My Friends' Stories

Studying Sea Giants

By Olga von Ziegesar

Dedicated to Ken Norris, who taught me to observe nature and to always have the greatest adventure of our lives.

Spiraling down, shafts of sunlight piercing the dark Alaskan waters, two humpback whales swim in harmony, descending, weaving through the light spears with grace. Deeper and darker now, they are relying on other senses to find their prey. The giant leviathans’ undulating bodies are thrusting with wide tail and supple fins. They reach a cloud of krill at three hundred feet and split, circling rapidly with intention, their wake creating a wall of force, scaring and condensing the tiny shrimp. Then, a discreet change of pace, or perhaps a glance of a whale’s white fin, signals the attack. Both whales turn inward and lunge through the mass with mouth extended and stomach pleats loose. A rush of water, shudder of baleen, the jaws move forward and up to close. Bristle stiff hairs comb the streaming water and trap in the small crustaceans forced down the throat by tongue and jaw.

I visit these glacial carved bays every summer following the humpback whales. The whales and I both are here when the light lasts all night. We know these bays and passages like we know our roots, our skin, our offspring. When the winter comes the whales leave, migrating to tropical waters near the equator. In Alaska snow covers dormant delicate meadows, and trees lean against violent storms. The birds fly to continents south and I return to my hometown of Homer, one hundred miles away, driving kids to school, keeping schedules, and stoking the woodstove to stay warm.

Now we are all back, our summer clocks drawing us here like magnets. Plants, algae, and zooplankton unfold and reproduce, exploding with the intense sunlight.

Beards of grey green moss hang off the spruce trees that grow out of rocks, sometimes splitting them open in the impossibility of surviving here. The branches are ragged from so much wind and rain. Yet sunlight passes through fans of millions of tiny delicate needles. A bald eagle, perched on a top branch, watches like a statue, its patience is as old as the gods watching from the heavens. It can see details I cannot. With a silver flash of fish near the surface, it will drop off its limb and swoop down skimming the surface with claw-like talons as large as a child’s hand. The timing has to be exquisite, grabbing, flapping, and gaining altitude before the water grabs back.

My friend Shelley and I and are spending ten days at my whale camp on a small beach on the elbow of Knight Island Passage in Prince William Sound. Here whales travel near the shoreline, their loud blows sometimes wake us in our sleeping bags. The wooden tent frame weathers each winter like a whale rib cage washed up above the tide line. Storm ice scours and rams the beach. In spring we stretch the old white miner’s tent over grey boards, dig dishes and tools out of a damp rock cave, and join sections of pipe for the Yukon stove. This humble canvas becomes our mansion on one hundred feet of rocky beach. In storms we tie down the flaps, hang wet clothes from strings and nails, and huddle, around the rusty stove. I think often of those early explorers camping in these tents on the glacier near Valdez. They left everything familiar and comfortable behind in hopes of digging gold out of the harsh Alaskan wilderness. For me it has been a driving urge to follow and know this small group of humpback whales that come to the Prince William Sound in the northern apex of the Gulf of Alaska each summer.

I first came here in 1971 on a kayak trip lead by experienced mountain climbers from Wyoming. None of us had ever been to Alaska, nor had we paddled sea kayaks. A mixed group, thrown together, one woman postal worker from Milwaukee, a farm boy from Ohio, a man sixty years old, without his wife and children, a thin kid from California who quit college, and me. We paddled for five weeks, following the shoreline and crossing passages when the water was flat, picking a new beach each night with fresh water and enough room to set up twelve tents. We fished and ate limpets, snails and mussels we pulled off the exposed rocks. When we were very low on food we shot a bear. Small heads with big brown eyes of seals and sea otters watched our curious group as paddles dipped and the small kayak bodies glided along. In still coves we glided along shoreline alarming Harlequin sea ducks that ran on the water as they beat their wings to get air. We saw one boat the whole time. I was a tough seventeen year old and had grown up a tomboy in the suburbs of Connecticut. I knew how to camp and canoe, but I had never known this kind of silence.

Thirty-five years later, with early morning coffee, Shelley and I sit on the front edge of the tent platform and look out across the water toward Icy and Whale Bays. The camel back of Dual Head peaks towers in blue sky and I remember climbing it in early summer two years ago with our kids and our skis. Just off camp the Pleiades Island group, made up of seven rocky dots spread across the intersection of five passages look like the constellation in the night sky, and can be seen from many angles. On the north island a light beacon flashes warning to mariners.

Our boat hangs off a mooring made from a rock bag of scavenged trawl web, rope, and buoy. Sometimes we spot a blow from here, other mornings our camp radio attached to antennae in a tree, calls. Boaters hail us with whale sightings. I jump in my kayak and bring the boat into shore. We load fuel, notebooks and food and are on our way. The call is to Bainbridge Passage, four miles away.

As we approach we see two small puffs on the water near shore. These blows are about ten feet high but from a distance they look like a very little mushroom cloud of vapor. We stop the boat and wait.

