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Entries about humpbacks

An Evening With Alaskan Whales

A Beautiful Evening, Dead Batteries, Bubble Net Feeding, and A Remarkable Sunset

sunny 65 °F

On a placid evening in the midst of the most southern of the southeast islands of Alaska, a group of humpback whales came together for one of the most memorable whale shows I will ever see. They were working together to feed as one; bubble net feeding. I have described bubble net feeding in my entry on “The Feeding Habits of Whales and Bears”, so I won’t give you the full details of this behavior again. A short synopsis of the bubble net formation is thus: The whales dive in a row, blow a net of bubbles around a biomass of baitfish, and lunge through that net as a group, collecting mass amounts of fish in their gaping mouths.

It was a beautiful evening. It was calm, just before sunset. The light was warm on the skin, and brought out warm colors to the eye. The light was fantastic. We motored up on a large group of bubble net feeding humpbacks, and it was a good show. Everyone was on deck, setting up cameras, holding binoculars, or simply watching these magnificent creatures.

Notice the perfect circle around these whales. That is the bubble net percolating at the surface.
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I had ran down to my hook to grab my camera, and ran up to the lido (the highest deck of our ship) to get a good view. When I got there, I turned on my camera only to find, a low battery signal. I paid it no mind, and set up a perfect shot of the whales in the sun. Before I could snap the shutter, the camera died. Dead. I decided to run down and get my spare battery, before the next surge, and I found that this battery was dead as well. A photographer’s worst nightmare! I laughed. What else could I do? I put myself in this situation, and nobody but myself was to blame. So I ran down to my room, and put my batteries to charge, while I ran back up to the lido, to take in the evening.

I had to put up with my chief engineer Clay, give me shit about Nikon cameras (I’m a Nikon guy, he’s a Canon guy), but I didn’t let him bother me. I had whales to watch.

We were dead still, our mate didn’t dare move the boat as the whales had followed the herring balls right next to our boat, and they dove near us, heading in our direction. By law, we have to stay 100 yards away from all wildlife, but we can’t endanger the wildlife by moving if they come at us, so we held still. The whales had dove down, and as I looked over the edge, the tell tale circle of bubbles began to appear, making a small arc on top of the water. Then, there they were, not more than 100 feet away, bursting through the surface with their enormous mouths gaping open with herring pouring out of the sides of them. The seagulls were going crazy. Nine Whales had surfaced devouring a vast amount of herring in a single surfacing. It was AMAZING, it was AWESOME, and I’ll probably never see a better whale show than that in my life. It was a top five life moment, and the best part was, I had no distractions. My camera was safely tucked away on my bed, and I could simply live the moment. Sometimes things work out better than you could ever plan.

Forty-five minutes later, as the sky had turned pink in the west, and I was finally off shift. I grabbed my camera with a moderately charged battery and went back up to the lido to try to get a few shots before the light went away, and we continued on our way. The whales gave me several chances, but the light was bad.

Meanwhile, more whales had joined the nine, and they broke up into three separate groups of bubble net feeding humpbacks. It was fantastic! You could time them, and there was constant herring carnage going on. One group would erupt, and then another, then the last, but they had good timing so I didn’t have to wait long before the next group burst through the surface.
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I looked to the east, and the moon was rising through the scant cloud cover. It was beautiful atmosphere, a rising moon, to a setting sun, and a good spectrum of blue in between.

Finally, with my last chance, the whales and lighting cooperated; they were off in the distance, a couple hundred yards away. Behind them, the rich pink of the sunset afterglow was vibrant. A nice band of spruce from a nearby island formed well with the sunset. I waited, watching the seagulls begin to swarm to the surface. Seagulls are great indicators of where the whales will appear, as they want the stunned herring the whales leave.

They broke the surface as one, and I tracked them to the apex of their momentum, taking the photo you see here.
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I knew they would probably dive once again, and I composed the back ground so that I could time a whale fluke for my last picture of the night, once again they cooperated, and the shot perfect.
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I am a lucky man. In pursuit of my happiness, I keep finding in just around the corner.
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This marks the last of the Alaskan whale shows for the year for me. Next time, I’ll talk about my journey through the Misty Fjords, and the ethereal world of the inside passage of British Columbia.

