Written with the Sitka Conservation Society.
"Beyond your dreams, within your reach”: Alaska’s state slogan is delightfully tacky and entirely accurate. The coves, island chains, ridgelines, cultures, salty people and legendary wildlife that make up the Southeast region of this state continue to inspire my dreams after almost two years of calling Sitka home.
It turns out, that my wish-list of impossible childhood desires is actually, well… ‘within my reach’. What does that mean? It means that it is actually possible to witness bears chewing salmon, sea jellies the size of seat cushions and land a 160lb halibut aboard a tiny skiff with the world’s largest temperate rainforest as your backdrop. At 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest makes up the majority of this iconic region. It is America’s largest tract of public lands, an honor to live within and a major draw for visitors from all over the world to visit our dreamy landscapes.
Alaska never ceases to impress. So, when my buddy Pauli Davis invited me out with Gallant Adventures to watch humpbacks bubble-net feed, I was fairly confident that he would keep true to his word. Getting intimate with a group of 40-ton sea behemoths engaging in a rare and astounding cooperative feeding behavior? Impossible. In Alaska? Maybe.
At 8am, Pauli and I greeted three visitors to Sitka from the Lower 48, two from the cruise ship anchored in town and one an independent traveler. All of them were cool, calm and collected, comparing stories of their recent travels around the state. I smiled, knowing that their calm demeanors would soon be shattered. Seeing Alaska’s wildlife first hand against a dramatic mountainous backdrop challenges anyone’s cool composure-- especially my own.
Off we went.
We started by visiting with a raft of sea otters near the mouth of Redoubt, a group that Pauli amiably refers to as his ‘raft on payroll’ a group of male otters that are a reliable and charismatic sight-- a ‘gentlemen's club’. Pauli reminded us that as cute, soft and kind as the world’s smallest marine mammals may seem, they can also be aggressive beasts. He has watched males bite the nose of females raw until they submit.
We cruise onward to Viskari Rocks, leaving the adorable yet devilish sea-furries behind. Nine humpback whales were swimming en masse amongst salmon fishermen. The calm sea stretched endlessly across the horizon to our west. A view of Kruzof Island with Sitka’s iconic neighbor, the Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, peaked to our north. The modest fishing town of Sitka sat snug in the forest to our east. The whales were pushing air through their blowholes as they prowled for big balls of tasty fish to feast on, their massive backs sliding in and out of the water. Their tail fins, called flukes, finally slip through the barrier that separates both our worlds. One by one, we count nine flukes signaling a long dive beneath our boat. The whales leave their spectators gasping as they sink back into their weightless worlds. We watch the whales surface and sink as they hunt fish for more than ten minutes.
Finally, the tails go down again. But this time, they dive together.
Humpback whales engage in a number of unique and complex feeding displays, techniques even varying region to region. Group bubble-net feeding is perhaps the most legendary. The exact technique that happens below the water is still a mystery, known only to the participating whales themselves.
Most research on the matter has been conducted from surface observations. Data that has been collected within the water column alludes to a highly complex ballet of bubbles. Groups of humpbacks will dive down together through a school of small fish. Using their uniquely adapted bodies and massive flippers, humpbacks are able to maneuver powerfully through the water, spiralling gracefully up around the school of fish. As they circle around their prey they blow bursts and streams of bubbles from their blowholes. Some release ear-pounding cries. The exact reason for these cries is uncertain. They may serve to coordinate with other whales or herd their prey, sending the fish into a confused frenzy, swimming up and up to escape the sound. Fish are essentially blocked by walls of bubbles on all sides. Another whale (or group of whales) sometimes circle the rim of the net, appearing to serve up a foamy, denser bubble barrier that may prevent fish from spilling and toppling over the bubble walls .This elaborate behavior concentrates the small fish. Then, together the group gathers below their prey, slap apart their enormous jaws, and let their pleated throats expand as they enrapt huge volumes of ocean, pushing water through their baleen as they consume the fish within. The volume of water humpbacks engulf can way about the same as the weight of the whale itself!
Sitka Sound is silent.
We are sharing this space with only a few small fishing vessels. The waters are calm and all eyes on deck dart frantically from side to side in anticipation. We look for signals. An alien noise breaks the silence, a whistle. Louder and louder. A grin breaks across my salty cheeks. I know the whales are coming. They are close. I visualize them below the surface, spiraling towards us, blowing bursts and streams of bubbles, releasing deafening cries, sending fish into a frenzy. We turn our heads and see flippers stirring up a bright white circle of disrupted water.
Gasps, Jaws, Squeels!
A Sea Monster, both hideous and beautiful rises from the deep. It’s collective movements both graceful and frantic. The display shows astounding power and craft. I am mesmerized by the dexterity and agility of their movements. Tiny fish fly through the air, escaping baleen and trampolining off the whale’s pleated throats.
After moments that seemed to stretch endlessly across Sitka Sound, each whale slips below the surface. Their backs arch, as stark and prolific against the horizon as mountain tops. They fluke one by one, gliding back into their worlds.
And we leave too.
While I feel a sense of ownership to the rich lands and waters that shape my home in Sitka Sound, I know that I don’t own this land per se. The Tongass National Forest is entrusted and shared among all American citizens as public lands. Some of us are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to visit here. Fewer, are lucky enough to call this place home. Even fewer among us bear witness to the fantastic display we saw today. It is our collective duty to be good stewards, to protect and use this landscape in a responsible way. If we are careful, we can continue to live together in this paradise indefinitely. We can’t let places, or moments as rare and ravishing as these slip.
Thank you to local whale researcher Ellen Chenowenth at the Univeresity of Alaska, Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences for lending her expertise. To learn more about her work visit her website or follow her on twitter @hungryhumpbacks.
To identify and learn more about Southeast Alaska's local humpback whales and support local research, check out the NOAA fluke key. And, always remember to be respectful when viewing marine mammals, click here to view guidelines and regulations for safe marine mammal viewing.