Juneau resident Mike Kelly was standing on the North Douglas Highway near the boat ramp last month when a brawl erupted in the water.
Two humpbacks surfaced off Spuhn Island with a herd of barking sea lions in pursuit. The animals were swimming so closely to the whales, the gentle giants apparently lost their temper.
"The whales were not doing their typical behavior of three blows and a dive. They were flapping their flukes on the water, almost as if they were trying to get rid of the sea lions," said Kelly, who was close enough to hear the commotion. About 20 sea lions "were right all around the back of the whales, mixed in near the flukes and following them all over."
Kelly has seen whales before off North Douglas in summer, but never in winter and never so close to the road. He has since returned and seen the humpbacks again.
"They can come alongside next to the road if you happen to catch them there - most of the time I've seen them closer to the Mendenhall Peninsula side," he said.
Local scientists who study whales and sea lions were not aware they were showing up regularly and so close to the highway in winter, but it's no secret to nearby residents.
Susanne Reiswig lives in a house overlooking the cove by the boat ramp and has observed the animals over the years. She said last winter the whales came in unusually close.
"Last year I jogged out (North Douglas Highway) and saw them every day for about two weeks, and I felt they were really close in," Reiswig said.
It is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in town: You don't need a boat to see marine mammals up close in Juneau. If your car or legs can get you to that stretch of road between the North Douglas boat ramp and False Outer Point, chances are in winter you'll see humpbacks surfacing so near the highway you will hear them blow.
"I was really excited. It was a possibility for viewing whales without having to go to Point Adolphus (near Glacier Bay) or take a boat to North Pass," between Shelter and Lincoln islands, said Kelly, who has lived here eight years. "I don't think you can see them any closer from any other road system in Juneau."
Even when the whales are off in the distance, the sea lions often are close by to pick up the act drifting in the water parallel to the highway, grunting and snorting at passersby. Kelly's wife, Barbara, has seen the sea lions many times before off North Douglas in winter.
"It's a really good place to see the sea lions because they always seem to swim close to the Douglas Island shoreline," she said.
It's not uncommon for sea lions to hang out here in winter, but humpbacks? Yes, said Jan Straley, who since 1979 has studied Southeast humpbacks, thought to number 800. Although the Sitka-based biologist was not aware of the North Douglas whales, she said some whales skip the winter migration to Hawaii, where humpbacks mate and give birth. In the past couple years, at least eight whales have stayed in Southeast, one of them twice, according to her research.
"It goes against what is known about humpback whales in the North Pacific ... you presume they all go to the mating and calving grounds" in winter, Straley said. "Every time we turn a corner, these guys just surprise us one more time."
But just because a humpback is here in January doesn't mean it's here to stay. The North Douglas whales could already be gone, and if they're not they probably will head for the tropics by next month because nearly all humpbacks migrate, she said. Even whales here in February can still make it to Hawaii in time for the peak mating and calving season around March.
"They can migrate to Hawaii pretty quickly - this is key. They can get there in a month," Straley said.
She said it's not uncommon for humpbacks to return to the same area to feed and that's probably why the North Douglas whales are consistently showing up near the highway.
"There's probably something really good to eat there," said Straley, who speculated the presence of sea lions means the whales probably are feeding on schooling fish, also a food favorite among the barking pinnipeds.
Good grub also might explain why the sea lions sometimes hound the humpbacks. Brendan Kelly, a Juneau scientist who studies sea lions, has seen the animals pursue whales before. Although he hasn't studied the North Douglas herd, he said the sea lions likely are feeding on fish trying to escape the jaws of the humpbacks.
The whales "probably momentarily break up the school (of fish) which probably makes the fish more vulnerable to other predators such as sea lions," said Kelly, a Juneau-based professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Kris Gabriel, a whale biologist for Glacier Bay National Park, said she once saw sea lions disrupt a group of humpbacks that had formed a bubble net, a ring of bubbles thought by scientists to help whales herd prey.
"I think the sea lions were eating the fish the whales had herded to the surface," Gabriel said.
Although the sea lions seem to benefit from their close association with the humpbacks, it is not a happy union for the whales, said Straley, the Sitka biologist. She said humpbacks get "completely annoyed" when sea lions are around.
"The whales just hate it ... sometimes the sea lions nip at the whales, it drives them crazy," she said. "The whales start wheeze blowing and doing stress calls - they are obviously agitated."
Terry Quinn, also a scientist at the university, has seen whales tail-slapping the water around sea lions - the same behavior witnessed off North Douglas last month. Quinn lives in Tee Harbor and keeps a log detailing whale crossings and activity he observes from his home.
One entry last December read "11 p.m., heard at least three whales spread apart breaching, tail slapping, base growling, singing. Several sea lions nearby - may have caused the activity," wrote Quinn, who added he could see them in the moonlight.
"I've seen very energetic behavior where the sea lions are coming up and going down really rapidly, and sometimes the whales will either vocalize or else fin slap," Quinn said in an interview.
As much as the whales might wish it, the sea lions won't leave them in peace anytime soon. Brendan Kelly of UAF said some sea lions stay around Juneau all year, although sightings are less frequent in summer as adults move to the outer coast. If experts are correct, the North Douglas whales probably will leave the area first, surrendering to the call of Hawaii and the promise of a mate.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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