Winter whale-watching can be done boat free

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2007

Most of us associate whale-watching with summer and many-windowed tour boats or perhaps a cruise over to Point Adolphus in Icy Strait. But some humpback whales stay here in winter.

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They don't head south for mating and calving, and these winter residents give whale-watchers a chance to observe from shore.

Three good land-based lookouts for winter humpbacks are the highway pullout opposite Benjamin Island, the shrine of St. Therese and Lena Point. All offer views of Favorite Channel, whose deep waters are a regular winter hangout for schools of Pacific herring, according to studies by scientists at the Auke Bay Lab.

The humpback dietary staple was seriously overfished some decades ago and was reduced to low levels by the 1980s. The herring reportedly spend the summer feeding on the back side of Douglas Island and spawning in spring on the shores between Auke Bay and Berners Bay.

The herring population was recently estimated at 10,000 to 30,000 tons during the December-February period.

Wintering whales can sometimes be seen cruising up and down the channel, probably feeding on the herring, although pollock and other fish may be on the menu as well.

Foraging whales are often accompanied by groups of Steller sea lions swimming beside the whales' heads. Observers generally assume that the sea lions are catching fish spilled from each whale's maw, but this remains to be confirmed.

The sea lions that haul out on Benjamin Island from October to April also feed largely on herring. Auke Bay scientists analyzed over 700 scats collected from this haulout and found herring remains in 90 percent of the samples.

Sea lions like to prey on pollock as well, but that species seems to be scattered in Lynn Canal and there are fewer of them in Favorite Channel.

In late April and early May, the sea lions move to Berners Bay and upper Lynn Canal to feed on eulachon that are entering their spawning rivers. Afterward, the sea lions go to outer-coast rookeries for the breeding season.

I recently walked out to Lena Point on the winding CBJ trail. Parking was a bit of a problem because of all the snow. The trail is short, full of little ups and downs, with the usual assortment of boardwalk and roots.

The route is not marked, except by edges of boardwalk peeking through the snow here and there, so I relied on the footprints of some folks who had walked there a few days earlier.

The forest here is full of trees scattered like jackstraws by the wind. The trail passes near rocky beaches that might offer interesting prospecting at low tide.

At the point itself, the lower branches of the trees were coated with thick layers of ice. Because falling snow limited visibility, I didn't see any whales, although I thought - or perhaps imagined - that I heard one.

I did see two Pacific loons and several mergansers diving, a flock of about 25 glaucous-winged gulls loafing on the reef just offshore, several small bunches of scoters and Barrow's goldeneyes wing-whistling back and forth between Auke Bay and Lena Cove, an eagle, and a cluster of harlequin ducks on a rocky point.

There was seal snooping along the shore and a few sea lions slowly cruising by.

The point is a superb lookout and a great spot for a picnic when the weather permits. I hate to admit that this was my first amble out there, but I hope it won't be my last.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology and a Trail Mix board member.

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