Category Archives: Humpback Whales

Messy Eaters

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I am out in the North Pass, competing with Stellar Sea Lions for silver salmon. Aki is out berry picking with her other human. Three hundred meters away, a humpback whale throws its tail up in the air and dives.

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We will only boat on silver today. The sea lions will be much more successful. One surfaces with a silver trapped in its mouth. The sea lion snaps its head back and forth as a small flock of gulls dive on it in an attempt to snatch away bites of the fish. They know the sea lion is a messy eater.

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Fish and Friend Ballet

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Aki didn’t come with on this fishing trip. It’s for the best. She’d been bored after she investigated the boat for crumbs. The boat’s rhythmic pounding as it rounded Shelter Island would have sent her searching the cutty cabin for a place to hide. She wouldn’t have been calmed until the banging stopped, even after I assured her that the waves would drop at the changing of the tide.  Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed home with the little dog.

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I was thrilled and frightened by a humpback whale that surfaced less than fifty meters in front of us as the boat headed for the fishing grounds. The captain and I both felt relief after he made a course correction letting the whale slide by twenty meters to port. Now I am a little bored and feeling put upon by the rough motion of the boat beating into sharp-edged swells. The captain and I sank our herring-baited hooks an hour ago.  At the edge of our vision, a pod of humpbacks bubble feed. But to move nearer to them would take us away from the fish we seek.

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Right now the Juneau Costco store is opening its doors. If home and not being hammered by waves on Lynn Canal, I could buy two immaculate red salmon fillets nestling under plastic wrap in a foam tray. The tray would cost less than the gas used to reach the fishing grounds. But if I substituted that salmon for the one I hope to catch this morning I could not have watched the peaks of the Chilkat Range climb out of low lying clouds. There’d be no more whale encounters if I only fished at Costco, no more chances to see a bear work the tidelands for found food.

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The tip of my trolling pole dips down and then pops us as a fish pulls my line from the downrigger clip. I grab the pole and reel in slack until I can feel hooked salmon struggling to escape. When it breaks the water and I know it is a silver.  My fishing partner reels in his line and cranks up the downrigger cables so they can’t interfere with the boating of the fish. With the net, he moves in front of me as I gently reel in my line. Three times the silver will undo my efforts when it swims away after being brought close to the boat. It will be too tired to resist the net the fourth time. Then I will remember that it is this ballet of salmon and friend that I would miss most of all if I only fished at stores.

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Bubble Netting

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Aki looked concerned, even desperate. It got worse after she watched me carry my fishing gear to the front door. If she could have understood, I would have reminded her how much she hates bouncing up and down the back side of Admiralty Island in a 24 foot Sea Dory.  While walking out the door, I reminded myself that in a short time the little dog will be chasing her Frisbee down a North Douglas Island beach. After I left, her other human took her on an outing after I left for the boat.

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After leaving the harbor the captain and I bounce up Favorite Passage on chop formed by wind blowing in the opposite direction of the ebbing tide. It’s worse when we round the top end of Shelter Island and enter North Pass. I can barely see a pod of humpback whales bubble feeding near Hand Troller’s Cove. Ten whales splash and release bubbles to trap krill and herrings in a net of bubbles. Then they burst up through the resulting ball of bait with open mouths.

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It’s Good to Be Home

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Aki squealed and squeaked at the back door as I pulled on my boots. She just managed to stay still as I fastened on her harness. I had returned home this morning on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Malispina after a canoe trip to Prince of Wales Island. She spent the time of my absence at a good dog boarder. But I could tell by her actions that she needed a long walk in the woods.

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Aki had calmed down a bit by the time we reached the False Outer Point trailhead. At that point the little dog’s attitude was most compelling thing about the day. Gray clouds blocked the sun and dulled the colors of Fritz Cove. Neither of us cared.

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Racing the incoming tide, we managed to round the point and three more headlands on moist rocks. On one columbines attracted hummingbirds with their bright-red flowers. Overhead an eagle flew a patrol. Even it’s cries failed to dampen Aki’s spirits. The sun came out by the time we left the beach for woods and circled back to the car.

