Sitka, a whale watcher’s paradise
One of the only places on earth you can observe humpback whales work as a team bubble-net feeding is here in the pristine, nutrient-rich waters of Alaska.
This most impressive act of cooperative feeding was on display from early October to mid-November of 2017 in the Eastern Channel and up towards Silver Bay, in front of the aptly named Whale Park of Sitka, Alaska.
The Alp-like peaks of Tongass National Forest and the crimson-streaked dormant Mt. Edgecumbe volcano provided the backdrop as we watched a pod of 15-20 humpback whales cruise back and forth through 500-foot deep waters searching for huge bait-balls of krill. When they found their prey, the leader called to the team, synchronizing the pod mates’ dive and actions.
As captain of A Whale’s Song Expeditions, my guests and I had breathtaking courtside seats while the whales supplied the play-by-play, announcing their activities. Eavesdropping on their communication with our on-board hydrophone, we would detect the pitch of feeding calls from the leader abruptly getting higher and louder. Each time I heard this I knew my guests would soon be astonished as the whales’ heads would erupt with huge mouths open, throat grooves bulging with fish and seawater flushing through their baleen plates. In seconds several hundred glaucous gulls would arrive, screaming and swarming the upwelling waters full of krill, with some of the more courageous gulls seeming to steal the crustaceans from the surfaced open mouths of the whales. When these engagements arose adjacent to our vessel, the noise of the whales’ grunts, calls, and whistling exhales, united with the crying gulls, although quite loud, had a natural soothing effect on our souls.
My guests and I were fortunate to have this bubble-net scenario play out as often as 20 times during our 3-hour expedition. While touring the waters we were treated to other acrobatic humpback displays as we watched them breach, lobtail, flipper slap, and spy hop. Watching the graceful and athletic performances of these 20-plus ton beautiful creatures served to remind and motivate us all of the need for conservation, education, and research to help protect the precious marine environment.
October through January are ideal times to delight in this behavior as Megaptera novaeangliae gorge themselves before making their migratory journey to the calving and breeding grounds in the shallow, clear, warm waters of Hawaii. Mid-March through the end of April is another exciting time to see bubble-net feeding when the herring spawn. Sac roe concentrates the whale pods again and stimulates the feeding activities of all the marine mammals around Sitka.
Witnessing bubble-net feeding behavior makes jaws drop, and exhausts camera and cell phone batteries, no matter how many times one has seen a whale.