Together the whales rise, their muscles aching for air. They burst through the glassy surface, bending water tension, expelling a rush of stale air. Through twin blowholes fresh air is sucked into a hollow the size of a small car. We feel our selves pulled into the power of these leviathans. How has this large dinosaur-like mammal survived the wrath of man, harpoon, and global shipping? The whale is the largest animal in the world and lives on a diet of the tiniest ocean creatures.

Shelley maneuvers the 26-foot motor sailor in behind the giants as I dive for the hatch, and my camera. For a moment we forget the peace of this place as we scramble for data. Approaching with the goal of a well-framed fluke photograph, Shelley must compensate for the will of tidal currents and breeze. Now we rely on silent communication, using the power of intimacy of our long friendship. I hold the camera nearly focused, estimating the length of zoom so the tail, as wide as a kayak-length, is in the frame. Our hands and minds calm. The auto focus is whirring and I forget to breathe as the whale arches high with an extra thrust, bending its massive tail stem. Vertebrae, by vertebrae it rolls and rolls. Finally the tail appears, water flowing off smooth black skin, in a curtain. It flips up and there, for a split second, is the identity of this whale. Click, click, click, the camera whirs off three photos before the tail drops, the huge whale descending again, leaving only a circle spreading on the smooth icy water. Breaking our silence Shelley calls out to me. Following behind its partner, the other whale is arching. I whirl to shift the camera, refocus and catch the other tail on film.

As the two tail prints dissipate and the still water turns back to reflection, Shelley kills the engine and we both take a deep breath. A thin whistle of a pigeon guillemot breaks the silence as the little black seabird paddles with bright red flippers, scanning for scraps and moving away from the boat. Lichen and moss hang off ancient trees. An eagle is watching from a broken limb.

I struggle balancing intellect and wonder, breaking the harmony of nature for the sake of science. The photographs of these tails will be compared to many others taken throughout the North Pacific Ocean. Digitized and computerized, the unique markings of pigmentation are stored in the Marine Mammal Lab at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. Being able to recognize a wild animal over time gives the scientist clues of its life story. The whale cannot be tagged, collared or branded and roams a vast territory. So researchers around the globe are gathering the photographic record of the unique humpback tails. A quarter of the three hundred whales we have identified in the Sound have been seen in Hawaii, and six were recognized off a small island group of Baja California. The rest must be migrating to more deserted waters in the North Pacific Ocean.

We are snatching the magic of this moment, to document the existence of these particular whales feeding in Prince William Sound. I mark on a data sheet; Whale IDs: Z9 and Y5, deep feeding together in the mouth of Bainbridge Passage. A GPS (Global Positioning) designates the exact time and location in the world, and the digital camera records the frame numbers. Our children have softened the science by naming the whales after heroes of fairy tales and pirates. Snow White and Gwenivere, where have you been? Across the seas, through schools of fish and shipping lanes of foreign flag? Have you been to warm turquoise waters along volcanic shoreline where tourist boats follow and singing males are courting? For weeks you swim to get back to this pristine place where the fish school and we meet again.

While waiting for the whales to surface again, my mind wanders down to the depths where those two must be working together to catch elusive crustaceans. In reality, we only have the evidence, clues based on the mammals’ behavior at the surface when they come to breath oxygen. The rest is all up to our imagination.

I first came here to study the whales in 1980 with my college friend Beth, a little money, and her dog. It was my senior thesis project for the University of California at Santa Cruz. We would camp and document the feeding areas and the flukes of all the humpback whales we could find. My boyfriend, Bill Bledsoe, took us and our gear out in his large king crab fishing boat, the Kamishak Queen. He helped us choose a spot for our camp. We looked for a sight with water, a place to safely moor the boat, and a good viewpoint for whales. We chose the mouth of Whale Bay.

When the Kamishak Queen left they took all the comforts and communication of the outside world. With only the shelter of a small dome tent and a plastic tarp we began our study. The first morning, sitting on round grey beach stones, we felt small and isolated as we heated tea over a small fire. Beth packed peanut butter and carrots and we launched our fifteen-foot inflatable rubber boat, loaded the dog and camera, and set out to find some whales.

The water was glassy calm in the middle of lower Knight Island Passage. A blow hung in the air with no breeze to disperse it. We were jittery with excitement but approached slowly. We drew near and found the whale was moving slower than our lowest idle speed. Its blowhole was only a few feet away. As it inhaled it seemed as though we could be sucked right in! The leviathan dwarfed our small boat. Beth shifted the outboard to neutral and I stood in the bow balancing as I braced my camera with long lens and waited to take my first fluke photograph. The whale had moved less than we predicted and we drifted right over it. There was a boat length of creature off both bow and stern! Suddenly the whale arched high. We were too close. The tips of the tail were protruding out both sides of our tiny rubber hull! As each bump of its vertebrae passed in front of the bow the adrenalin pumped through me! With grace and intuition, the whale twisted its tail delicately, sliding out from under the raft and dropping into the water! Down it went. I could have touched its crusty tail. With my 300 mm lens I was able to focus on five white cookie size circles on the tip of its fluke! For these we named it "Oreo", Beth’s favorite food. We collapsed in the boat, screeching with laughter and relief!

