Archive for August, 2016

28
Aug 16

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.

21
Aug 16

Fin Whale found feeding in the Straits of Juan de Fuca

Fin Whale surfaces to breath in the Juan de Fuca Straits and Mt. Baker rises in the background. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fin Whale surfaces to breath in the Juan de Fuca Straits and Mt. Baker rises in the background. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The spout rose a couple of dozen feet above the surface in a reverse cone of vapor and droplets. A whale blow well off our starboard side, and the captain turned the boat to cruise in that direction. The whale’s back continued to glide along as more and more of it surfaced in a slow arc before the mammal submerged completely. The captain cut the motor, and we began to drift. Just the breeze and the chatter of the passengers filled the air. This fin whale had been sighted the week before and seemed to be hanging around. This individual was only the second confirmed sighting of this rare baleen whale in the Salish Sea in many decades. The blood rushed through my body as I attempted to hold my camera still for the next surfacing. I had seen a fin whale a quarter century ago in the Gulf of California but never one in the United States.

A minute later the whale surfaced again, blowing water vertically, the water droplets glistening in the afternoon sun. It’s black skin reflecting light as it surfaced and the water slid down the glossy skin. The sickle-like dorsal fin eventually rose above the surface before the beast submerged again. This individual was 60 to 70 feet long, an adult. Fin whales are bigger than all but the blue whale. Our whale surfaced seven times before its back arched, and it dove. Its fluke never rose above the surface.

Our boat drifted in the Straits of Juan de Fuca a little west of Port Townsend. The captain said the whale was either feeding on krill or schools of herring that had congregated in this area. An escarpment cuts across the bottom in this location, and the water churns here as the tides move in and out of the Salish Sea. The mixing of nutrients makes an ideal soup for plankton to bloom and the krill and herring to feed. The abundant food drew our fin whale as well as several humpback whales that were surfacing half a mile to the south.

Fin whale populations have slowly recovered since they were protected from slaughter in the 1960s. The use of the Straits may indicate that fin whales are seeking new feeding areas or possibly the straits were having a large bloom of krill and herring this year. If fin whales return in future summers, then maybe this sighting is an indication of improving populations. Fin whales tend to be solitarily and so it wasn’t unusual to see just one individual.

Fin Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fin Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The boat had rocked for about five minutes before the whale surfaced from its feeding dive. I tried to imagine how it might have opened its huge mouth, filling it with water and possible food items, and then using its tongue to push the water through the bristly baleen like a colander and finally swallowing any food. This time, it had halved the distance between us. It looked like it would pass our bow. The passengers erupted in cheers, and many clapped hands in excitement. I felt the compression of human mass as everyone tried to congregate on the starboard side to see each successive breath of this cetacean. Each time, a new spout of water droplets rose like a flag announcing its arrival. In the distance, Mt. Baker showed behind the whale like a queen overlooking her kingdom. The snow and ice of this stratovolcano sparkled in the bright summer sun and gave me the sense that we had seen something special. After five more surfaces, our rorqual dove for the depths and another bit of lunch.

Twenty minutes later and after a few more sightings, the captain suggested we look for the humpback whales. Holding the railing as the boat rocked in the waves, I watched the spot of its last dive wondering what this fin whale thought of us watching it.