By Scott Thornburn
May 15, 2012
Will everyone who has read Moby Dick please raise your hands. Hmmm … well, it is a very long book and today there are other ways to learn about what may be, after elephants, everybody’s favorite mammal. However whales haven’t always enjoyed this warm, fuzzy prestige. Whales once were slaughtered until the seas ran red; they were prized for blubber and whale oil that lit the world’s cities. Even sitting in an 1840 Vermont farmhouse when the power is off, working up a preference for light over dark is daunting if light means killing a whale to obtain lamp oil. But that was then. In what could be called a Valentine to whales, on Feb. 13, 2012, Tom Ashbrook on National Public Radio’s On Point interviewed D. Graham Burnett, author of The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century.
While the universe of whales is far from stable (think underwater sonic booms) in this industrial and technology-driven world, they may be less threatened than over a century ago. But the reality of diminished numbers of these sea mammals challenges our sensibilities. Many hunger to come as close as possible to a whale, yes, because of its splendor, but perhaps also to assuage a collective guilt. Or whale sighting may be on a family’s bucket list. Unless you’re standing on shore where it’s a given that whales will sport like clockwork, being out on the water following an itinerary that skirts whales’ feeding grounds is the best way to experience the whale theater. Best shore viewing is at Point Adolphus, Alaska; Magdalena Bay, Baja, California; and Maui, Hawaii.
These international actors range from the smallest Dwarf Sperm Whale and the largest known animal to ever have existed, the Blue Whale. Both are found in oceans worldwide. Todd Smith is the founder of AdventureSmith Explorations. His passion for sharing the natural world has created opportunities for people to take sea voyages on small expedition ships which because of their size allow the vessels easily to navigate waters where the whales are, thus bringing passengers into close proximity with whales. Smith called an up close encounter with whales aboard a small ship, zodiac or kayak “one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of a lifetime. These are my personal favorites where you can get up close and friendly with earth’s largest mammals. But we wouldn’t be responsible travelers if we didn’t recognize that the goal of all whale watching should be to observe the animals without changing their behavior. If outside presence in any way influences a whale’s activity, you are too close.” “I used to give a talk on board cruises in the Sea of Cortez about Gray Whales. During the whaling days Gray Whales were heavily targeted because they predictably returned to the shallow lagoons of Baja, giving whalers an easy target. But the whalers soon learned that they would fight back vigorously to protect their young and their lives, earning them the name “Devil Fish”.
As our behavior toward the whales shifted from hunting to conservation and tourism the whales also changed their behavior towards us. Now it is not uncommon to find a proud Gray whale mother nudging her newborn calf toward a panga full of adventure travelers.” “Once while leading a group of 12 kayakers from a small ship in Alaska our group encountered a pod of 6-8 humpback whales feeding on the rich waters of Point Adolphus just outside Glacier Bay National Park. The whales came fairly close so I gathered our group of kayaks together into a flotilla so the whales had a better chance to see or sense us. As we floated I encouraged everyone to be quiet and we could hear the loud blasts of spray as the whales exhaled. I heard a woman next to me weeping and I asked if she was OK, concerned she was nervous about our proximity to these huge, 30 ton animals. She said through her tears, ‘No, I am not scared. I’m simply overwhelmed.’’’ “Another time I had led a group ashore for a sunset walk and we had decided to stay late and built a fire on the beach. We were reading John Muir around the fire when we heard an unusual low pitch, scratching sound. We walked to the water and discovered a whale in shallow water against the shore less than a body length from us along the shore. At first we thought the whale was stuck or injured. After a few moments we realize it was scratching barnacles off its body in the shallow rocks next to shore on a high tide. Every few minutes the whale would roll over, spout and flat its tail or pectoral fins. We watched until it gently eased itself off the rocks and swam off into the darkness.”
Summertime (mid June to late August) southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage Whale Watching: Migratory Humpback whales from Hawaii and Baja return to the nutrient rich waters of Coastal Alaska to spend the summer feeding. The combination of long days of sunlight, cold oxygen and nutrient rich water creates a bloom of plankton that is the foundation of a rich food chain whales rely on to exist. Whales gather in feeding pods of 6 or more animals and their behavior and location becomes more predictable around food sources. One of the most amazing whale behaviors is bubble net feeding where whales work cooperatively to corral small fish in a net of bubbles. The whales then swim through the net with their mouths wide open, crashing to the surface in a cacophony of fish, whales and water. Sometimes Orca or killer whales are spotted along with Minke whales.
Summer (June to August) Arctic Whale Watching: Back from migration come Gray, Blue, Fin, and Minke whales. But some of the most unusual whales in the world, the Bowhead, Beluga and Narwhal, make their home in the Arctic and subarctic year-round. Because of the Arctic’s extremely wild nature, it is not uncommon to find whale bones washed ashore or even polar bears feeding on a whale carcass.
Winter (December to February) Antarctica Whale Watching: Rich waters here attract whales from throughout the southern hemisphere. The most commonly seen species are Right, Blue, Sei, Humpback, Minke, Fin, Sperm and Killer whales. In Antarctica plentiful krill (a small shrimplike creature) provide a food source for migratory whales.
Winter (December to April) Hawaii Whale Watching: Many onboard naturalists migrate with whales from Alaska to Hawaii, working aboard small ships in each region. Humpback whales visit Alaska to feed; the remainder of the year they don’t feed at all, or very little. Humpbacks visit the warm waters of Hawaii to mate and give birth to their calves. One of the most exciting scenes in Hawaii whale watching is a pod of males swimming, fin slapping, spy hopping and breaching in competition for a female. It is also in Hawaii when these whales sing and their songs can be heard under the water for miles. Listen carefully for whale songs while snorkeling.
Winter (January to April) San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay on the Pacific side of California’s Baja Peninsula: Here are winter calving grounds of the California Gray Whale. Close encounters are expected as these 40-ton whales (friendlies) seem to have affection for people. It is not uncommon for proud mothers and curious calves to approach zodiacs full of travelers. Also, across the peninsula, the rich waters of the Sea of Cortez are home to Blue, Fin, Pilot, Humpback and Sperm whales.
In 2010 another book, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare was discussed on NPR. The sperm whale, he said, “bears the legacy of our sins; an animal whose life came to be written only because it was taken; a whale so wreathed in superlatives and impossibilities that if no one had ever seen it, we would hardly believe that it existed — and even then, we might not be too sure. Only such a creature could lend Melville’s book its power: after all, Moby-Dick could hardly have been written about a butterfly.”
About AdventureSmith Explorations — In moving through exotic natural environments and exploring vibrant native cultures seldom associated with more mainstream cruise itineraries, AdventureSmith Explorations dedicates its efforts to small footprint, sustainable travel and has launched a carbon free cruising initiative. Its off-the-beaten-path destinations include Alaska, Baja, Costa Rica, Belize, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Hawaii, Peru, the Arctic, Antarctica, and Australia. Founded in 2003, AdventureSmith Explorations is based in Tahoe City, CA along the northern shore of Lake Tahoe. P: 800-728-2875 toll-free or 530-583-1775. E: travel@AdventureSmithExplorations.com / W: www.AdventureSmithExplorations.com.