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.








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