Our photographing techniques became more refined after that first encounter. We saw Oreo in all parts of the study area that summer with many different whales. His gregariousness made us think he was a young male. He has been in the Sound almost every year since then, however, in 1990, "he" arrived with a calf alongside!

Humpbacks reach physical maturity at around ten years of age. We surmise that at the time of that first encounter Oreo was a juvenile female, maybe one or two years old. Now she is at least twenty-six and has had a few other calves.

The animals are too big to capture, sex, and measure, so sighting histories through the years help us to piece together the whales’ stories. I have returned to the Sound for twenty-five years with different friends, usually other mothers, and our kids. The camp is now on the opposite side of the passage and we still find the same whales that Beth and I photographed from that little raft in 1980.

When the humpback whales arrive in Alaska they are starving. They have eaten very little food through their migration, mating, and calving. Depending on the kind of prey they are chasing they behave differently. We adjust our approach to their feeding strategy.

When a frenzy of whales is feeding on fish schools it seems there are blows everywhere with a lot of splashing and crashing. Like flocks of migrating shorebirds, the tiny fish (Herring, Sand lance, Capelin or salmon fry) move in mass near the surface, switching directions rapidly. I imagine the whales cutting through the swarm in different places blocking with breaching body, or slapping tails and pectoral fins. When the fish are very shallow, a whale may even use the surface as a wall to fish against. Its snout lunging out of the water as it gulps, with flocks of gulls diving and arguing over scraps. We follow the birds as they hover and rest. Somehow they know where the whale will come up next. With a blow from below, the gulls scatter.

Alert, with engine running, we try to maneuver through the pandemonium to position for a fluke photograph. The animals are hard to align with. They use shallow dives and rarely show their tales. We try different angles and shoot off photos when we can. We watch for lunging whales. I have had them knock the boat while in pursuit of fish.

Once I was trying to photograph a lone whale lunge feeding south of Little Green Island. It was in shallow water near a reef. My neighbor, Loretta was with our four kids and me. Motoring around seemed intrusive in this confined area and it was difficult to predict where the whale would surface next. We decided to drift and watch with the engine idling so the whale would know where we were. In long Alaskan twilight we had just poured tea and the kids were below preparing a snack.

Suddenly the whale came barreling out of the water in a full breach within a few feet of our stern. Water cascaded off its giant body and arm-like pec fins, droplets reflecting and flowing through grooves and crevices. Looking like a tied dancer, it had the towrope to our kayak draped over its shoulder! It crashed down leaving us rocking in its wake and the kayak bobbing frantically. We moved away rapidly leaving the whale feeding in peace.

A freight barge has called reporting at least twenty humpback whales blowing off Hanning Bay, in Montague Strait. This gateway to the Sound is wider than any other body of water we work in. Flowing into the power of the Gulf of Alaska, the entrances of Prince William Sound wash with tides and huge schools of fish. Pods of killer whales dip in from the open water searching for food. Pelagic birds of rock and cape gather in huge rafts. In deep massive ribbons, herring congregate, feeding and waiting for spring when they emerge and coat the shoreline with a frosting of tiny white eggs.

Angry weather can blow in rapidly. The closest bays, Hanning and Macleod, face the Gulf and the mercy of gail winds, and offer us little shelter. We feel vulnerable. It takes our boat about an hour to cross from the haven of Knight Island Passage.

Finally we spot clusters of little puffs against distant shore. Whales are scattered along the drift of the out flowing tide. The Herring are over a hundred feet deep. It is not such frenzy. The whales dive for ten minutes at a time and feed on the masses of fish.

We choose one and wait. Finally it is up with another whale, about a quarter mile away. Shelley runs at full speed, slowing for the approach. I fight to keep the camera dry and yet ready for the shot. They dive, and I am able to get one fluke photograph, but not the other. We wait again. They surface, but now they are separate again. With my binoculars, I try to recognize the whale we still need to photograph by its dorsal fin. “It’s that one over there.” We race over, again trying to calm in time to focus. It is a different whale. Now there are three diving. We wait. I imagine whales randomly moving down deep through millions of silver fish with mouths wide, scooping as they swim.Blasting up, exhausting stale air, they appear down current. Adjusting to wind and swell we get two out of three.

And so the day goes, moving up and down the passage with the whales, concentrating on patterns of black and white, distinguishing twenty different animals inthis smattering of blows on ocean swell. My head aches from bouncing and memorizing. Alone out here at the Entrance to the Gulf with thegreatness of these animals, we are humbled. Shafts of setting sun pass between walls of rocky capes down the outer coastline. I take over driving, giving Shelley a break. The wind rushes through my hair, salt spray showers my face, and I watch a Jaeger chase gulls as we make our way back across the wide passage to the shelter of our little speck of tent on deserted beach.

Copyright © 2007 Olga von Ziegesar, All Rights Reserved

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