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Alaska Adventurer Trip Log
July 15-22, 2003
By Jim Nahmens

Passengers Crew:
Jodi Shepard
Bill & Kate S.
Gérard S.
Carmen M.
Barbara H.
Michael R.
Jeff R.
Ryan-First Mate
Jim-Sum Dum Guide

Trip Photo Galleries

Tuesday, July 15
Shortly after leaving Petersburg, we found a large, beautifully sculpted iceberg floating in the channel. Toto. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore. Mike and Ryan broke off chunks, netted them, and brought them on board. Later we'd use this thousand year-old ice to cool our drinks.

Our group had come from around the country and around the world—Gérard and Carmen from France, Jodi from Australia, Bill & Kate from New York, Barbara from Florida, Jeff from Maryland, and Mike from Oregon. Dennis had named this trip "Focus on Whales." We hoped to show this group of seasoned whale watchers the best of Southeast Alaska—group feeding humpback whales. But often group feeders are elusive and many visitors come for years before seeing them.

Whale watching

We cruised north along the shore of Kupreanof Island to Frederick Sound, spotting bald eagles along the way. Amazingly, the first whales we saw were a group of six feeding together. What a start! This group feeding technique is fascinating. The whales begin at the surface, swimming close together, then diving in a predictable order. Most of the group travels close to the bottom, under the prey. Ascending, they herd the prey by flashing the bright white undersides of their flippers. Loud, repeated feeding calls are broadcasted to further drive and concentrate the prey.

One whale remains at a shallower depth to release bubbles. The bubble blower moves forward in a broad arc, releases a curtain of bubbles, and circles back, creating a rising cylinder of bubbles. The herders rush the prey into the net and force them to the surface where there is no escape. The whales arrive at the surface with their enormous mouths wide open, synchronized in a spectacular group lunge. On successive lunges each member of the group maintains the same lunging position.

We deployed the hydrophone to listen if the group was making a feeding call. Almost immediately a call was heard, then another and another. Everyone on board went silent, listening to the calls. As the calls got louder, we looked for a sign that the whales were returning to the surface. We looked for bubbles, but saw none. Then suddenly there they were. All six giant humpbacks with their mouths open bursting through the surface. We watched them feed for hours into the long Alaska evening. My, oh my. What a first day!

The Photographers

Wednesday, July 16
In the morning we hoped to find the same group of humpbacks feeding again. Sure enough, they had not moved very far and we found them quickly, still feeding. Over and over, we watched them dive and return to the surface spectacularly.

We soon learned Gérard's nickname for his camera from the saying he exclaimed when he captured a great photo. "In ze magic box." We all learned about his mastery of his "magic box" after seeing the photos in his toothed whale book.

As the whale activity subsided a group went to shore for a beach combing excursion. Later in the day we set out for The Brothers islands, setting shrimp pots along the way.

Thursday, July 17
We began the day with a beach and forest walk on The Brothers. Mike, a botanist, gave us a plant lesson as we strolled through the moss-covered forest. We found a river otter den with clam shells strewn about. Barbara collected skulls and shells. As we returned to the beach we laughed as clams squirted as we walked near them.

On the Beach

We picked up the shrimp pots as we left The Brothers, catching enough for dinner. We stopped to see the raucous Steller sea lion haul out where a few hundred animals crammed themselves on to a beach. Huge males sparred with one another for position.

We cruised along the Admiralty Island shoreline keeping our eyes peeled for humpbacks and orcas, but found none. We expected to see whales at Point Gardiner at the southern tip of Admiralty Island, but there were none. We had planned to continue to Baranof Warm Springs, but Dennis and I decided to change course at the last minute, though we couldn't say why. This would turn out to be a fine decision.

The wind and the seas were pretty strong, so we headed toward the lee of Kuiu Island and Security Bay. We found quite a few whales but they were out in the rough water, so we headed closer to shore. Suddenly Dennis and Bill spotted some lunge feeding humpbacks. Like always, it was just as dinner was about to be served. We quickly ate an appetizer and Jake graciously put dinner on hold, though, of course he gave us a hard time for it.

Humpbacks feeding-RIGHT off the bow

Now this was getting a bit ridiculous. We had promised whales on this trip. We dreamed of seeing group feeding. But this was three days in a row. Karma, karma, karma.

