Talking to the Whales

All summer, whales roam the waters of Southeast Alaska looking for food, training their young, and honestly, dodging boats. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires all boats to stay a certain distance from whales and other marine mammals, but by sheer density of boats and whales, both small and large boats always run the risk of striking an animal. That being said, if you are a smart and attentive captain, you can easily diminish this risk and also observe these animals at extremely close range.

So as we sailed around the inside passage for 4 months, nearly every day we would see whales. While we did have designated stops for each night, we almost always could work in an hour or two to stop and hang out with whales or orca if we saw them along the way. A lot of the time the whales were just swimming along from place to place, so we would just let them be, but every once in a while you'd see a big splash from afar, or multiple spouts in a small area, and we knew if you could get there in time, we'd be in for a show.

In most instances, once we got there, the best part of the show was over. We began to anticipate this so that it was more of a treat when we were able to watch the spectacular acrobatics, than a disappointment when we couldn't. We would sometimes even peel off course if we saw something else we thought was either closer or more exciting to see.

But regardless of all this, we saw a lot of whales, and a lot of whale activities; and I got to know these southeast Alaskan whales really well. It went beyond knowing certain flukes or pectoral fins, but also knowing their tendencies as one whole population. It was an absolute privilege to get to observe and spend so much time with these amazing animals. I learned so much about their feeding behavior, travel, and even language. I want to share one particularly moving story though that forever will make me feel extremely close to them.

The intersection of Chatham Strait and Peril Strait form a current which both aids fish spawning and also traps small fish at times and in multiple bottlenecks. For this reason, for about 5 weeks this summer, a set of 9 to 11 bubblenet feeding whales put out sets over and over again, seemingly every day, non-stop. So for four or five straight tours, we planned so spend a little extra time there, as bubblenetting is one of the biggest attractions for whale watchers and is one of the most uncommon behaviors to observe.

The first few times experiencing this particular set, I noted how consistent they were, in timing and location. They were clearly practiced and experienced with each other as well as the aquatic terrain around them. After having seen their consistency beyond any other group I've experienced (yes, even more than the famous group outside of Juneau year after year), I decided I had to get a hydrophone so I could learn more about the whales and their behavior.

We tested out the hydrophone earlier in the week, with varying levels of success. Sometimes the whales just aren't speaking, even when they're together; and the conditions have to be perfect in order to drop the hydrophone deep in the water and cut the engines so the whales can be heard. But sure enough, this bubblenetting group was still there, and upon approach I grew insanely excited at the opportunity I knew I was going to have.

See, bubblenetting is almost like a dance. It's a very elaborate and technical process in which a high number of whales have to navigate in extremely close proximity and then in unison as they lunge up for their fish. In order for this all to work, they have to talk. As the school of fish are found, a shot-caller is elected and dives down below the other whales. The group of 8+ then circle around, blowing a bubble circle of decreasing diameter until the fish are of sufficient density.

The shot-caller then calls out in a different tone, signaling it's time to lunge and in perfect unison the whales dive shallowly and lunge perfectly vertically, engulfing hundreds of fish at a time. While the whales are circling, the shot-caller sings a slow moan of one typical frequency. The frequency increases slightly until the signal is made in which a higher squeak signals diving and an insanely high squealing noise signals the lunge.

That all sounds highly thought out and scientific, but experiencing it in person is a completely spiritual experience. Hearing the speaking in it's entirety is breathtaking, and this particular day there were no other boats around, so the resolution of the sound was perfect. It also meant we could stay as long as we wanted, and as time went on, we found ourselves basically speaking whale. We could put our cameras away and just listen to the spectacle and then hear the signals, pick up our cameras, and capture the moment almost every single time.

But for me it went well beyond that. I've experienced so much with whales, and been around them almost 120 days in a row, and this was my last first-hand experience I'd be longing for. It taught me so much, especially after replicating it with other groups of whales. I had to break it down into science for you because it's the only way to explain the behavior, but the magic of watching and hearing it is unbelievable. I can understand whale now. That is not a sentence I ever predicted would be said in all seriousness, but it's one of the coolest ones I can say about my own life.


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