Cue the Whales

This week’s blog post continues the story of a sailboat expedition in southeast Alaska in 2005.  For previous references to the trip, see Crossing BridgesWild Serenade and Feels So Good.

“Has anyone eaten bear?” asked Phil.  “I’ve heard that it tastes like pork.”

David didn’t miss a beat.  “Actually,” he said, “it's more like bat.”

David, who would eventually leave Alaska to lead The Nature Conservancy’s programs in Africa, had worked in that continent in the Peace Corps after college.  Evidently, the bush meats commonly available in the village where he lived regularly included bat, which was not considered an unusual dining option.  David explained that these were large bats, not the small ones we commonly find in rural attics, and then digressed into an interesting story of cultural gastronomy involving the varying cat- and dog-eating taboos of different villages he had visited.

One of the best things about wilderness trips, whether on land or water, is the wide-ranging scope of conversation that just seems to emerge of its own accord, especially among interesting people with the variety of life experiences that we had on this special trip in southeast Alaska.  The entire journey was essentially a weeklong floating symposium on ecology and wilderness, not only in Alaska but around the globe.  After hearing some of David’s tales about his adventures in Africa, and also Amy’s recounting of her Peace Corps work in Morocco, it may be no accident that Miles later joined the Peace Corps himself, working with cocoa farmers in Ecuador.

Trips like this can also open one’s eyes to new worlds and new ways of thinking.  I have never been much of a boat person and did not immediately regard the coastal marine environment as one that would have the same “wilderness” values that I find, let’s say, on the open tundra of the arctic.  That all changed, however, after a few hikes in the Tongass and numerous encounters with marine mammals as we sailed or kayaked. 

Every day, we would go ashore at some sheltered spot for exploration of the Tongass, which is fertilized by the nutrients brought back by returning salmon that spawn and die in its rivers and streams.  As Amy Gulick has written, it is literally a case of Salmon in the Trees.  Combine these nutrients with the plentiful moisture of the temperate rainforest and the result is that the trees grow broad and tall.  To borrow from Gordon Lightfoot, the green dark forest stands almost too silent to be real, especially in the virgin areas that have escaped commercial logging and still contain massive stands of old growth trees. 

We saw no other boats on the week-long trip until we reached the crowded waters just outside Glacier Bay.  This was partly due to the timing of our voyage, which was in early spring and a bit chancy in terms of weather.  It was also because we were proceeding up the outer coast of the barrier islands that run between Sitka and Gustavus, not through the more sheltered Inside Passage that cruise ships ply between the islands and the mainland. 

Perhaps related to the absence of other human activity, we were treated to numerous displays of marine wildlife, especially large mammals such as humpback and gray whales, sea lions and walruses.  Jerry had ample opportunity to employ his gently ironic phrase, “Cue the whales” (or moose, bear, caribou, etc., as the occasion warrants). 

Like many Alaskans, about two-thirds of the humpbacks wisely spend the winter season in the warmer climate of Hawaii.  They seek not the sunshine favored by human travelers but the relative safety of the islands, where they can mate, give birth and nurse their calves far from killer whales and other predators.  In springtime, the humpback whales journey back to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska’s coastal waters, which are rich with the krill, herring and other small crustaceans and fish that make up the whales’ diets.  On this trip, we did not have any really close encounters with these magnificent animals, but we frequently saw their tall plumes erupting in the medium distance, hanging high in the air before dissipating into mist, and we occasionally glimpsed a fluke rising against the horizon as it powered an animal down for an extended dive.

The gray whales, in contrast, seemed as interested in us as we were in them and were often in our company.  These whales migrate also, spending the winter months farther south along the Pacific coast, ranging as far as Baja California.  It was obvious that their spouts were different than those of the humpbacks, being noticeably shorter and more diffuse, which made species identification fairly easy. 

These animals frequently congregated around us and I especially remember one fine morning on which a pod of a dozen or so gray whales sought out Arcturus, surrounding the boat and escorting us like an honor guard.  We were under sail at the time, moving quietly through the water, but something about our presence must have piqued the curiosity of the large gray mammals, which accompanied us for several miles. 

For an hour or more, the whales mimicked our course, traveling on either side of us, before and aft of our boat.  They were close.  We could clearly hear the audible wheezing as a volatile combination of air and water passed through the blowholes atop their heads.  The fine mist of their plumes was so close that we could sometimes feel it brushing our faces and catch the scent of their oily breath. 

Every so often, one of the animals would roll slightly, tilting its head so one eye would emerge from the water, presumably in order to get a better view of the boat and its crew.  It is not every day that you can gaze directly into the big round eye of a whale, exchanging what I firmly believe was a moment of mutual comprehension and awareness.

David and Phil check out a gray whale breaking the surface beside Arcturus.

David and Phil check out a gray whale breaking the surface beside Arcturus.