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.




19 responses

29 07 2011
Mary Jean

Absolutely Incredible!! both the experience and the writing… thanks, Tele.

30 07 2011

Great story and video. Love your blog! Brings back lots of memories of trolling in SE including finding myself encircled in a trio of bubble feeders off Pedro.

6 08 2011

Thanks, Will! It’s always a special treat to hear validation from those who have been there, so I’m delighted that Hooked has been ringing true to your own experiences. Pedro’s one of our favorite drags, another spot I’ve got some video from… May have to dig one of those out to post for you!

30 07 2011
Village Farmer

Are you guys still fishing, or have you switched to eco-tours? Y’all be careful out there!

6 08 2011

Ha! Careful, yourself, Dad – the south is creeping into your emails!

30 07 2011
Nancy MacMillan

Great post!!! How exciting, yet very scary. Salty language understood. At least you stayed in the boat. Was there a storm going on as well?

6 08 2011

Thanks, Nancy! No, no storm. We were in inside waters, flat enough for the boat cat to wake up from her daily sleep. The camera I’m using seems to grab ridiculous amounts of wind noise even when it’s perfectly still out. Sounds like we’re fishing far tougher than we actually are!

31 07 2011

Whew, exciting encounter! Salty language echoed by this remote viewer.

3 08 2011
Cami Ostman

Holy crap! How amazing. We were just out watching the orcas and all we could see were their fins this year (sleeping, we’re told). I can’t imagine how it would feel to have them under the boat!!!! Glad you got the video.

4 08 2011
Karolee Joel

I woke a whale up one night. I was asleep, drifting in Oregon. This was during those big years for the Sacramento Fall Chinook. The ocean was soupy with plankton and full of salmon. I was awaken be the port pole jangling. Great! Load up the inside deep! was my first still asleep thought. Wait, I’m sleeping, why are the fish biting?

Looking out the port window at the pole, I could see a massive phosphorescent glow, and the stabie chain leading down to it. The blob and the chain slowly eased away from the boat and I wondered what next? Luckily the stabie slid off the whale’s back and the whale surfaced honking mad. It slowly circled the boat blowing with that shrill whew you hear when you don’t have a refer running all the time. As I fell back to sleep, I could hear the whale slowly moving off, still blowing but slightly less shrill, trying to settle back down to sleep. I imagine our thoughts melding: Damn whale/ damn troller… mumble, gotta get back to sleep, lots of fish to catch tomorrow.

6 08 2011

Damn, Joel – I think you should be the blogger! What a story… I love that you got a night of phosphorescence with this encounter. Also love the way your dreaming mind responding to the noise. In the far back of my mind, there’s a future post about some of the crazy fishin’ things that creep into our dreaming lives, as sleep dep and the day-in/day-out monotony take over.

1 01 2012
Norm Pillen

So I think it was about summer of ’79. I was fishing for cohos off Point Adolphus (a famous humpback gathering place) in the mighty F/V Kari, a 26′ converted cabin cruiser/handtroller with my buddy John. The Kari was a low profile vessel, so I could be standing in the cockpit and look forward thru the wheelhouse windows. I was in the pit, cranking away on a beautiful august day when over the loudly playing AC/DC (or was it Skynnyrd?) I heard NORMAN! screamed from the wheelhouse. I looked in to see what the hell was going on and I’ll never forget the sight seared into my brain of a gigantic black and white whale tail slowly sinking past the windows. I stood in the pit anxiously waiting to see what might develop, when the port pole started slowly reaching for the water. I crouched down, hoping to avoid any flying debris as with a SNAP! the pole gave in and broke in two.
I was using the old Pacific King hand gurdies at the time, which some of us old timers might remember as having a fixed handle, which meant that when the gurdy turned so did the handle. ( I had many a smart bruise from those things until I could finally afford a new set of Kolstrands with disengaging handles.) As the pole broke and the tagline swung into the gurdy things started getting real exciting. The poor little plastic brake was no match for 40 tons of unhappy humpback and the wire started spooling off, with the handle spinning around like a ceiling fan!
My good buddy John was yelling “put the brake on!” and “bonk him with the gaff!” while I cowered in the pit with not a clue what to do. Finally with a” PING!” we reached the end of the wire and the whole line and 1/2 a trolling pole were never to be seen again. I slowly cranked in the starboard line and we headed to Elfin Cove to regroup (which is a whole ‘nother story in itself).

One of quite a few whale tails Tele, tbut this is the only one in which I actually lost gear that I remember. Thanks for sharing your writing and Happy New Year to you and Cap’n J.

2 01 2012

Way to leave the reader breathless through this one, Norm – well-told, sir, very well-told! I can totally relate to the cowering-in-the-cockpit, wondering what will be the first to break and how “bad” might suddenly turn into “disaster.” Joel and I have only spent one afternoon at Adolphus, and had a similar encounter.

Thanks so much for chiming in, Norm – this online storytelling provides a little fix until the dockside BS circles start back up! Best holiday/new year wishes to you and yours, friend.

18 03 2012
Happy Birthday, Hooked! « Hooked

[…] time to stop by and say hello. You’ve become participants in these stories. Your hearts seized as whales rose up beneath the Nerka. (Maybe some expletives fell from your lips, too, in chorus with those falling […]

19 03 2012
Lisa W. Rosenberg

Hi Tele. The idea of a life with “one foot in the sea” is so incredible to me. You actually live it! The closest I’ve come to living near the sea is a year I spent in Seattle. I’ve always wanted to see a whale up close (though not quite as close as you have here!). So exciting!

25 03 2012
Pat Dixon

Very nice.

22 12 2012
Jon Emerson

As a young man in the early seventies, I was part of a stop-seining crew fishing for herring one night at Marshall Island, Jericho Bay, Maine. That night we were fishing in Boxam Cove, southerly facing, open to the ocean and wild, with bold granite shores and always a strong surge. This night the cove was full of herring. So full that when they had come in they “rained in”; the only time I have experienced the noise which millions upon millions of herring make when flipping and breaking the surface of the water, sounding like rain. My job was to attach one end of the twine to the shore and then to follow along behind the large twine boat as it was towed across the cove to the other side, the twine setting out over the stern as we crossed the cove, trapping the fish. In the dark I had to make sure that the corks were all floating and that the leads had not somehow “dipped the corks” by twisting on top while setting. I was outside of the corks slowly working my way across the cove in the small outboard when I heard this loud WHOOSH right next to me! I could smell whale. And then there was an equally loud inhalation, followed by a powerful diving noise. Then it was gone. I felt incredibly small and so lucky to have had this close encounter. It still seems like such a privilege. And perhaps it was no wonder those herring were in such a hurry to get into Boxam Cove that night.

22 12 2012

Wow, Jon – what an amazing experience! (And very well-told story, too.) One of my favorite things here on Hooked is when other folks chime in with their stories; thank you for sharing yours. I hadn’t heard “rained in” before, but what a perfect term. Despite a lifetime fishing in Southeast AK, I also hadn’t heard that noise until 2009, when we were trolling off St. Joseph Island. The life in that spot of ocean was stunning: huge bait balls that filled the entire fathometer screen, some of our best coho days at that point, humpbacks feeding alongside us, puffins and alcids that couldn’t fly, they were so stuffed. We drove the Nerka through one of those patches of raining herring, and it was indeed a magical sound. Didn’t catch any new coho through that pass, though… Guess they were full!

Thanks again for stopping by and commenting, Jon – glad to meet you.

22 12 2012
Jon Emerson

Thanks, Tele! I discovered you today in Lynn Schooler’s post on FB. I look forward to seeing more of your writing…

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