Humpback Whales feeding in Alaska

It’s the middle of the day in early September and the 150-ft Mist Cove has been steaming since 7AM. We started off in Juneau and we are heading south. I’m traveling with The Boat Company, a tour company based out of Seattle that guides guests through Southeast Alaska. Including myself, there are about 15 other guests and we are each anxious to see it all. On top of the gourmet meals, the breathtaking scenery, the fishing and hiking through this miraculous landscape, the captain and crew work incredibly hard to make sure I have everything I need, and that I am having an enjoyable time. The boat is a dream, white with glossy wooden railings and brass doorknobs. It’s a cloudy, misty day, perfect for the creatures that travel beneath us. They have their blubber and I have my coat, and we move forward through the serene Alaskan wilderness.

Bubble net feeding usually occurs within groups of 5 to 8,
though there is no restriction on group size.

In Southeast Alaska, the inlets are as smooth as lakes. My adrenaline is still going after watching glacier ice calving at Dawes Glacier at sunrise. Out here, I can anticipate excitement at every corner. I scan the glossy water searching for a ripple, a sign there are other creatures moving along in this channel. It isn’t long before I spot a whale. First I hear the sound, like water hitting a metal surface. It rises out of the silence. If I’m quick I just might see the mist lingering in the cool air. The humpback whale dips back under the water while arching its back. The tail, or fluke is the prize, this one white with gray spots.

Humpback Whales sojourn in Alaska every summer to break their winter fast. They spend the season feeding on small fish such as herring, and a crustacean called Krill. Humpbacks are generally loner animals, but after their 5,000-mile trip from Hawaii, they work together to maximize food intake. Here in Alaska, they can be seen in large feeding groups, munching on krill or working together to corral the herring for a more sufficient meal. The whales move around in a circle, creating the bubble “net” trapping the small fish. Bubble net feeding is a rare spectacle so getting the chance to see it 100 yards off the boat is a special experience. The whales move like they are doing a synchronized dance.

Quickly, the whales surface and dive over and over moving in a circular pattern. Birds fly above the action, waiting, giving away the secret of what is happening beneath the surface. When the time comes, the birds swarm, screeching. The trapped fish begin jumping out of the water and then the whales rise up with gaping mouths, lunging into the bubble of fish. The feeding lasts a couple minutes and then the process begins again, the whales circling and creating bubbles.

Humpback Whales feeding in Alaska

On the Mist Cove, we go idle and drift, watching the whales. In the distance, spouts of water rise from the surface; there is more to come. A huge pod is heading our way, and fast. The spouts happen within seconds from each other. 15 or 20 at a time come to the surface, dipping below, feeding on the buffet of krill and small fish. I have never seen this many humpbacks so close together. These Humpbacks can consume around 3,000lbs of food per day. (NOAA) The food they consume during the summer will help them get through a food-free winter in Hawaii. Their flukes are revealed all at once, a landscape of gray tails with a mountainous background. We are in the middle of a feeding frenzy. A crewmember drops a hydrophone into the water and we listen to the whales communicating with one another. Their whistles and songs fill our blissful silence.

Researchers are able to track and identify Humpback Whales by looking at their tails.

In the warm observation cabin there is a catalog of humpback whales. The pictures in the catalog feature the tails. Each tail identifies individual whales seen in Alaska each year. By tracking which whales return each year, researchers are able to determine feeding patterns and population. Humpbacks are an endangered species, but according to the NOAA, there has been an increase in their numbers in recent years. Looking through the catalog of whales makes me realize that I have probably seen some of these whales in both Hawaii and Alaska. They are are like old friends I haven’t seen in a few months. These are the whales that travel 5,000 miles twice a year from Hawaii to Alaska and back again. They are like me; travelers between two diverse places, on a path from one world to another, each place paradise, each place a sanctuary.

The Mist Cove engine starts up and I go outside for one last look at these friends of mine. I wish them a good trip and look ahead to the next adventure. In a week I will return to Kauai, eagerly awaiting the November arrival of the whales. But for now, I breathe in the cool Alaskan air and listen for the last sounds of the whales’ spouts. When night comes, I stay up, looking north for aurora borealis in the clear night sky. The bioluminescent krill light up bright green in the splash at the bow as we move south through the night.


And many thanks to The Boat Company for an amazing adventure!

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