Posted by Rhombus 11:18 Archived in USA Tagged whales alaska sunsets life photography humpbacks Comments (0)

To Kiss a Whale

Coyote Encounter, Humpback Whale Aerial Show, Kissing a Gray Whale

sunny 75 °F

Coyote

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The parallel sand lines were crisp and perfect. They led off into the distance as far as the eye could see over the never ending the sea of dunes. These lines were unblemished, except by that of the paw prints of roving coyotes. To be fair, my own yeti like footprints marred the surface of the dunes as well. I try to walk a path of little impact- trying not to wreck the more beautiful sand art pieces nature has patiently etched into the sand with unceasing wind.
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I was admiring the dunes and the delicate sand features found upon them, when I noticed high up on the rise of a dune a coyote scanning the horizon. I saw it before it saw me, and the wind was blowing my scent away from it. I crouched down, and swung my camera out, and started shooting. As luck would have it, it didn’t run away. Instead, it seemed curious and comfortable with the distance between us.
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I crouched behind the dune I was on, and keeping hidden from view, I circled around and higher up on the dune I was on. Then I popped up slowly, more not to startle it, and found a better composition than my quick attempts. It still hadn’t really moved, and had sat down, obviously enjoying my amateur “sneaking” attempts, and taking notes to tell his buddies later. It wasn’t long before it became bored with me, and moved on, trotting west into the lumpy bumps of sand that separate the dunes from the western beach of Isla Magdalena.
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Later that night I heard the long lonely howls of several coyotes coming from the dunes, and I smiled.

Humpback Whale Aerial Show

My friend Kathy, who is the BIGGEST fan of whales you’ve ever seen or heard about, started pounding on my door one morning as we were sailing south towards the tip of the peninsula. “Whales, Thom! They are breeching, and fin slapping the water right outside of the boat! Come on, come on, come on, I want you to seeeeeeee.” She said, while hopping around my room shaking me. Kathy tends to get excited when there are whales around. As the whales get more animated, so does Kathy, and it is hilarious.

One afternoon, the entire crew was sitting down eating lunch in the dining room when Kathy detonated a sonic boom of a scream. When we recovered from the initial concussion of the blast, we looked to see her pointing out the window as she bolted out of the room to the fantail of the ship. All of us thought she cut off her finger, witnessed a horrible tragedy, or saw one of the Beatles, but when she came back, she sheepishly informed us that she say a baby whale breeching. Then she started laughing hysterically about her amazing scream, and when Kathy laughs hard, you can’t help but laugh right along with her. The whole room was laughing, and it was a great moment. Long live Kathy Miller and whales.
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When I came upstairs and saw the mother and calf humpbacks pectoral slapping, and breeching, I grabbed my camera, and headed out on deck. The whales were only a couple of hundred feet off our portside, and to me it looked like they were playing a game of follow the leader. One would roll on its back, and begin slapping the water with their extremely long pectoral fins. Humpbacks have the longest pectoral fins of any of the whales, and they stretch out to near 20 feet in length for an adult. After mom would roll, the calf would roll, and do the same thing. Then the calf would dive down showing its characteristic tail fluke as it dove. Then mom would dive, and it would be a few seconds before they both launched themselves skyward breaking the surface of the water and into the air in an amazing display of power.
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The calf was completely airborne. To see a whale launch itself like a surface to air missile is awesome. Emphasis on AWE. To see the size of the splash when they land into the water makes me feel like my half ass “cannonballs” into a pool seem pathetic.
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The whales didn’t do this just once; we spent the better part of an hour watching them play. It was a terrific way to start the day. I shot over 80 pictures, most of them I deemed exceedingly crappy, but I did get collect a few gems. If you missed the shot today, you might as well have set down your camera for good. It was that easy to get a fantastic shot.

