Two miles in front of our little skiff, near the south end of Shelter Island, a blast of water erupts from the surface of the ocean, rises 15 feet, hangs for a second, then drifts into a fading plume. Through the thinning mist, a shiny black hump slowly forms an arc over the quiet water, followed by a massive tail vaguely resembling at first a giant ginkgo leaf as it traces the same path as the hump. As the tail arches over the water, its form shifts in appearance from leaf to heart until, finally standing upright, it takes on the shape it defines: a humpback whale fluke, slipping silently back into the brine.
We reach the area where the whale dove, and shut off the engine. As the skiff glides to a stop, a loud howl reverberates through our aluminum hull, fills the air around us, then quickly fades into the firth. Second, third, and fourth howls, sounding like a giant wine glass being played by the finger of a god during after-dinner banter, signal supper time, and we scramble for our cameras.
As the boat stills on the quiet fiord, I see large bubbles break the surface three feet from the bow of the boat. A broad arc—a line of bubbles—traces away from the boat, forming a nearly perfect circle some sixty feet across. As the circle closes, the bubbles spiral inward, tightening into a smaller circle, forming a concentric ring less than half the size of the original.
Expectations are high, the excitement in the boat palpable. I crouch in the skiff, lower my camera as close to water level as I can, focus on the bullseye at the center of the bubbles, and wait.
The stillness is broken when the whale lunges forcefully to the surface, exhaling loudly, thirty feet outside the circle, forty feet from the boat, well away from my field of view. The leviathan takes two quick breaths, then arches his back, throws his tail to the sky, and is gone again. The air previously sucked from the boat by anticipation rushes back in, and tense silence turns to gleeful laughter.
The behavior we are watching is one we are familiar with, and always excited to see. When it is unexpected—Not to mention close!—it can be breathtaking. We call this exhilarating performance: bubble net feeding.
The next dive grants us a solid look at the underside of the whale’s massive tail, and we are able to identify it as one that is new to me this summer, a whale called Kelp. Each side of his fluke is painted half white, bordered in black, with distinct black spots on the right side. It is a handsome fluke, and one I suspect will be easy to remember.
Again and again, out of sight to his surface-bound observers, Kelp swims in circles, releasing air from his massive lungs to form barrels of bubbles around schools of herring. Confused, disoriented, and afraid to swim through the gaseous walls, the tight ball of schooling fish herded by the loud calls as the bubble noose closes around them, are left, quite literally, fish in a barrel for the feeding whale to scoop into his giant pouch.
Kelp’s bubble netting caught us by surprise this morning, but two days later I am on a larger boat, venturing farther out, into the deeper water of Lynn Canal, and this time bubble netting is all we are thinking about–not the solo show we got from Kelp, but something much bigger, and we are not long on the canal before we find it.
We do not, at first, see the ring of bubbles or hear the call off the whale. Instead, it is forty or fifty glaucous-winged gulls lifting from the surface of the ocean all at once that clues us in. The birds are only in flight four or five seconds before quickly merging as one flock, and descending. As they near the water, they are met by ten whales, mouths agape, emerging shoulder to shoulder straight up from the waves.
In this grand performance, the gulls are gleaners. When a large group of humpbacks explodes through a ball of herring, the fish are pushed to the surface and those fish not captured by baleen, disoriented and frantic to escape, are easy picking for these astute birds who have learned to listen for the whales’ calls.
We race to the scene, drop a hydrophone off the stern of the boat, and wait. In no time, the speaker on the boat is broadcasting the wailing dinner call. The birds lift off. We are ready with cameras. This is how we will spend the rest of our day.
These groups of cooperative feeders come together every summer in Lynn Canal. Some of the participants are predictable regulars, others are new to us. Along with our efforts to photograph the whales as they erupt from the water, we are also eager to capture fluke photos that will enable us to identify the individuals in the group, and serve as data for marine biologists.
