Sunday, July 22, 2012

Whale Encounter in Alaska

Patty Smukall

“Enjoy a day aboard the Lu-Lu Belle”’ the sign read.  Little did I know that one day, on this magnificent 70+ foot luxurious vessel,  venturing out into Prince William Sound, would my childhood dreams come true!  My childhood is when my fascination with cetaceans, whales, dolphins and porpoises, started but didn’t end.  My endless curiosity about these fascinating creatures continued into adulthood and throughout my life, leading me to pursue a degree in Zoology and a 10 year career at Sea World, working with marine mammals for most of it. This phase of my life gave me plenty of opportunities to observe, rescue and care for marine mammals of many types, mostly Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, manatees and sea lions.  I participated in many necropsies over the years as Sea World at that time was the leader in rescuing and rehabilitation of any marine mammals along the coast of central Florida.  I even planned my vacation around the migration of the California Grey Whales, and traveled to California to see them pass during their 6,000 mile round trip migration from the Bering Sea to the lagoons of Baja, Mexico.

 But it was the big ones I longed to see, the majestic humpbacks, Megaptera novaeangliae,  the ones famous for their songs that vary from group to group and change from year to year, just as our music changes with the times.  These are the whales that are also known for their social behaviors, especially their “bubble-netting” , a feeding behavior which demonstrates their social ability to communicate, coordinate their activities and even to take turns. 
  I know many adult Homo sapiens who have a very hard time with that last requirement!  Bubble-netting involves these foraging crustacean-eating giants to encircle their prey, which consists mostly of tiny krill and copepods, and methodically exhale a net of bubbles.  Little do these tiny crustaceans know that they can swim right through these bubbles!  By working in groups of 3 or more, all blowing bubbles underwater, the whales increase the efficiency of the hunting method.  The whales then take turns lunge feeding.  Lunge feeding involves lifting vertically out of the water with open mouths, through patches of unsuspecting, confused tiny invertebrates.  Their expandable throat grooves allow for the consumption of thousands of pounds of krill at a time. The krill is trapped on their flexible baleen plates, as they water through the row of baleen and swollen the prey.  This ingenious, infallible system clearly demonstrates their teamwork and intelligence.

It wasn’t until my own son, now a fisheries biologist himself, living in Alaska, invited me up to visit, that I was given to opportunity to see these majestic giants perform this and other behaviors.  I enjoyed seeking out and observing all of the wildlife Alaska has to offer; bears, moose, salmon galore, herds of caribou and birds on their way to their migration destinations.  But in the back of my mind, I longed to see the whales Alaska is home to. 

I got my opportunity as we pulled in the quaint town of Valdez.  The rest of my group peered out the windows, looking for a “vacancy” sign at any of the handful of hotels.  This was, after all, the peak of the tourist season and all towns on the coast fill up during the summer due to the famous run of the salmon. Fishing boats abounded, the smell of the sea surrounded us and no vacancies were apparent.  Then I saw it - a sign showing a humpback whale breaching, and claiming to be the best wildlife viewing vessel in Valdez. It was larger than life, at least to me and there was no stopping me, depleted budget or not, I was sold.

 Glacier Wildlife Cruises prides itself on taking their time to ensure that its passengers enjoy the wildlife available and a close-up view of the Columbia Glacier.  The cruise is scheduled to last from 5/12 to 7 hours, depending on what is seen along the way.   However,  Captain Fred Rodolf, owner of the Lu-Lu Belle, a mighty vessel , has been cruising Prince William Sound since 1979 and his in his personal style, narrates during the entire cruise, sharing his knowledge of the area and the abundance of wildlife it treasures.  Captain Rudolf himself restored his yacht, one of the most beautiful in Alaska, and is at the helm for every one of its enlightening cruises.  He believes in staying out on the Sound until its passengers have had the chance to take in and take photos of what they sought out to see.  In my case, it was whales.

Find whales we did, but along the way, we were treated to an array of nature’s miracles.  Before we ever left the small boat harbor in Valdez, we saw rafts of sea otters floating and shielding their pups.   As we entered the magnificent Prince William Sound,  Steller’s Sea Lions, rested on the buoys. This was nothing compared to the hundreds of them in rookeries we passed along the shoreline.  These pinnipeds are an on-going conservation success story, still recovering from decades of over-harvesting, and to see them fighting for space on the shore, ready to breed and add to the next generation literally brought tears to my eyes.  As we looked carefully up at the cliffs above these rookeries, we saw puffins nesting in the cracks and crevices.

Going further out to see, we were accompanied by schools of Dall’s Porpoises, Phocoenoides dalli, trying to catch a ride on our bow wake.  This, of course delighted the passengers, especially the children onboard.  But where were the whales, the big humpbacks I had hoped for?  Many onboard were excited to see the small, immature Gray Whale, Eschrichitus robusus, detected and pointed out by no other than my son I have to say.  Exciting? Yes.  Was it capable of taking my breath away?  No. This was awesome but I wasn’t as impressed as some, since I had seen lots of bigger, mature grey whales off the coast of California.

Then it happened!  In the distance Capt. Fred saw a pod of Humpbacks, and slowly, ever so quietly approached them, carefully keeping a respectful distance.  They were feeding and diving, presenting those incredible 10 foot wide tail flukes that scientists use to identify each one.  The scars, markings, and patterns are unique to each one of them, just as our fingerprints are unique to us.  Through my tear-filled eyes I was witnessing what I had been waiting all of my life for; seeing the playful antics of a real live baleen whale enjoying life in its own natural world! One of these giants must have been sent from heaven to amuse us and fulfill my dream, because after a few minutes of watching 40+ people scramble from one side of the boat to the other every time he moved, he decided to put on a spectacle all of us will never forget.  He slowly wandered away from the rest of the pod, and proceeded to perform all of the visible behaviors that I teach my Marine Biology students in class every year.  There were the tail lobs (lobbing the tail in the air and slapping the flukes on the surface), fluking (raising its tail before a dive), pec-slaps (lying on its side or back, hitting the surface with its flippers known as pecs) and the spy hopping (raising the head out of the water to expose the eyes and take a look around).  Then, as I stood there on the most forward part of the boat (yes,  the part Leonardo Dicaprio hung over in the Titanic), thinking life just can’t get any better than this, this gorgeous 12+ meter Humpback Whale repeated breached before my eyes.  I was so awestruck by all of this, I had not even taken one picture, but that’s ok because the images are all forever engrained in my heart.


  1. Aunt Patty! I had no idea you are a blogger! This is a wonderful account of a time that must have been so special. I'm going to read it to Emma and John tonight for a bedtime story. We love you!
    - Nancy

  2. Wonderful way to make all of us feel the excitement and wonder of the experience!