A humpback whale feeds in Kodiak waters. Switgard Duesterloh photo.

Imagine it is a nice day, the ocean surface is flat and reflects the light from a slightly overcast sky. You are on a boat, around you a handful of nice people, all whispering quiet conversations to each other while excitedly waiting for that unmistakable sound of a surfacing whale.

Then someone calls out “there!” At the same time you see a cloud of mist shoot from the surface of the water into the air with the noise of a large amount of gas pressure being released all at once, the exhale of a humpback whale. Around you people exclaim excitedly, faces are smiling and cameras clicking. If you are lucky you may see the two blowholes on the whale’s back or even hear a sound like a church organ’s note when the big animal takes its next deep breath and submerges into the watery depth of its home and out of our sight again.

This summer we were lucky to have a group of these awe-inspiring large mammals grace us with their visit just outside of the harbor for several weeks. They didn’t seem to mind when people came to admire them, but they seemed to be going about some other business concerning whales.

From years of study and observation we know that humpback whales come to our waters in the summer to feed, and when the food gets scarce and the days get shorter they embark on a long journey to the beautiful shores of Hawaii. Not unlike some people I know, the whales come to Kodiak to make a living fishing and then go to Hawaii to shift their attention to more social concerns. Though we know that whales have a complex social and emotional life, the information on whale behavior is limited to feeding and sex and apparently one only happens in Alaska and the other only in Hawaii, if you believe the black-and-white descriptions of the printed information.

Outside of Kodiak the gulls and puffins and cormorants and a few other bird species were as interested in the whale activities as the people from around the world. However, the whales were definitely not bubble net feeding, a behavior known only from humpback whales that involves a group of whales swimming circles around the fish and blowing bubbles to corral the fish in their middle and then dive in to scoop them up by the mouthfuls. I also did not observe lounge feeding, where a whale takes in a big gulp of fish and water, surfaces with its head first and then swallows the food while forcing the water out through the large baleen plates in its mouth.

To me the group of whales looked more like they were resting between feeding forays. With at least a dozen large whales that each eat about a ton of forage per day staying in one place for several weeks, I just don’t believe they were eating there.

There are several papers about what Kodiak’s humpback whales eat. Recently, a graduate student published two papers in which she describes two groups of humpbacks wtih different diets. The ones living in the north of Kodiak ate more fish and the ones in the south ate more krill and other plankton.

So do the whales eat the rockfish and the salmon out there and compete with our fishing industry? They don’t. There is a species complex of fish called forage fish or food fish. Forage fish can be any of several species including juvenile pollock, herring, candle fish, capelin and smelt.

According to an online thesaurus, smelt is a word that has three meanings: Smelting is the process of transforming metal to its liquid state (to melt) and comes from the German word “schmelzen”. It is also a species of forage fish and used to describe a number of other species of forage fish, which are similar in appearance.

Seriously? Is that the best we can do to describe the whale’s diet? We just lump it all together because we can’t tell it apart?

The third meaning of the word is a short form of the past tense of smell, which happens to be the very next word in the dictionary. As a fitting example sentence it states: My hands smelled like fish. Therefore, I am grammatically correct in stating that my hands smelt like smelt.

Forage fish are up to a handspan in length and swim in large schools. When the forage fish show up, the whole ocean comes into motion — birds are out hunting and diving, the seals and sea lions flit about, the whales are busy, and the surface-bound people see multiple splashes and can only guess at the action under water.

At times like that I always wish I could dive in and become a little camouflaged bottom fish so that I could watch the action. Now that would be amazing!

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