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The Tail of the Whale

Steve King embarks on a whale-watching odyssey

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First with whalers and now with whale watchers, Southeast Alaska has earned a reputation as a hot spot for whales. As a filmmaker and writer specializing in whale subjects, I first visited Alaska four years ago to scout for a television documentary I had in mind that might serve as a follow-up to the Emmy Award-winning film about blue whales I had initiated a few years earlier. I knew that on a typical one-week cruise in Southeast Alaska I would likely encounter diminutive harbor porpoises, giant humpback whales, shoals of Pacific white-sided dolphins, killer whales and Dall porpoises. If I ventured offshore into the North Pacific, I might also spot several species of great whales, such as sperms, fins, minkes and grays. All told, Alaskan waters contain almost a dozen different types of whales, or nearly 15 percent of the 80 or so cetacean species alive on earth today. While I knew all of this intellectually, it didn't prepare me for the experience of seeing these whales in the flesh. Witnessing a pod of humpback whales hunt together has to be one of the most astounding sights I've ever seen—and I've been all over the world in search of whales.

 The vessel I had chosen for my whale-watching odyssey was the M/V Catalyst, a ruggedly built, 74-foot wooden ship constructed of white oak, yellow cedar, Douglas fir, teak and Australian ironwood. Originally launched in 1932, she was the first research vessel commissioned by the University of Washington. She served admirably for decades as a floating marine laboratory. Today, she is fully refitted and restored for cruising. If the large cruise ships are like huge, full-service hotels, then the Catalyst is more like a cozy bed-and-breakfast. On boarding her I was delighted to find that she had beautiful wood and brass work, as well as numerous charming amenities—like handmade curtains, toe-warming throw rugs and fragrant sachets in the cabins. She was the embodiment of a bygone and more romantic nautical era.

There were only ten of us on board, plus a crew of four. Our unhurried itinerary would take us from Auke Bay—just north of Juneau and within sight of the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier—on a counterclockwise circumnavigation of 100-mile-long Admiralty Island. Whale watching in Alaska in the summer has certain advantages: for one thing, the days are extremely long.

For much of the summer there is light in the sky well past midnight, and that means there's a lot of time to whale watch. Second, because glacier-clad mountains and evergreen forests extend right to the water's edge, you are sheltered from the wind. It looked and felt like we were whale watching on an alpine lake in Switzerland.

 

 

Our first cetacean sighting came unexpectedly. As we traveled at a leisurely pace driven by the rhythmic, heartlike chugging of the Catalyst's eight-ton iron engine, Dall porpoises and Pacific white-sided dolphins torpedoed in suddenly to ride the pressure wave created by the bow of the ship. These sleek, small cetaceans would cavort for minutes at a time while we hung over the railing cheering them on. They were so close that you could distinctly see their blowholes snap open and shut and hear their puffing exhalations as they dashed through the surface to breathe. And when the water was glassy smooth, you could even make eye contact with a dolphin as it rolled on its side. To stare into a dolphin's eye and have it return your gaze is to experience a rare moment of interspecies communion that leaves you not quite the same.

But the real draw for me was the chance to see humpback whales. Humpbacks were made famous by the discovery that they sing songs—long, complex, rhythmic and plaintive-sounding vocalizations that change every year. After spending the winter in warm tropical waters, where they court, mate and calve, humpbacks embark on a monthlong migration across thousands of miles of open ocean to Alaska's rich waters to gorge themselves.

On this trip, I would be learning about humpback whales from one of the world's most knowledgeable cetacean scientists, Fred Sharpe, an authority on humpback feeding strategies. Sharpe is also something of a cross between an irreverent prankster and a brilliant eccentric. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things biological, is a published author and talented illustrator and an articulate and engaging speaker, and prefers bare feet, even in Alaska, to conventional footwear. I liked him immediately.

It was Sharpe who expertly detailed the activities of the humpbacks when we observed them "spyhopping," where they lift their heads vertically above the surface; "breaching," when they launch themselves out of the depths and then crash back into the water in an explosion of spray; "lobtailing," when a whale at the surface pummels the water repeatedly with its flukes; and "flipper slapping," when a humpback lies on its side or back and smacks the water with one or both of its pectoral fins.

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