JEFF WALLACE’S THIS AND THAT: This is one whale of a tale
Bubblicious is a brand of bubble gum, but I have long since given up my appetite for gum.
But Bubblicious is a word that really describes the single most impressive sight that we saw on our recent trip to Alaska. I’ll get to that in a moment.
There were many reasons my wife and I had for taking a cruise to Alaska and then getting a car to drive to Denali National Park. We had always wanted to go to Alaska. We wanted to see the glaciers calving in Glacier Bay. We wanted to see the largest of this country’s national parks. We wanted to see what it was like being in the northernmost state.
And we wanted to see whales.
Twice before we had been on whale-watching expeditions. In Maine we departed for a half-day adventure on a whale-watching cruise only to be greeted by dense fog when our boat had barely left Bar Harbor. Tally for the day – one puffin, two seals, zero whales.
In Washington state we tried again. That time the weather was cooperative, but the whales were still nowhere to be seen. We did see a minke whale from a great distance, and the only part we saw for a mere few seconds was its back. That hardly counts as whale watching.
When we booked the cruise to Alaska, one of the side trips offered in Juneau was whale watching where the company guaranteed we would see whales. The firm offered to give clients $100 if whales were not spotted. The literature said they had been doing this for 14 years and had never had to give up the cash.
“They will probably have to change their promotional wording after our visit,” my pessimistic side said. “After we are there it will read, ‘Only once in our 14-year existence have we had to pay the money.’”
So sure was I that we would not see whales, I was already making plans on how to spend the money.
On a sparking afternoon on the waters near Juneau, Alaska’s capital, we set out with a couple of dozen others in pursuit of whales. It was likely that we would see either humpback whales or orcas, the killer whale, if we saw whales at all. I was still plotting ways to use the cash.
The first hour passed with us spotting a few seals on an island beach. Nice, but not whales. Then our view was directed to the mountains in the distance on the starboard side where we saw some of the glaciers in the area. Huge, old and icy cold, but not whales. My spending plans were beginning to solidify.
Then we were told that there was a whale in the distance. Promises, promises. We approached, and sure enough there was a humpback whale that our lady skipper approached cautiously. We were told that we could not get too close to the huge mammal, so the engine was cut when we were a hundred yards away. There was nothing we could do if this great creature chose to approach us, which she did. Then someone saw this mother’s calf on the opposite side of the boat in a bed of kelp. Hello whales, goodbye C note.
We stayed with the pair for 20 minutes, taking in their impressive presence while they occasionally turned their heads to look at us. With a final showing of their flukes, they went under. Wow! Not one, but two humpbacks! We could have gone home then, and I would have been satisfied. But we still had another hour and a half on the water. Our skipper drove on.
We approached a large buoy and slowed to a crawl as the naturalist on board described the Stellar’s sea lions that had hoisted themselves out of the water and onto the large structure. One had even managed to work its way up into the trusses that connect the top of the buoy to the bottom. Belching to other sea lions in the water who were trying to get on board, the high and dry mammals refused to give way to their comrades. First come, first served.
The boat moved on, and someone said there were “blows” in the distance. Humpbacks, like other whales, have a blowhole in the top of their heads. When they surface, they release the air in their lungs through the blowhole sending a spray some 15 feet into the air. That “blow” can be visible from a few miles away.
As we headed in the direction of the blow, it became apparent there was more than one. There were actually several. The excitement on the boat built as we anticipated getting to see several whales. We were not prepared for what was to come.
Once on station a few hundred yards from the blows, the members of the crew realized that this was not just a bunch of humpbacks together by coincidence. They were a group that was working together in bubblenet feeding.
Bubblenet feeding is a behavior in which the whales find a school of fish and work together to feast. The whales dive with one of them swimming around the school of fish, releasing a curtain of bubbles as it moves in its circular path and upward. The fish view this net of bubbles as a wall and won’t pass through it.
When the school is enclosed by the net of bubbles, the other whales that have dived beneath the school begin making loud sounds, scaring the school into going in the opposite direction from the frightening sound – up.
With the net surrounding them, the loud noises keeping them from diving, and the surface limiting how far they can climb, the school is crammed together. As one, the members of the humpback team rise from the depths inside the circle of bubbles with mouths agape. They break the surface together in an awesome display of teamwork and cetacean splendor getting their fill of herring.
The next couple of minutes the whales swim calmly about, blowing several times and then diving again. The process is then repeated.
Over and over we watched in amazement as these huge whales – humpbacks can exceed 50 feet in length and tip the scales at over 40 tons – broke the surface devouring the fish they had trapped. We saw the eight to 10 whales break the surface together 10 times before we had to call it a day and get back to the marina.
What other word could there be to describe this fantastic sight than Bubblicious?
Jeff Wallace is the retired editor of the Aiken Standard. He and his wife recently visited Alaska.