Sitka WhaleFest 2013, The Whale Watch Cruise

The highlight of the 17th Sitka WhaleFest was whale watching.  November is when Humpback Whales gather in Sitka Sound to bulk up, either before they make their swim to Hawaii to mate or give birth, or as a prelude to winter over to get a lot fatter.  Humpback whales do not eat on their breeding grounds.  They consume enough energy in Alaska for a long round trip and, if they become pregnant, to provide nourishing milk to their calves.  I go on several wildlife trips a year but having three whale biologists to answer my questions on a day when 20 to 30 whales were in Eastern Channel feeding on herring was a great opportunity.   We had a beautiful day with lots of sun. Temperatures starting in the 30s meant icy decks but conditions good for spotting spouts, which, like human breath, condense when it is cold and are very visible.  It warmed into the mid-40s.

I learned that bubble netting, where whales go underwater and blow bubbles in circles to herd herring toward the center, is a behavior that is pretty much limited to whales in South East Alaska and Northern BC, but it is beginning to spread to whales feeding in the Kenai Fjords.  It is learned behavior and whales are teaching each other.  I learned that after the end of the cold war, secret monitors on the ocean floor that tracked Soviet submarines are now listening to and tracking whales.  Apparently whale voice can have amazing volume (at frequency ranges sub audible to human ears).  A whale making sounds in the West Indies has been picked up on monitors all the way to Newfoundland.  That is astounding.  Actually watching the whales is also astounding.  They each have their own signature markings on their flukes.  I went back over my whale pictures and found I have been photographing one whale for 11 years.  Humpbacks live from 60 to 100 years.  Bowhead whales up to 200 years.  Millions were taken during the peak whaling days, but at least some species are making a remarkable comeback.  Old sailors used to talk about leviathans, huge whales.  I thought they were a legend, but with commercial whaling pretty much ended and whales being allowed to live out their lives maybe Liam will live, when he is very old, to see leviathans in our seas again.

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