Friday, June 3, 2011

Humpback Whales Joined Our Tour

            The Iceberg Lodge has been opened now for three days, and we’re seeing our first group of guests departing.   It is sad to see them go; they are all from a environmental organization, and have been some of the most easily-managed guests we will see all season.   They like each other, for one thing, and they show up for tours with their own rain gear.   This is always a good sign.  The group also had a knack for finding dead things on our property.   First, it was a Leather starfish on our beach, then a weird broken bird egg on the glacier moraine, and then bits of a dead bird on the beach.   Later, one of the guests spotted some sort of dead bug frozen inside a piece of glacial ice.   It looked weird enough that they tried to lasso the ice chunk to their kayak and tow it back to the Lodge.   They discovered really quickly that glacial ice is very, very dense – and this makes it very, very heavy. 

            The group also had good wildlife encounters.   The black bears are back around the lagoon in even greater numbers than last summer – about two hours after the first guests of the season arrived, we spotted a black bear twenty feet in front of the lodge, chewing on a downed tree.   And during the staff kayak training a few weeks ago, we had another bear swim out into the lagoon, right through our group of boats.   He didn’t seem upset in the slightest that there were boats heading towards him when he jumped in the water.   I suppose he figured that he had the right-of-way.   And there have been the usual number of bears wandering through the staff camp, checking on the progress of various construction projects, and looking for unattended piles of insulation to chew up.   Two days ago, I was on the return leg of a half-day hike with guests, and we were discussing  why we yell ‘Hey Bear’ as we’re hiking.   Basically, we make noise so that any bears in the area know that we’re coming, and aren’t suddenly surprised by our presence.    We aren’t actually yelling to scare them off – in fact, I don’t think yelling could scare these bears off.   Noise doesn’t seem to faze them.   For example, in camp, we have generators running, power tools yowling, six-wheeled ATVs running around, plus a lot of foot traffic and human chatter.  Despite all of the noise and bustle, bears regularly wander through camp.   

            I witnessed a great example of our bear’s tolerance of noise during a hike the other day.   I was walking back to the lodge with a group of eight, who were all being fairly noisy.   We come around a corner, and the guest directly behind me yells, Bear!   About fifteen feet off to the right, I see a furry rear end, placidly waddling off the trail and into the alder thicket.   He stops about thirty feet away and turns and watches us gawking at him, apparently waiting for us to keep going past him so that he can get back on the trail and continue his hike.    I think that the bear had been on our trail heading towards us, and had moved to a safer distance when he heard us coming.   Which is great – that is totally what we’d like the bears to do.   What is not so great is that the bear’s idea of what constitutes a safe distance from the people – is not what the people consider a safe distance from the bear.   This is the bad part of having really tolerant bears around – they just aren’t motivated to get out of your way.   

            This particular bear encounter was the closest I have ever (knowingly) been to a bear while guiding guests.   But in another few weeks, when the alders and willows leaf out, I will probably be passing more bears at even closer distances without even knowing they’re around. We yell ‘hey bear’, so that the bears know where we are.   Unfortunately, the bears don’t reciprocate this.  

       A humpback whale has moved into Aialik Bay, and apparently wants to join the Iceberg Lodge staff.   We’ve seem him frequently right off of our landing beach – and so close to shore that it seems impossible for there to be enough water for him to submerge.   He’s a very small whale; and has been in the bay constantly for over three weeks.   It’s unusual for us to see whales close to the head of the bay; usually they prefer more open water towards the Gulf of Alaska.   Last summer, we had a mother and calf who were in the Bay off and on; we’re speculating that our little whale might be that calf, who has grown up, returned from migration and is revisiting his boyhood haunts.   We’ve named him Humphrey.

            Humphrey made his first appearance when the guide staff were running our first training trip to Aialik Glacier.   We had launched our kayaks into the water, and had been paddling for maybe twenty minutes, when a whale surfaces about fifty feet away.   He surfaced three times in succession, and then swam off, but we kept seeing him spouting a half mile away.   He seemed to be matching our direction and speed.   We wondered if he wanted to join the trip.   Apparently, he did, because half an hour later, he showed up again, and swam right between our boats and the shore of Slate Island.   I estimate he was only two boat lengths from our group at his closest.

            Humphrey also met up with the guide staff on our other training trip in Abra Cove.   That time, he surfaced directly behind us, then dove and popped up again on the other side of our group – having probably swum underneath our kayaks to get there.   The Lodge water taxi saw him a few days later jumping out of the water, and a few staff who went out kayaking on their day off had him visit their boats, and then saw him head over to check out another group of kayakers at the other end of the Bay.

            So far Humphrey has not tried to join any of our guest trips; though as soon as he does, we’re going to need to figure out a way to get him included in the Iceberg Lodge tip-sharing pool.  It’s awesome that we have a whale who has apparently decided to move into the Bay for the summer – however, whales have been known to tip over kayaks, and Humphrey seems curious enough about our boats that he might actually try it one day.   I don’t really know of any good way to mitigate that.   Whale-watching handbooks recommend tapping on your hull to announce your presence to whales – the idea being that those whales who tip over boats did so accidentally, without knowing the boats were there.   In this instance, I think its obvious that Humphrey knows perfectly well where we are.   

            Do you know how scary it is to be in a room by yourself, and suddenly realize that something in the room is breathing?   That’s what it’s like to get surprised by whales.   You might think that a thirty ton animal would have a hard time being inconspicuous, but unless the whale surfaces directly in front of you, you won’t ever know it.   Instead, you’ll just hear the world’s loudest heavy breathing – one inhale, one exhale – and by the time you turn around, there’s only a ripple in the water, like a vanishing footprint.  


  1. Amazing! Your stories are awesome and your writing is phenomenal. I feel like I could turn around and see a whale print in the water the way you described it. It also makes me miss Alaska that much more.