Humpback Whales in Salish Sea

Humpback Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. whale surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Humpback Whale releases a breath of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. The whale had been feeding in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Our boat cruised slowly in a southeast direction toward where several humpback whales had surfaced briefly. We had just finished watching a fin whale dive repeatedly in the middle of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Now we hoped to have a look at one of the humpback whales feeding in this area. The captain cut the motor, and we began to drift. The deck became quiet as all the passengers stared toward the southeast. The salt air smelled sweet, and the intense sun beat on my shoulders but the light breeze kept me from feeling warm. I had slipped on a light sweatshirt while we sailed and found it still helpful. My leg braced against the railing, and my feet were spread apart to counter the sway and wobble of the boat. Ocean swells a meter or more high came at an angle to the bow and caused it to rock wildly one way and then another. I held my camera tight against my chest to be ready if a whale surfaced. Without the camera, I would have been holding the railing.

Humpback Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. whale surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. Whale cruises toward the boat as it takes a series of breaths before making another dive in the Juan de Fuca Straits. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Humpback Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. The whale surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. Whale cruises toward the boat as it takes a series of breaths before making another dive in the Juan de Fuca Straits. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The blow caught our attention as the cetacean surfaced a few hundred yards in front of us. His exhale shot water up into the air, drifting quickly in the breeze, as the mammal glided across the surface. The humpback’s blowhole submerged as his back surfaced. His back gradually slid by in a slow curve and then briefly his small dorsal fin showed before water covered him, and he disappeared. Fifty seconds later, he surfaced again to breathe. He took another seven breaths before he dove, arching his back more than before and his fluke rising completely out of the water. The crowd erupted in cheers as the fluke dripped water before it, too, vanished. I could feel the smile cross my face even though I held my camera tight against it, crushing my nose, as I created photographs of the complete sequence. The captain said we would continue to drift and see if one surfaced closer to us.

Pacific herring form large schools in the Salish Sea. These small fish, up to 15 inches long, lay their eggs in eelgrass beds in Puget Sound and represent an important food item for salmon, seals, whales, and birds. We were drifting over a ledge that creates underwater eddies and ideal places for herring to feed on the plankton that flourish in these nutrient-rich waters. I leaned out over the railing to look straight down into the water. The churn of the waves around the boat prevented any view down into the depths, but somewhere down there I could sense the excitement of life. Zooplankton fed on algae. Herring chased plankton, and humpbacks corralled the herring. My body tensed with the awe of this perceived action.

Over the next half hour, we watched several more humpback whales surface to breathe, but none had come particularly close. Each time, they took five to eight breaths before they dove. With each dive, the fluke rose above the water to cheers from the crowd. Our boat floated with the currents, gradually heading into the Salish Sea. Common murres flushed from the surface as we passed, and glaucous-winged gulls flapped overhead on lazy wing beats. The sublime setting mesmerized me.

Humpback Whale dives in the Juan de Fuca straits and it raises its fluke as it heads to the depths. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Humpback Whale dives in the Juan de Fuca straits and it raises its fluke as it heads to the depths. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

“There,” screeched from both sides of me as everyone spotted a new spout half the distance out from the last. The whale was coming right toward us. If this humpback continued on this course and took half a dozen breaths before diving, we might have an incredible look. He stayed submerged for about a minute and then breathed again, repeating this process, coming closer each time. The captain had turned off the motor, and silence filled the air. I could feel the tension in the passengers that surrounded me, shoulder to shoulder. No one said a word and my guess was that we all held our breath too. On the sixth surface, the captain said, “I think he is about to dive,” and we watched as his back bent as he buckled over, and his fluke rose out of the water, right there in front of us. The ship rocked as everyone yelled in amazement. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. I felt the tension loosen in my muscles, and I reached for the railing as I set my camera against my chest. These were truly magnificent beasts.

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