07 2011

I’m cheating with this one, sweeties.  After our 12 day king salmon opening, my written voice is as stiff as my hands, and our imminent return to sea has no leeway for an awkward post that can’t hit its stride in a timely manner.

The short update is this. Yes, we were briefly back in Sitka. Yes, we got lucky. After a steady string of dismal July king openings, it’s a welcome change to wrap up with gratitude instead of despair. In spite of some challenging weather, we enjoyed ourselves, the beautifully-behaving boat, and even some decent numbers of fish. Neither of us were really ready to quit when it closed on Tuesday night – pretty much the opposite of our standard scene, where we struggle to hold everything together to the end and are desperate to slam the door on this high-stakes opportunity.

Yesterday was a blur of delivering fish, fueling up and changing oil on both engines, cleaning the fish hold, doing laundry and getting 16-day past due showers, and catching up with friends. Today offered more frenzy: groceries, refilling the water tank, getting rid of our recycling, sticking a pile of bills in the mail. Folks often think that our time on the water must be such hard work, but I’ve come to realize that being in town and preparing to go fishing is far more exhausting that the fishing itself.

I’d intended to trade the narrative storytelling for the photographic, this time around. Got some fantastic photos of the Nerka in action from one of our partners, and had hoped to share a little slideshow in place of the words. But uploading even one picture is too much for the meager internet connection I’ve managed to find here. “Here” is a glossy-veneered blond picnic table incongruously plopped down on the edge of the harbor parking lot. It’s quarter after 11, and the sky has finally passed through indigo to deepen into Southeast Alaska’s mid-July not-quite-dark. It’s a still, overcast evening, with the smell of a light sprinkle just on the other side of the clouds, perhaps. I’m looking out at the harbor that’s still heavily steepled with trolling poles, knowing that the exodus will begin tomorrow.

It’ll begin with us. The clock is already set for 5 a.m., when we’ll untie and start the search for coho that will dictate most of our next 8 weeks. Cap’n J and I are pretty fired up this year – driven – so we’re eager to get a jump on this first coho trip. They’re small this early in the season, and it will take a lot of them to fill even the Nerka’s modest fish hold. If we get lucky and land on ‘em, we could be back to the dock in 10 days or so. Hopefully we’ll have a better report for you with that turn-around. Until then, calm seas and clear skies to you. Be well, all.


Going Green: Training New Longline Crew, Part 1

4 07 2011

We’re somewhere in the Southeast Gulf of Alaska right now, in the midst of our king salmon opening, so here’s a story from my May halibut fishing, brought to you by WordPress’s great scheduled-publishing option. “Going Green” was originally published May 19th on, in my column, “Southeast, Variable.”  This post has been slightly changed from the original.

Sunshine embraces a deep swell as we drift on our designated spot. We couldn’t ask for a better day to start this season’s first halibut trip, but the anticipation Martin and I feel is tempered with the anxiety of training Ross, a first-time longline deckhand.

We huddle up in the Charity’s cabin to discuss our game plan. We both have the historical perspective to appreciate how much easier our longlining experience is compared to the derby days, when halibut fishing was a free-for-all frenzy, 48- to 96-hour openings where you didn’t sleep, eat, or stop until it closed.  Compared to those days of lost boats and broken bodies, we’ve got it easy under today’s Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program. But we don’t talk about that. Deliberately severe, our tone is designed to convey this fishery’s gravity and risk to someone whose experience is limited to a couple troll seasons.  Parrot-like, we repeat, “Longlining is a different animal.”

Martin and I will snap on all of the gear, but I hand out sheathed red Vicky knives for everyone to wear at their waist. “If you ever get hooked, cut the gangion, not the groundline. If you cut the groundline and it’s the side that’s connecting you to the boat, that’s it – we can’t get you back until it’s too late.”

Deck full of gear, boxes full of bait.

Without a drum on board, we set from 55-gallon Rubbermaid tubs. Each tub contains one skate, 300 fathoms – 1800 feet – of coiled line. We have 16 skates on board, and will put out 2 sets, 8 skates each.  No old salt knot-tying skills required; Martin has spliced stainless quick links into the ends of all our skates. Ross will connect and monitor the line going out, so we put on our serious voices to discuss this job.

“Always, ALWAYS clip the bottom of the first skate to the top of the second, and so on. Double and triple check your work. This is beyond critical.”

Several moments later, Ross revisits this, a concerned furrow forging his brow. “What happens if, despite my best efforts, I hook them up the wrong way?”

The detailed answer involves explaining that we’ll suddenly have 1800 feet of line flying overboard in one massive, disastrous snarl, but our captain has a more succinct response, punctuated with a long, flat stare: “We’re fucked.”


Over the years, I’ve played deckboss on several friends’ boats. You’d think 7 years as a social worker might influence my training tactics, that I’d approach green crew with patient explanations, nonjudgmental correction, and empathy for the overwhelmingly foreign world they suddenly find themselves in. You’d be wrong. I’m a very good deckhand, but a terrible teacher.  Though the guys I’ve trained all became strong, competent crewmen, they had an unnecessarily hard, demanding classroom under my tutelage. Full of unfair expectations, I want to see things done Just So, and I want them done yesterday. I want alert eyes and quick hands, a clear mind that is obviously tracking what’s going on, a coworker who will observe how something’s done and then do it that way himself.

I might as well be compiling a wish list for an ocean-going Mary Poppins, with such impossibly unreasonable criteria for what makes a good crewmate, and have periodically shaken my head in self-disgust. Seriously, Tele? Does it really matter if he does it this way, instead of that? But moments of self-awareness don’t equate behavior change, and I suspect Ross is in for a steep learning curve.


For today’s training purposes, we put out only one set of 8 skates. “Makes my productivity sense twitch, but this is the right way to do it,” Martin sighs. As the saying goes, the only thing worse than not getting ‘em is getting ‘em, and if we set all 16 skates, Murphy’s Law would surely guarantee that we’d land on a major smash with one crewman who’s never cleaned a halibut.

In spite of the anxiety, setting goes smoothly. Covetous albatross croak hoarse complaints as baited hooks sink quickly out of sight and our bird avoidance gear streams parallel to the outgoing gear. Ross takes to his job quickly, calling warnings to us whenever the end of a skate approaches. The tension coiled in my belly loosens as I toss the flagpole overboard. “We’re fishin’!”

We're fishin'!

Cleared of tubs of gear and baited hooks, the deck sprawls like a skating rink. Slippery like one, too: Ross and I scrub the sheen of pollock oil and hose off smeared humpy guts, to the muttered delight of the fulmars treading water right beneath our scuppers, gobbling each morsel that flushes overboard. When everything has been properly set up for hauling (indeed, Just So), I give one final, critical survey. It passes, so raingear is peeled off and hung back up.

Martin shuts down the engine and says, “We’ll reconvene in 3 hours, have some lunch, then start hauling.” Bright sun paints the cabin walls, but we immediately head for our bunks, preparing for the intense go-go-go pace that’s just ahead. Before I can wonder too much about what our first set will bring, the sounds of water lapping at the hull next to my head and the hen-like clucking of seabirds lullaby me to a sound sleep.

%d bloggers like this: