Of all the memories I will take with me from my travels, whale-watching in Alaska is the one I hope will never fade.
‘Please let me remember this forever,’ I think, as another systematic blow of tiny water droplets spray out of the blow hole of a Humpback whale and into the air. The deep, heavy puff that accompanies it sends tingles through me. It feels like we’re in the middle of a hazy dream, or even better, a Sir David Attenborough documentary. Yes, we are whale-watching in Alaska.
It is a summer day and my partner Brad and I are with a small group of tourists. We are on a small rubber power boat called a Zodiac, at the Chiswell Islands in the Gulf of Alaska. A Humpback whale has been feeding around us, at the surface of the water, for 45 minutes.
It’s a magnificent sight. This particular Humpback must be at least 12 metres long, and just the visible portion of its back is longer than our boat. They can grow to around 15 metres and the only real give-away of its true size is the large shadow under the water.
Another blow, and this time we see a slick hump, fluke and tail gracefully lift out of the water. Higher and higher it rises, causing a cascade of sea water as it lifts. Black with tiny speckles of white dot its underside – as if someone had flicked a paintbrush coated in paint. We are close enough to see the unique little tail nips that, like a fingerprint, makes this whale identifiable from all the others.
Then it sinks again, gentle and slow in its movement, disappearing beneath the surface.
The greatest nature show on Earth
In that moment, it felt like the world was running in slow motion. I became a live spectator in one of Planet Earth’s greatest shows. It’s a warm, overcast day out here in southern Alaska. Around us, rugged volcanic islands and their surrounding cliff faces act as the home to thousands of sea birds. Tufted and Horned Puffins, Kittiwakes, Pelagic Cormorants and Glaucous-winged Gulls fill the rocks – their distant squarks echoing through the air. Some low-lying cloud nestles around the rock face, creating a mysterious edge to our surrounding wilderness. I close my eyes and replay the magic.
Then, the sound of another deep puff. A slow, low, heavy exhale. My heart jumps and my eyes fly open – I turn around to see another blow and another whale – this time, right next to us – just a few metres away. Is whale-watching in Alaska is the best thing I’ve ever done? At that moment, quite possibly, yes.
Our boat engine is off, and everything is still, all but the gentle puff every few minutes.
This Humpback’s skin is smooth and a glistening grey, as the summer sun bounces off his back. He is just three metres away now and happily surfacing near us – unafraid and free in this wild Alaskan setting.
The largest mammals on Earth
Then, out comes a fin – and we are in the right position to watch as it slaps hard down on the water, creating a splash and sending feeding Kittiwakes scarpering in its wake.
Brad, a Marine Biologist and Expedition Leader on an Expedition ship, the Silver Discoverer, explains how just under the surface thousands of tiny bait fish are scrambling in a ball. They have been driven there from the deeper water by larger predatory fish. Once the bait fish are at the surface, sea birds begin to plunge into or dive under the water to feed. It is this array of action that draws in the whale – who can take full advantage of having thousands of small fish in one place for lunch.
Humpback whales feeding
As if our Humpback knew what we were discussing, out of the water came a huge set of expanding jaws – a rare sight when whale-watching. We looked on in awe as it took in a massive gulp of water and fish – and a nearby Tufted puffin that just happened to be also taking advantage of the bait-ball buffet.
That’s right! Our Humpback whale just almost swallowed a Puffin. Luckily, the gulp was large and slow – and the Tufted Puffin had time to flit its tiny wings and take off – straight out of the closing jaws of a Humpback whale. Wow.
Had the Puffin become caught up in the whale’s baleen filter-feeding system, it may not have had such a smooth escape. The hair-like strands inside the mouth, made of mainly keratin, assist in filtering out the water when the mammal takes a big mouthful of krill or fish. The krill or fish then get swallowed. Had the Puffin been slower, or the whale faster at swallowing, the Puffin may have been whale-bait. Or, maybe, a fluttering annoyance.
Having enjoyed a feast next to us, the Humpback decided to move on to the next bait ball and once again arched his back, raised his flukes and took another shallow dive.
Remarkably, Humpback whales can spend around 30 minutes or more underwater. Some have been recorded to stay down for an hour. In this instance, they were under for just a few minutes – but generally Humpbacks tend to stick around on the surface when they rest, and dive deep for food. Clearly this time, there was just too much of a feast not to indulge.
When they do dive for food, Humpbacks can go to depths of 200 metres. Obviously, this inflicts huge pressure on the whales lungs, and so they have the ability to collapse the rib cages. This, in turn, means the lungs are also compressed – and the little oxygen within their body is even more vital for the whale to store. To conserve this, the whale lowers its heart rate and redirects blood away from their extremities to the important organs; the brain and heart – and muscles. They are also able to shut down digestion, kidney and liver function. Incredible.
As our whale went under, we decided it was time for us to leave. This beautiful mammal had already given us so many more memories than we could have ever imagined; it was time to let him go.
With that, we headed away from the most wondrous creatures, our eyes still wide with shock and our smiles even wider. I’ve just been whale-watching in Alaska and it was a great success.
Since 1970, populations of wild species have fallen by half. Without the tireless efforts of conservation organisations like WWF, iconic species could become extinct in our lifetimes. We can all help do our bit to help protect wildlife around the world by raising awareness with WWF’s fun Wear It Wild campaign. Get involved.
Photography credit: Brad Siviour
A shorter version of this post was originally written for the Travel Eye blog on Huff Post UK.
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