In my 24 years running a water taxi and nature tour boat in Prince William Sound, my favorite wildlife experiences were, without a doubt, with whales — especially humpbacks. We often saw orcas too, occasionally minkes, and rarely, grays and fin whales. But humpbacks were the stars because they were the most dependable. Beginning with the 1999 summer season, and every year after, my boat never failed to find whales on our whale watching trips. On one trip we never found any humpbacks, but orcas came through twice, so that trip wasn’t a loss.
I became a serious whale junkie. A big part of their lure for me is their unpredictability. Occasionally they will breach – jump out of the water – but there was no way to predict that thrilling behavior. And that is part of their lure. By far the most thrilling encounter happened on a trip when we were headed for a favorite area deep into the Sound, about 60 miles from Whittier. About an hour out, we had just passed the south end of a small island (Lone Island), when another charter boat from Whittier came into view, approaching from our left. The captain hailed us on the marine radio, and said if we were looking for whales, he had just passed a couple a short ways back. Great! I thanked him, and turned the boat toward where the other boat had been traveling.
Not a minute later, there was a whale blow directly ahead. I slowed the boat to a crawl, and then cut the engines when we were a couple hundred yards from where the whale had spouted. A few minutes passed, and the whale blew again; it was doing a whale’s version of sleeping. Humpback whales don’t fall fully asleep as we humans do, but stay very still, just below the surface, rising every several minutes to blow, and then slowly sink to just below the surface again.
We continued watching, and all at once the humpback stirred. Before long, it was swimming directly toward our drifting boat. It kept coming and was soon right beside us. For the next half-hour that humpback put on a most amazing display of people watching, staying within 40-50 feet of us, and was often right beside, or directly beneath the boat.
The climax came when my four passengers and I were on the front deck, which is about two feet above the water. The whale was directly in front of the boat, just beneath the surface, when all at once it tilted up on its side, and we could clearly see its left eye looking right at us. As if that wasn’t enough, it then raised its flipper out of the water, with the tip not three feet in front of the boat. I was too awed to do anything but watch and marvel at the time, but in hindsight, I regret not reaching back toward that flipper. Clearly that whale was as interested in us as we were it. It was literally reaching out to us. I reasoned that it must have had similar people-watching experiences in the past, and we had just added another positive one for the whale.
That experience also provided a clear look into the past. Along with other species of great whales, humpbacks were slaughtered by whalers to near extinction. The humpbacks’ indifferent-to-friendly behavior toward boats made it all the easier for the whalers, as this whale so clearly demonstrated.
Adapted from a 12-minute speed writing assignment in Bill Sherwonit’s nature writing class, Jan-March 2016