This group was smaller, four or five whales. But, they were feeding very actively compared to the ones we saw earlier. They were blowing hard at the surface, diving for a shorter time, and hitting the surface hard, coming way out of the water. Not a good day to be a herring.

Note: after returning home and looking closely at the photographs of this group and the group we saw on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, I found three matching fluke photos. At least three of these whales were in the group we had seen earlier. Pesky whales were following us around.

We were having way too much fun. Exclamations of joy. The whales came so close I had to switch to my wide-angle lens. These whales certainly were not I had always wanted to get a great shot of people while they were whale watching, so I grabbed my "happy snapper" (Jodi's term for a little camera) and went up on the fly bridge. Just then the whole group of whales burst through the surface right in front of the boat. I mean RIGHT in front of the boat. With Gérard and Bill standing on the bow, I got my people-whale-watching shot.

Friday July 18
The day dawned with brilliant blue skies and calm seas. The mountains and glaciers on Baranof Island made an astounding backdrop to the flat, calm blue sea. The whales we had seen the night before soon passed nearby, but seemed to be taking the day off. Long dives and lazy surface activity were the norm, as if they paused to enjoy the warm day.

Float plane & Alaska Adventurer

In the early afternoon, a float plane joined us, pulling right up to the stern. We boarded the plane three at a time and went up for a bird's eye view. Kate was ecstatic—this was her first flight in a small plane since her days as a pilot. The visibility was amazing with clear views of the magnificent Coast Range and all the way down Chatham Strait to the Pacific. We even saw whales from the air as they moved amongst the kelp beds of Security Bay.

We started heading, yet again, to Baranof Warm Springs, determined to make it this time. After pausing to see Steller sea lions on Yasha Island and those trying to cram on to a buoy, we watched a young humpback being harassed by about a dozen sea lions. The whale at times turned on its side, swam upside down, and slapped at the sea lions with its tail and flippers. All the while, completely ignoring us. Very comical.

We made our way to Baranof Warm Springs, a small community in a beautiful bay. It has about a dozen houses along a boardwalk, the last of which is next to a huge, raging waterfall. At dinner, to the amazement of a few passengers, I unveiled a unbelievable new method for removing a jumbo shrimp from its shell. But when asked for a repeat demonstration, I utterly failed. Carmen made what sounded like some wise crack in French. Barbara translated.... "Massacre." Oh well, back to the drawing board. After dinner, some of us went for a soak in the hot springs along the river, above the waterfall. Ahhhhhhh.

Wait a second. What no group feeding whales today?

Saturday July 19
Jake, our devilish cook, was at it early today, punishing those who had not eaten enough the day before, especially those who had skipped dessert the night before. Jeff started off the day with apple pie, not five minutes after he arose. Kate commented "You can ALWAYS eat desserts for breakfast." Fine wisdom from a wise sage. Throughout the trip Jake continually forced us to eat snacks, desserts, and fine meals. Just when you thought it was safe...a pile of brownies would magically appear.

A humpback swims by.

We returned to the area outside the mouth of Security Bay. The water was boiling with acres of small fish. After a short time we had several close encounters of blubbery kind. One whale would let loose with a huge bubble blast that rose to the surface about fifty feet off the port side. Then three whales would pass between the bubbles and us, within fifteen feet of the boat. Diving below the bow they'd rise up from the depths. First the bright white flippers were visible and you could see them coming up, twisting. We'd all be yelling "Here they come, RIGHT HERE!" All three surfaced just a few feet from the bow, seemingly in reaching distance. Miraculously, they repeated these close encounters several times. Seeing these forty-five foot giants that close was unforgettably exciting. Our group was giddy with joy. Dang, group feeding whales again!

It was about this time that Kate made a confession to me. She had quite a rapport with the whales. Seems she had an open channel and called them with a voice the rest of us never heard. But I believe her when she said she called to them and they came. A whale whisperer if I've ever seen one!