A regular Lynn Canal netter called Nacho Libre is quickly identified by the shape of her fluke. A whale we have not seen in two years, Cornucopia, is recognizable by the white horn of plenty mark on the left side of her fluke. Another I am less familiar with and do not recognize, known as Stamp, is there, along with a calf we jokingly name Envelope. The calf stays close by but does not participate in the group feeding. The rest will have to wait for later identification from photos.
The netters are north bound along the west shore of Admiralty Island, setting net after net. At the northern tip of the island, in the shadow of Point Retreat Lighthouse, they turn around and head back south. We follow. Twelve miles, several hours, and countless bubble nets later, the group finally splits up. With the sun peaking through low clouds, we watch two individuals swim slowly west across the canal toward Icy Strait. Three others continue south across the mouth of Funter Bay.
Still riding on hours of adrenaline, our smiles do not fade, even as the Chilkat Mountains rise through the clouds to meet the lazy summer sun. Eventually, we round Point Retreat and motor south again, Admiralty now on our right, Shelter Island on our left. A single spout just south of Shelter turns out to be Kelp, at it again. The fishing must be good there, where the tiderip washes herring around the tip of the island.
A pair of spouts just to his west, near the shore of Admiralty are likely those of a commonly seen whale called Sasha, and her calf. South Shelter is Sasha’s stomping ground. She is one of the least social whales in the Juneau area, and as often as not hangs out in this area, alone, or this year with her calf. As a loner, Sasha has never been known to join a bubble net group, nor have I seen her cast a solo net, but I can’t help wonder if her calf might learn from neighbor Kelp, and perhaps, in years to come, join the marauding band on Lynn Canal.
The next day, I am pouring through catalogs and find I have photographed whales called Batman, Asti Spumante, and Sunburst, as well as a couple identified only by numbers: 1441, 1322, one who is catalogued as HW-MN0400584 in one list, and OSUWTG-MnSEAK198 in another. There were a couple more I submit to higher authorities for matches, and await answers.
I like when whales have been given names, rather than numbers. I can remember names, associate them with behaviors, locations, fluke shapes and patterns. Numbers, unless they have specific meaning separate from the whale, I cannot. I have scientist friends who tell me we should not give animals names. I suppose they fear some slippery slide into anthropomorphic subjectivism beyond which there can be no scientific objectivity, but I don’t see it that way.
These whales are distinct individuals, with personalities—so much more than numbers.
Sasha is a seemingly enochlophobic loner who hangs out at South Shelter, whereas Flame has a few close friends including Riddler and Barnacles. And Nacho (I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him Nacho) and Cornucopia, along with all their bubble netting compadres, are downright gregarious. And all these whales—Sasha, Flame, Riddler, Barnacles, Nacho, Cornucopia—have flukes many guides, photographers and whale watchers here recognize. The first four in that list even have fairly recognizable dorsal fins. Ask any of us about any one of them, and we will tell you something about their appearance and their behavior.
On the other hand, ask me about 1441, 1322, or god forbid, OSUWTG-MnSEAK198, and I will scratch my head and ask, “Which one is that?”
There is something to be said for getting to know the whales as individuals, and though coming to know them might not begin with a name, if I am to forge a relationship—even a unilateral one—with these whales, a name must come along with appearance, personality, and behavior. Not only does a name give us a way to discuss individuals, but it gives us an individual to love. Loving whales is not the same as loving A Whale.
Two weeks ago, Kelp was a new whale to me who was hanging out in Sasha’s neighborhood. That was all—just another whale. Today, he is a solo bubble netter. Today, I know something about him. And who knows what I might learn about him tomorrow, or next week, or next year that will continue to build on his fledging story. Now, whenever I see Kelp, I will recognize him, and remember that magical moment when he drew circles in the fiord right next to our boat. I will know him as 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕 whale. I will know him as Kelp.
As for OSUWTG-MnSEAK198 aka HW-MN0400584, I have already forgotten what she looks like.
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Thank you, Jim. Beautifully written. Stunning photographs. I felt like I was in the boat with you-watching, appreciating, finding myself in complete awe of such wildness. A wonderful start to my day.