Gray Whale

Even if you see only their “blow” or waterspout, gray whales are distinctive. They have two blow-holes rather than one, and from the right viewing angle their twin spouts form a distinctive heart shape.

KODIAK — Do you know how to shrink a 20-foot boat? Have a 50-foot humpback whale swim past a mere rod’s length away!

One passed so close to us that there’s little doubt its long pectoral fin passed under us and would have snagged our lines if we hadn’t quickly reeled up as it approached. We had been fishing another area, but moved half a mile away because feeding whales had become so numerous. Little did we know we had relocated into the path this one chose to reach the action.

On another occasion, we were enjoying hot king salmon fishing and my wife was preparing to net a nice one in the 30-35 pound range. She leaned out over the side of the boat, aimed the net and waited for the king to orient for her sweep.

In an instant, a giant yellow airplane zoomed out from under our boat and grabbed the king, its momentum carrying its head and the king out of the water to reveal an enormous Stellar sea lion. In a daunting show of strength, it jerked its head to one side and snapped that big salmon completely in half.

“Giant yellow airplane” might seem like a weird description of a sea lion, but that’s just what it looked like with it’s long front flippers spread when it appeared so suddenly. We used other words when it repeated the performance on another king a few minutes later! Given little choice, we pulled in our lines and moved to a new location.

Some years ago, I was deer hunting in a protected bay when I heard a sound almost like a distant rifle shot. I stopped and listened, a little worried that another hunting party had arrived unaware of our presence. 

Then, I heard it again and realized it wasn’t a rifle shot, but something close at hand. In fact, right below me in the sheltered cove.

As I watched, a group of killer whales raced round and round a school of herring. The “rifle” sound was instead the sharp pop of their quick breaths each time they broke the surface.

All deer hunting forgotten, I sat and watched the orcas methodically pick herring from the edge while not allowing the school to break up or escape. Their movements were precise and as closely choreographed as the finest dance on a Broadway stage.

Kodiak is placed just right to have an amazing array of marine mammals, just a few of which I’ve highlighted so far. In over 40 years on this great island, I’ve accumulated enough experiences to go on for pages. 

Always a treat, often a surprise, once in a while they can even be helpers.

I was deer hunting in dense spruce forest when a heavy fog closed in. In moments, I was as completely lost as I could be. Rather than continuing to walk and compound the problem, I sat down to wait out the fog. And, in the quiet, I could just make out the uproar of squabbling sea lions on an offshore rock more than a mile away.

The beacon of their arguments led me back to the coast as reliably as a fine compass.

This year is without a doubt the best in all my years on Kodiak for encounters with our marine mammal neighbors. And, you don’t even need a boat to do it.

On a regular basis killer whales are venturing into the Kodiak Harbor. That’s not good news for the Steller sea lions drawn by easy meals from fishing boats, but the show visible from shore rivals anything you’ll ever see from a boat or a glowing screen.

Even without the orcas, the harbor provides great viewing of the sea lions along with sea otters and the occasional harbor seal. Come summer, you might even glimpse the shy and diminutive harbor porpoises that frequent our waters.

Narrow Cape, beyond Pasagshak, is renowned for the close passage of 20,000 California gray whales migrating each year over the 5,000 to 6,000 miles between their winter calving grounds in Mexico and their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. The trip takes several long months at their average cruising speed of only 5mph, so they can be seen in large numbers over a long span of time off Narrow Cape. 

Even if you see only their “blow” or waterspout, gray whales are distinctive. They have two blow-holes rather than one, and from the right viewing angle their twin spouts form a distinctive heart shape.

But this year something special is going on. 

Many gray whales are venturing quite close to shore. So close in fact that they literally scrape bottom and shoreline rocks. You can stand on the rocks or nearby sandy shores for closeup views from mere feet away. Evidently they’re rubbing against the rocks to remove barnacles and parasites and feeding just beyond the waves along the adjacent shores. 

In an interesting bit of natural history, rather than capturing baitfish in open water, gray whales lay on their sides and scrape up great mouthfuls of mud and sand, then strain it through their fine mesh of baleen to filter out invertebrates.

Because their blowholes are located so far forward on their heads, it can be hard to spot and photograph them before they spout. And, because they lay on their sides to feed, you seldom see the whole tail as is common with humpback whales. But they’re staying close to shore and on the surface for such long periods, it’s still possible to get great photos with a pocket camera or cell phone.

It’s so easy to see the gray whales close up from shore, in fact, that I don’t expect much viewing to occur from boats. But it’s a different situation with the killer whales in the harbor. With the ease of boats so close at hand, it’s understandable that folks climb aboard and move in for closer views as these distinctive black and white icons of Alaska cruise and hunt sea lions.

Anyone deciding to do so needs to know that there are strict regulations for whale viewing from boats, and they need to follow the regulations to avoid stiff fines.

The regulations are online at bit.ly/30yJuM3; I bet you can get written copies from either the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or NOAA. In a nutshell, you can’t bring your boat within 100 yards or one football field from whales. You also need to factor other boats into your own operations around the whales, avoiding trapping them between boats, circling them or leapfrogging in front of them. The regulations even go so far as specifying viewing periods of 30 minutes or less, all to avoid disrupting their normal movements and feeding activity. 

Wherever you stay on shore or set out in a boat this summer, keep your eyes open for marine mammals. Especially offshore, you’re likely to encounter other whale and porpoise species in addition to those I’ve mentioned.

Meanwhile, the viewing conditions from shore will continue to improve. By midsummer humpback whales are a common sight from Miller Point at Fort Abercrombie State Park. And, wherever you boat in waters close to home, sightings of sea otters, harbor seals and sea lions are common.

Just remember to keep the wellbeing of our great neighbors at the front of your mind when you’re around them and enjoy the sightings from a safe viewing distance.

And, of course, don’t forget your camera and binoculars!

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