Later that day Jodi, Jeff, Mike and I went out in the kayaks near the kelp beds at the mouth of Security Bay. A humpback was frolicking with sea lions nearby and we went to take a look. They moved pretty close to us right up against the kelp. The whale was slapping at the sea lions with its flippers and tail. The sea lions were jumping out of the water right above the whale. Suddenly, the whale made a huge splash with its tail as if to shoo the pesky sea lions away. Then rather than take the wide open path back to open water, the whale turned and headed right for Jeff and Mike's kayak. Though our kayak was a safe distance away, my heart raced. The whale passed between them and the kelp, just few feet from their kayak as they back-paddled with all their might. We quickly made our way back to the boat where Mike and Jeff made a quick underwear change.

Sunday July 20
We traveled across Keku Straits, along the shore of Kupreanof Island and, after hearing a report from our friend Fred Sharpe, we headed towards The Five Fingers islands. There we found TWELVE humpbacks group lunge feeding. We dropped a hydrophone and were amazed by the feeding calls. One whale began, then another, and finally another that made a high-pitched call. We dubbed this whale "Squeaker," and all three calling together made a wonderful chorus. Soon, all twelve animals burst through the surface with their mouths agape engulfing their quarry. No one counted how many of these surfacings we saw, but it must have been thirty or more.

We returned to The Brothers where we met our old friend Fred Sharpe, the whale researcher. We stayed up late that night talking humpback whales, sharing a bottle of Jeff's fine port.

Monday July 21

Seiner hauling in salmon

Is it really possible to see group feeding six out of seven days? I never thought it possible, but our group wanted more. We returned to the Five Fingers area and sure enough the whales were at it again. We watched them for several hours but they kept their distance and we didn't press them.

In the afternoon we took a break from the whales. We watched a nearby purse seiner pulling in a load of salmon. Dennis pulled the bow right up to them so we had a front row seat. After they completed their set, Jake exchanged a pile of cookies and a six-pack of beer for a huge king salmon. What a bargain! After, we went for a beach and forest walk, enjoying the warm, sunny afternoon. Bill enjoyed the warmth so much, it seems he decided to take an unexpected swim.

Five lunge feeding humpbacks

We returned to the whales in the late afternoon. In the evening light the whales continued to feed. The air was still and their blows just hung in the light. A rainbow appeared in the distance over Five Fingers lighthouse. The whales dove, one by one. What a sight! The time for dinner came. Then it was put on hold. We couldn't tear ourselves away. After a few more hours, most couldn't wait any longer. Besides, Jake was about to mutiny. A few of us stayed out on the bow a little longer. Just then the group lunged just a few yards from the boat. Good things come to those who wait. But now even I thought I should go in for dinner. Bill, the last whale watcher, stayed behind. As was the case all week, his video camera was glued to his eye. Wouldn't you know it? Twice more, the whales surfaced right in front of him. My hero.

Tuesday July 22
Our last morning began with beautiful weather. Dennis was anxious to get back to the Five Fingers feeding group and we pulled anchor early. We searched the area, but the big group was gone. After a couple of days, maybe they just cleaned out the herring. We'd been hopelessly spoiled with all the whales we seen, so we kept looking for more.

We made our way to Cape Fanshaw, then towards the shore of Kupreanof Island. I continually scanned with binoculars, but nothing. Maybe it was time to try to catch a halibut during the final two hours of the trip?

Orcas off the bow

Just when we thought we'd exhausted our whale karma, I spotted a small fin slicing through the water. Then, nothing. Another small fin appeared. Or was I just seeing waves? Then there it was, the unmistakable six-foot tall fin of a bull orca. Five minutes earlier or later, and we would have missed them. But the luck of this group of whale watchers was amazing (not to mention the superior skill of the captain and guide).

Bill told me earlier in the week about his dream of seeing orcas and his dream was coming true at the last moment. The group of four or five orcas came close to us a few times before heading north. It was time to return to Petersburg and we collectively felt we were the luckiest people on Earth.

Well "Focus on Whales" turned out to be the perfect name for this trip. In eight days time, we saw what most whale watchers hope to see in a lifetime. Funny thing is, most of us still didn't get enough. On the way back, Barbara treated us to a reading as she had throughout the trip:

There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
O God! How I'm stuck on it all.
There's a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.

Excerpts from "The Spell of the Yukon"
by Robert Service

Our group and a humpback friend (no its not real...)

Trip Photo Galleries

© 2003 Jim Nahmens





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