Tag Archives: whale watching

Stepping Back

When I first came to Orca Lab in 2008, I expected some sort of sign. Some sort of intimate and personal encounter with the whales to justify the sacrifices, work, and effort I had gone through to reach this place. Orcas, it turns out, have little interest in storybook endings. They went about their lives as if I were invisible. It was odd, the orcas owed me absolutely nothing, but so convinced was I that some spectacular, “ah-ha” moment would arrive, that to leave without having gotten within 200 yards of a whale was, not a disappointment, but a hit to the ego.

“Don’t you ever get tired of watching whales?”

It was a common enough question working on a whale watching boat, and I suppose it should have been predictable. I mean, the majority of my clientele had work that they actually looked at as, well, work. I just saw it as a free whale watch every day, like someone had offered me season tickets along the third base line for free. How could you get sick of that?

The question would always rise to the surface just as the humpback was slipping below, meaning I had 5-7 minutes to explain why no, I don’t get sick of watching massive aquatic mammals breath. I’m nothing more than a commercial while the show dives 200 feet below us for another mouthful of herring. The guy who banters on stage while the band tunes their instruments.

“They’re like potato chips,” became my generic reply, “you can never say enough.”

But for those that would probe, that actually wanted to know and weren’t just making conversation after realizing that no, your iPhone will not get service out here, I’d go a step further.

“Because you never know what might happen. If someone calls and needs you to take a trip… you take the trip. The last thing you want is to come home to a phone call, and find out you missed the trip of the lifetime.”

But 100 yards stands between the deck and a trip of a lifetime. For the many who have read the stories of Erich Hoyt, Paul Spong, and Alex Morton, it’s a tantalizing distance. We want a moment like Morton had, being led by the A5s through the fog, or Erich Hoyt in his rowboat, bobbing in the bight, surrounded by whales.

But that age of orca research and watching has come to an end. With restrictions and limitations enforced, we’re at the mercy of the whales to swim that football field distance and set the stage for the sort of encounter we crave. Perhaps we love them too much. Our addiction as harmful to them as potato chips are to our arteries. We crave these moments, and stand breathless on the deck of a swaying boat, hoping for a flash of white, a bubbling surface, an eruption of carbon dioxide as the whale breaks the water feet from us.

And it does happen. After three years and countless hours on the water, I had a few holy s— moments; I was splashed by an orca, had one circle the boat, it’s oval eye patch staring into my soul, and had 14 humpbacks materialize from nowhere, surrounding us in a bubble net of desperate herring. And all it took was thousands of hours, and the sheer luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Six years later I returned to Hanson Island, reluctant to share some of the most intimate whale experiences with my fellow volunteers. I had been extraordinarily lucky to have a job that allowed me to buy a lottery ticket every day and cash in on the minuscule odds. But that summer, I found a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience. As much as I’d loved my time on the water, a wriggling feeling of guilt had grown as I thought about the deafening noise my coworkers and I made in their home.

The whale watch industry grew and with it, the pressure on the humpbacks and orcas until every daylight hour was spent in the company of at least one, and almost always several boats. I couldn’t measure how much of a disturbance I was causing, but the uneasy feeling in my stomach told me however much it was, my conscience was not ok with it. I began to despise the 700 HP engines on our stern, giving us the authority to decide when the whales could be free of us. Were these experiences worth the boat noise and fuel? The hours hovering above their kitchen table, knowing if it was up to them they’d probably have us disappear?

Instead of intimate face to face encounters, I craved anonymity. I wanted to see, but not touch, observe but not alter, be it from 5 yards or 500 didn’t matter. Perhaps I’m biased. After all, I can still see that orcas tail rising off the stern of the boat, sending water cascading over us. But nothing felt as rewarding or special as a misty, fog drenched morning at Cracroft point.

As the tide ebbed I inched down the rocks, slipping and sliding over the kelp, my camera slung over a shoulder, a lens the size of a baseball bat swaying ominously. Stopping just shy of the water I looked east down the strait, the sun cutting slashes in the clouds ahead of the oncoming rain storm. Right along the Cracroft shoreline I saw them, the A23s and A25s plowing through the strait, pointed directly at me. I raised the camera, Paul’s words ringing in my ears, “get A60s photo.”

The group filed past, exhalations like gunshots ricocheting off the rocks. An image of A60s dorsal flashed in my mind, like the face of someone I hadn’t seen in years, the big notch two thirds of the way up the dorsal made him easy to ID, and as the picture filled my head, his dorsal filled my lens.

I held my breath to steady the camera, and pushed the shutter, immortalizing Fife on a 6 GB chip. He couldn’t have been any closer than 150 yards, a distance many in the whale watch industry would yawn at. But a tear slid down my face as he disappeared. A few years ago I’d have wanted Fife to know I was there, to see some acknowledgement of my love and interest. Now… I wanted anything but that. Just to have a brief window into his world, and know that his calls were blowing out the speakers back at the lab was plenty.

