Friday, June 1, 2012

Attacked by Whales

            First of all, it was probably not the whale’s fault.   I was taking a day off, and was going out paddling with Geoff, the lodge manager, and Mike and Lindsey, two new staff who were very keen to try some sea kayaking.   We packed our lunch, launched our kayaks, and began making our way up the bay towards Aialik Glacier, five miles away.   Shortly after leaving the lagoon, we saw the first whale, which spouted, unusually loudly, maybe a half mile away from us. She appeared at the surface a few times, and then dove.   We got a pretty good look at her.   Then, the second whale turned up – and this whale was both closer to us, and also in the general direction that we were heading.   Geoff took off in a beeline right towards the whale, which was still a few hundred yards away.   I followed, along with the two new staff.   I figured this was one of my only opportunities this summer to do somewhat irresponsible things on the water that I absolutely would not be able to do with guests – like chasing a whale.   Also, I didn’t think that we had any real chance of catching up with this whale.   But, I did hope that we might get close enough to get a better look at the guy, and maybe get some pictures.   

           Famous last words.   

            To my surprise, the whale was continuing to hang out in about the same place in the water, and we were able to get close enough that, when he next came to the surface, we got great views – you could hear his blow, and make out the little whiskery bumps on his chin.   He looked small, for a whale.   He surface again, slighty behind our boats, and I could see his back arch as he started on a deeper dive. 

            About thirty seconds later, a gigantic sea-monster of a whale surfaces right in front of my kayak, bellowing this loud, Tyrannosaurous-style roaring exhale.   It is the loudest sound I have ever heard a whale make, and the whale in question is only about forty feet in front of my boat, and heading straight towards me.   I start backing my boat away, then decide that maybe I shouldn’t get any closer to the whale behind me, and stop paddling.   I think I remember yelling ‘Hey whale’, as though it were a bear, and slapping the sides of my kayak.   The big whale dipped back underwater, but she was so close to the surface that I could see the water being displaced as she swam.   Junior Whale is still behind me, but at the moment, I am far more concerned with the bigger one heading towards my boat.   It felt like we were being herded, like the whales had maybe decided that their preferred hunting strategy - cooperatively driving small fish into a tight cluster that could be easily dispatched in a couple of mouthfuls - would work just as well on kayaks as on krill.   

            The whale came up again, between my boat and the tandem kayak with the new staff, still roaring through her blowhole like she was a charging rhino.   She was close enough that I could have touched her with my paddle.   She dove, deeper this time, and suddenly we were all scanning the water, trying to figure out where the whales were going to come up next – and all desperately hoping that the whale wouldn’t  decide to surface underneath any of our boats.   

            The big whale came up again, on the other side of my kayak, and rolled in the water, almost as though she were trying to get a good look at us.   At this point, I started paddling left, a direction I was pretty sure would take me further away from both of the whales.   Mike and Lindsey were right behind me.   Geoff stayed where he was - blithely reminding us that the whales were really only dangerous to people if they decided to breach on top of our boats – but I figured at this point the whales were making it very clear that they did not want us this close.   And the big whale was still making that shrieking exhale whenever she surfaced.   

            Moments after reminding us of the relative harmlessness of humpback whales, Geoff yells “Oh shit, she’s under my boat!:   He started paddling his kayak out of there faster that I have ever seen him paddle before.   Now that all three of the kayaks were in full retreat, the whales appeared to back off as well, nuzzling against each other’s flanks as they surfaced.   If I hadn’t figured it out before, this was the final clue – this pair was a mother and a calf, and Mom Whale had apparently not been happy with the interest we were taking in her youngster.   

            From the relative safety of 50 yards away, we regrouped, and took some pictures, all of us having been too busy fearing for our lives to do so earlier.   We watched the pair for the next twenty minutes as we continued paddling towards the glacier.   Strangely, Mom Whale almost invariably made the same loud, high-pitched exhalation when she came to the surface.   From a distance, the noise seemed less like an angry bellow, and more like some sort of weird breathing condition.   It almost sounded like something was constricting her airway.   We also noticed that she would occasionally remain motionless at the surface for upwards of a minute, which is unusual for whales.   Our boat crew had also reported seeing a whale elsewhere in the Bay that was spending an inordinate amount of time at the surface.   I think this must have been the same animal.   At any rate, it was a little reassuring to think  that the whale wasn’t intentionally roaring at us when she popped up so close to our boats.  On the other hand, I felt guilty that we’d caused a potentially ill whale to rush over to check on her calf just because we’d wanted a closer look at her baby.   

The humpback whale pair in Aialik Bay

            Was this an asthmatic whale?   Is this what happens when a whale gets a head cold?   We haven’t seen, or heard, from this whale since, so I am assuming she and her calf have moved off to other, fish-filled waters elsewhere in the Gulf of Alaska.   Another, more  kayak-tolerant whale is feeding in the Bay at the moment; we ended up following about fifty yards behind him for around a mile on one of our guide training trips.   (We weren’t chasing this one; we just both happened to be travelling along the same bit of shoreline).   From what I’ve seen in previous seasons, the humpback whales tend to leave the bay by late June – but kayaking with whales in the bay is always a fine line between magical and terrifying.  

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