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In Fritz Cover a single humpback whale fed close to the road. Aki and I watched it’s back crash above the surface and heard the whoosh of spent air being forced through the whale’s blowhole. It made three shallow dives and then threw up its flukes in a dive. The small amount of barnacles on its tail identified it as a young whale.

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Clever Crows and Dancing Eagles

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Is there any color more calming than green? If Aki has an opinion on this, she is keeping it to herself. We just left an intensely green old growth forest and stand at its edge, watching the local crows hunting through rock weed for food. They might be crushing the shells of hermit crabs or figuring out ways of opening tightly closed shells. I’ve seen then rip mussels from pilings, drop them when twenty or thirty feet above a concrete sidewalk, and pick meat from the broken shells.

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Beyond the crows, a small raft of harlequin ducks splash and squeal like toddlers on the playground. Aki, who has little interest in ducks or crows, stands with the posture of someone about to run out patience. She wants to return to the forest. If she expects a dog contact, she will be disappointed. It’s early on a rainy morning after a long stretch of sunny weather. Most of the Juneau trail users are home, happy to have an excuse to stay in their dry homes nursing a second cup of tea or coffee. We won’t see anyone on the way back to the car.

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Calmed by my time in all that rain-washed green, I barely notice a cloud of eagles that hovers over Fritz Cove while we drive down the North Douglas Highway. Twenty or thirty of the big birds jockey for position over a dark spot on the water like gulls over a ball of panicked herring.

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Thinking that they might be drawn to a feeding whale, I pull over to watch. Whales, like Stellar seal lions, are sloppy eaters. Gulls often hover over them, hoping to clean up the scraps. Some the eagles drop toward the water then pull skyward with empty talons. But no bubble-feeding humpback crashes out of the water, maw opened wide.

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The party apparently over, the eagle cloud lifts into the air and moves toward our car. Soon they are circling over my head, performing a dance with moves too complicated for me to understand. Fifty feet away, one mature eagle squats in the road verge looking wet, and to me, a little disgusted with the flying eagles. Is it too old to play or too wise to chase shadows in the water?

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Things Returning

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Let’s get this out of the way. It’s raining. It’s raining for the first time in a week Drops cling to emerging leaves and blueberry blossoms. They soak into Aki’s grey fur. The rain doesn’t slow down the little rain forest dog. She muscles ahead over a low ridge and then leads me down to the beach.

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I was hoping we would see whales or at least Steller sea lions after we leave the woods. But no cetaceans break the surface of Favorite Channel. We normally walk down the beach before returning to the trail. But someone is camping out in a tent. While taking a lesser-used trail to return to the forest, we are surprised by a pair of bickering, red-breasted sapsuckers. So intent on their territorial battle, they don’t notice us until we are only ten feet away.

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When we return to the place the sapsuckers battled, we will have seen iridescent sea anemones jammed together in a tiny tide pool, several sea lions, and our first humpback whale of the year.

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Putting Up Fish

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It wasn’t supposed to be sunny today, but it is. I’m on my friend’s boat heading toward the Auk Bay fuel dock. Aki is home, hopefully stretched out on a sun-warmed section of the floor. Painfully bright light bounces off Favorite Passage and a bank of quick-moving fog. It’s a beautiful monster that could cause the boat to crash onto the rocks if it doesn’t lift. It does. We gas up and head out to the place that has always provided us with salmon for the winter.2

The pass is almost empty of other boats and, as we will soon find out, empty of silver salmon. There are whales—three humpbacks that cruise along the surface feeding on the small fry that usually attract salmon.4

Taking advantage of calm seas, we pull up our gear and motor over to the eastern shore of Admiralty Island where we fall into a line of charter boats trolling for salmon. They are catching lots of pink salmon for their clients. We want to put up the more desirable silvers and drop our trolling lines deep in hopes of getting below the pinks. This works. When we run out of bait we have in the boat four silver-bright silvers that together weigh more than thirty pounds—a good start.3