Category Archives: Humpback Whales

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

Silvers, Humpbacks, and Orcas

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The silver salmon are returning to their home rivers around Juneau. Time to put up some silvers for winter even though it is raining. This is bad news for Aki. But she doesn’t sulk when I leave the house burdened down with lunch, a thermos of tea, and heavyweight Scandinavian rain gear.

3We leave Tee Harbor under heavy rain. The captain bounces the C Dory through the south Shelter Island tiderips toward the Point Retreat lighthouse. From there we cruise along the shore of Admiralty Island to grounds that usually offer good fishing. A humpback whale surfaces while we gear up our trolling leaders with herring. The whale, like the salmon, targets herring. Diving on them, the whale tosses its flukes skyward and disappears.2

We boat a pink salmon, a rockfish, and a potbellied silver salmon. Because they don’t freeze well, we release the other pink salmon we hook. Between strikes a trio of orcas appears, seeking the same thing we do—salmon.

Drawn to the blue and caramel

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Posters inviting people to an American Fourth of July celebration usually feature sunlight, fireworks, and attractive legs descending from bathing suits. One inviting Juneauites to our Fourth festivities this year should portray rain falling on soaked streets from clouds that seem to tear themselves apart on the mountainside spruce. If the clouds don’t clear or at least lift, they will swallow tonight’s fireworks. We will peer up into the rain as each explosion paints the gray sky with orange, red, or yellow light.1

Aki doesn’t mind the rain and appreciates that it cuts down on the amateur firework explosions that usually rattle her during the Fourth of July weekend. She would have enjoyed yesterday’s whale watching trip where she would have attracted almost as much attention on the boat as the humpback whales that we watched. Once we saw a stellar sea lion dogging a feeding whale. But my favorite view was of the clouds breaking open above the Chilkat Mountains. They parted, not to dump more rain, but to expose sun and patches of blue. The eyes of every Juneauite on the boat turned from a surfacing whale to the lightening sky.5

This morning it is raining hard as Aki as I start walking up the Brotherhood Bridge Trail. In the first meadow we spot two patches of crushed grass where a bear slept last night. Later I photograph a caramel-color slug feasting on a devil’s club stalk. On a normal day I’d turn away from the slug and search for the bear. But today, under low. gray skies, there is little competition for the lovely slug.1