The whales slipped by, milling briefly in the entrance of Blackney before steaming north. As if waiting for them to pass, the rain arrived, drenching me as I stood on the deck, reveling in the knowledge that they had no idea I was there. The group slowly faded from sight, there fins merging with the streaks of rain and background of the islands. But I continued to watch until they vanished from view. After all they’re like potato chips, you can never say “I’m full.”

Advertisements

A Terrifying Fascination

Game 7 of the world series has ended and I lay on the couch listening to the wind outside, contemplating going to bed. Another strong gust hits and the windows begin to tremble, the town run we have planned for tomorrow isn’t looking very promising. I stretch and yawn, glancing across the room at our rabbit, Penny. She’s already curled up on her bed, 12 hours of sleep clearly wasn’t enough for her. I’m ready to do the same when the speaker on the shelf above the sink changes everything.

Usually when orcas start calling it’s distant, subtle, a mere whisper as they enter the range of the hydrophone. That first call makes you pause, stop, and listen, unsure whether you really heard something or just imagined it. This time of year there’s always the debate of whether it’s a humpback or an orca calling, especially at night when the humpbacks do the majority of their singing. Tonight there was no debate, no passive listening, no questioning whether I had actually heard something or not. Calls erupt through the speaker, loud and excited, overlapping one another. It’s definitely not a humpback, and I’ve never had a residents call make my blood run cold. It’s transients, the phantoms, masters of stealth, who never utter a sound and yet concoct elaborate and ingenious methods of tracking and hunting down their prey; seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoise. But for once they’re aren’t quiet, whatever they’ve just eaten must have been delicious and they’re calling just as loud as their resident counterparts do.

By the time I reach the lab and punch the record button the calls have reached a fevered pitch, maybe it’s knowing what these creatures are capable of, what I’d seen them do in the past that made them sound so eerie. But to me, their happy calls will always remind me of the laughter of some villain in a movie. Sadistic, high pitched, the type of joy you can take no pleasure in, that nothing good could come out of them being so happy. I’m sure the sea lions and harbor seals would agree with me. But their calls, were not altogether unfamiliar to me. I’d heard this before.

I was supposed to be studying the humpbacks of Glacier Bay, but my orca obsessed reputation had long ago preceded me. So when the orca whale biologist, Dena Matkin recorded and documented the first known sea otter fatality by a transient in southeast Alaska, she graciously shared the recording with me. As she hit play and the calls begin to reverberate off the walls of the office, everyone froze, maybe its because we knew what the whales had just done, maybe it was something else, but it gave us all goosebumps. Now, four years later they elicited the same response from me. Fear, horror, and fascination, everything, after all, must eat I reminded myself the same way I had gently told my passengers that day on the whale watching boat.

The sky is blue, the ocean of Icy Strait incredibly flat. Two hours out from Juneau, our 33-foot whale watching boat, the Islander, cuts a slow and methodical path east towards home. Off our port are six orcas, calm and relaxed they too, make their way east. I stand at the bow relieved, ten excited passengers on the boat with me. But right now I’ve transformed from tour guide to burgeoning nature photographer. A splash right below the bow pulls my attention away from the pod. A group of Dall’s porpoise materialize right below the surface, riding our wake. The resident or transient debate ended. Surely, if they were transients over there, the porpoise would not be so willing to ride the waves. I glance back at the orcas, staring intently at the dorsal, trying to decide if they were pointed enough to possibly be transients. I look to check on the porpoises, they’re gone, and a scream comes from behind me.

The orcas had closed the distance to the boat in two heartbeats and rocketed out of the water on the other side of us. The porpoise were already gone, streaking away from the hard charging orcas. With no hesitation, our boat captain throws the boat in gear, trying to keep pace with this daily dance of the food chain playing out right in front of us. The boat barely bounces on the calm seas and I hold the camera to my eye, trying to follow the action. The Islander’s going 32 knots, and both species are outrunning us. The whales bear down on the fleeing porpoise, spreading out, trying to flank them and cut off their escape.

On the boat there’s chaos, the engine roaring, passengers screaming, the voice of my friend and boat captain, T, screaming at me, “get the shot, David! You better get that shot!” Without warning, the two orcas in the middle of the chase leap high into the air, their white bellies reflecting in the high summer sun. They jump again and again, trying to pin the porpoise beneath their massive bodies. The strength, power, and speed with which they reacted was amazing, awe inspiring. As quickly as it began, it’s over, the orcas suddenly milling, flashing back and forth over the same spot, the surviving porpoise still swimming as fast as they can. We come to a stop and bob at the surface again. Adrenaline pounds through my body and my fingers shake as I scroll through the photos, a few of them showing one of the whales frozen in time forever above the surface of the ocean.

“The sheer power of the scene amazed me….. I had until now, never realized the true power of the killer whale. I sat there feeling amazed and blessed that the orcas never loosed this power on humans.” – Alexandra Morton521617_10152100638914852_1036290620_n