Our Sitka Christmas Tradition — A Whale Watch.

Our first family whale watch was more than 35 years ago.  Alice and Chuck Johnstone took us out on the Fairweather.  Carolyn Servid was the deck hand and we went looking for humpback whales.  Some folks considered this an odd endeavor because common knowledge at the time was that all whales went south to Hawaii for “the season” of breeding and birth.  But we knew there were whales in Sitka Sound.  On cold days we could see the spouts, white and crystalized, hanging in the air long after the whale actually blew.   There were not many winter whales in the Sound 35 years ago.  Our first Christmas whale watch was on a clear, cold day and the spouts were easy to spot and we saw one or two.

The next year we had our own boat and organized our own Christmas whale watch.  We sold the boat  when moved abroad to work.  On home leave we hired one of the local “Six Pack” captains to take us out.  Over the years we saw more and more whales at Christmas as the humpback whale population recovered from a century of large scale whale hunting.  Researchers began to believe that whales staggered their migration, some leaving early and returning early, others leaving late and returning late.  There was overlap and some whales were in the sound all winter.  Some researchers came to believe that female whales who did not wish to breed, or needed to really bulk up on food stayed all winter.  (It’s difficult to figure this out.  Whales do not file a “float plan.”)   One January in the early ‘90s Brian stayed in Sitka during his January St. Olaf College “Interim” studying with whale biologist Jan Straley, playing with hydrophones and binoculars to determine just who was in the Sound in January.

This year our family, with 8, was too large for a six-pack charter so we got two six packs, A Whale Song’s Expeditions with Neil McDermott and Seamarine with Pat Davis.  Neil and Pat often work together.  We went out on December 23.

We first tried Silver Bay’s sheltered waters.   We saw two whales but they looked like they were headed out into the sound.  We stuck around to see if more came, while waiting we explored the shoreline and some sea caves.

After a decent interval it seemed like the humpbacks had abandoned the bay.  So we also headed out into the sound, which was experiencing  what the weather bureau calls a “wintery mix” of precipitation.  Near the Siginaka Islands we got close to a group of sea lions.

In a “wintery mix” it’s difficult to spot whales.  The spouts blend into the ambient wet air.  Usually you spot whales by the spouts.  In a misty wintery mix it’s easier to see the black back of a whale.    We experienced a couple of whales close up.  The large snowflakes, actually globs of snowflake, showed up against the black flanks of the diving humpbacks.  These pictures are sequences of three dives, one in 9 frames and two in six frames.

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