Visitors stream to Alaska every summer to share in the wonders of our amazing ocean bounty and wildlife sights. This is a very special summer for me because my parents are here. They bravely embarked on a very long trip flying from Germany across the North Atlantic Ocean, over Greenland and Canada to Seattle, then getting herded through customs and TSA, miles of airport travel, mechanical delays and language barriers, another long flight, time change, jet lag for a last tight connection. After 24 hours of travel I greeted them in Anchorage for the final lag of the journey which took us to Kodiak. One of the best things about visitors is that they ask us questions about our home, our Island, our nature, and why we are here. These are good questions to answer and it seems like summer is a time when Alaska wants to speak the answers for itself.
After a week of resting and sightseeing around Kodiak we went for a trip to the Kenai, which included a Wildlife tour out of Seward. This was an adventure that none of us will ever forget.
Alaska showed itself from its best side. The day was sunny, the water flat calm, the forests green from recent rains, and the animals were out. According to the captain of the tour boat there are only about three weeks every year when high concentrations of fish, most likely herring, come to the mouth of Resurrection Bay to feed on abundant plankton in the area. During this time whales that feed on the fish show up in great numbers.
I have heard and read about the humpback feeding technique called bubble net feeding. I have even seen it once from a boat in Juneau. I have never seen anything like I did last week. The scene seemed to develop around us like a show, the approximately 18 to 23 actors between 20 and almost 50 feet long and about 30 tons of sleek graceful shapes. Often we saw only their backs surfacing, puffing out a fountain of breath, showing a small humpy dorsal fin and gliding back under. They swam in a tight formation and it seemed like there were temporary Islands of whale backs next to whale backs. Then we saw a fluke, the tail fin of the whale with an individual black and white design in each whale. When you see a fluke it means the whale is going on a deep dive and you probably won’t see it for a while. In this group, we would see fluke after fluke after fluke and so on until even the slowest photographer could get a signature picture.
Still awed by the presence of the large animals, we would wait and watch the birds at the surface. There were many glaucous-winged gulls and the smaller kittiwakes, black and white murres and pigeon guillmots with their pretty red feet were keeping slightly to the sides. But there was not much time to look for birds, before the gulls would suddenly all take flight at once and congregate in one place. Long before us they knew where the whales would surface, driving a tight ball of fish to the surface. Sure enough, a moment later the whales appeared, face after face, mouths wide open, baleen visible, neck grooves wide they were scooping up large gulps of fish filled water. They would use their huge muscular tongue to push the water through the mesh of their baleen, trapping the fish. While each whale surfaced and the ocean broiled in a mass of whales, fish and birds, we could hear the sounds of the whales communicating with each other. To me that was probably the most amazing part of the experience: to hear the whales talk in their alien-sounding voices.
The show was not over. After a while one, then two, then four whales turned onto their sides and started slapping one long flipper onto the water surface. Our guide said that this was to scare the remaining fish into a tight school again. We watched the whales surround the school of fish and surface in its middle four times before we had to part because so much more amazing wildlife was waiting to be seen. Just as the boat turned away, as if in a final farewell one whale lifted its entire body out of the water in a breech.
Some may think that there is not much of interest to see after such a show, but my parents and I did not tire of the many different sights and animals this little stretch of Alaska presented. My father, a retired geography professor was awed by the sights of rock formations, moraines, and glaciers. My mother enjoyed the puffins and cormorants and I loved the sights of numerous seals on little ice floats in front of the glacier, some so tiny they must have been this years pups. The day kept one more surprise for the last half hour of the tour. Several pods of Orca whales were swimming not very far from where we had seen the humpbacks in the morning. In a pod of Orcas the individual whales are all related. Sometimes we would see six or seven dorsal fins in varying lengths come out of the water all at the same time and in a tight line. The evening sun reflected off the wet and shimmering black bodies of these beautiful animals, the largest member of the dolphin family. The ocean had so much for us to see that day that our boat returned to port over an hour late, the magic of the whales still lingering on the faces of the guests.
I may be easy to please when it comes to ocean life because I happen to think that each life form has inherent beauty and fascination. But there was not a single person on that trip who did not smile in awe of the oceans fascinating wildlife and Alaska’s amazing nature.