Kissing a Gray Whale

My friend Ame woke me after only 5 hours of sleep, informing my clouded mind that I should get up and come on a whale watching tour. I mumbled something about door locks, and said thanks. She let me be. I immediately went into the time honored bargaining session I hold with myself every time I have to wake up earlier than I want to. “They’re probably not any whales out today anyway, and you are dead tired. Wouldn’t you just rather sleep here in this comfortable bed? You can go next time. It’s probably cold out, and man, you sure are comfortable.” I happily talked myself out of going. As I shut my eyes and was about to walk into dream land again, there was another knock on the door.

I decided against my better judgment to open it. My buddy Paul was there, telling me there was a whale tour leaving in a few minutes. I asked him how many minutes I had, and he said just a few. I told him I was going, and jumped out of bed, put in my contacts, put on my comfortable jeans over my shorts, grabbed my toque (my warm winter hat), and was out the door in about 2 minutes. I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but I think I decided that if my friends are going to put this much effort into getting me to go, that I better go. I have good friends, and I’m damn glad I chose to go.

As we rode south in the bright overcast of a passing cloud bank, I wondered if I made the right decision. I decided to make the best of it, and breathed in the fresh ocean air, and looked out at the peaceful watery scenes all around me. It really was gorgeous out, and I began to enjoy the ride.

We followed a mother and calf pair around for awhile, and since they were on the move, we passed them by. Grays on the move are cool, but we were in search of a pair that wanted to play. We motored towards a pair that looked like they were just hanging out, and when we got close and slowed way down, they indeed came over to check us out.

The mom stayed near the surface and out of reach, keeping a maternal eye on the calf that was having a ball rolling off the side of her, and coming to play with us. It bumped our zodiac’s bow, moving it around like a bow thruster. Then it popped up along side, and after our clients had a chance to touch it, I took my turn.

My first touch of a Gray whale was an opportunistic passing touch that wasn’t fulfilling at all. It left me vaguely disappointed. After all, I didn’t make the connection with the whale. It didn’t really know I was there, and it felt like I stole the touch. But technically, I touched a whale. That thought made me smile, and I got more excited by my chances. I hunkered down on the side of the pontoon, and began splashing at the passing whales, and sure enough the calf came right up the boat, and popped its head out near enough to make a solid touch, and I petted its eggplant like body as it cruised by.

That was really cool. The scene was beautiful. I saw the mother’s humongous eye just underneath the surface of the water as it came up to breathe. It was a huge whale, an adult gray grows to a length just over 50 feet, and has a mass of over 35 Tons. To see one up close is awesome. Everyone onboard our zodiacs were very happy, and moved by the experience. There were many smiles, and a feeling of peace fell over all of us.

I was already satisfied with touching one. I am very easy going, and make no demands of what I can’t control. Some days the ocean will provide you with its bounty, and some days it won’t. The nearby zodiacs were leaving, and I made sign language with Ame who was onboard that one. We both had made the connection and we were both smiling. Her boat motored off, and everyone on my boat was watching the mom on the far side of the boat. Just then, the calf popped up right next to me, spy hopping high out of the water. I didn’t even think, I just reacted, bowing my head maybe 8 inches and I kissed that whale right on its head. It was a good kiss. I didn’t French kiss it, like my friend Taylor did, and it wasn’t a peck on the cheek, it was not too long, and not too short, in a word: perfect. It was like kissing a salty eggplant. My friend Ame saw it all and screamed, “Thom Kissed a Whale” to which she received some confused looks on her boat. She told me that immediately after I kissed it, I raised my arm in triumph, like I had just kissed the prettiest girl in the world. I don’t remember that, but I don’t doubt it. Whenever I kiss pretty girls, I like to celebrate a little, who doesn’t?

The most charming moment was when we had to return to the ship. The whales started swimming after us, trying to get us to stop and play for while longer. I don’t think it was mere coincidence, I think these whales wanted to stay with us. It was cute, and a friendly gesture. It was really hard to want to leave them, after such a moving experience.

I was surprised at how moved I was by the experience. I still smile at the thought of it. To touch and to actually kiss a whale is one of the highlights of my life. It seems like I say that a lot these days, but it’s true. The Baja Peninsula has a lot of magical qualities to it, and to experience these moments has made my life a little better with each one.

Posted by Rhombus 15:07 Archived in Mexico Tagged whales deserts oceans sealife photography dunes coyotes humpbacks Comments (2)

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