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Bubble-netting whales delight boaters

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

KETCHIKAN - My own experience watching whales that day began in the first minutes of a fishing trip near Light Island in Clover Pass late Saturday morning.

I was sitting in my 16-foot Smoker Craft skiff, looking down and fiddling with my bait and tackle when I thought I heard large waves crashing on the island shore. I wondered what big boat went by that could cause those sounds.

But when I got my bait in the water and looked up while pulling line off the reel, I saw two or three large humpbacks swimming near the shore, showing backs and flukes and blowing.

I thought to myself, "Oh boy! Look while you can, because this never lasts." Then the whales all dived out of sight and I figured that might have been the end of the show.

However, within a few minutes, four to six whales broke the surface together and I realized they were bubble-netting.

I had read descriptions and seen photographs showing how humpback whales, acting alone or in cooperation with others, get beneath a school of herring, then blow bubbles in a large cylindrical pattern.

Apparently, the herring will not attempt to pass through the wall of bubbles, even as the whales rise from below the fish, opening their huge mouths.

The behemoths again swam around on the surface Saturday, showing fins and flukes, blowing and bellowing, making wonderful groaning and other sounds before again diving. Minutes passed. Then a ring of bubbles caused rippling on the surface below a large ball of circling seagulls.

The huge heads began to emerge again and the froth, spray and gaping mouths came into view, along with some dozens of the lucky herring that had escaped by swimming so hard they literally flew away from the whales.

Those herring too dazed and confused to quickly get into the deep again were pounced on by the gulls.

According to several sources, including oceanographer Gary Freitag of Ketchikan, many humpback whales feed on herring and krill in Alaska and British Columbia waters, and then winter around Hawaii while breeding.

They don't eat, but survive on stored fat, for months on end during their stay in the tropics.

I began to hope that this Saturday performance might continue through the afternoon because, on a day in early October, these whales might be wanting to gorge while they could before beginning their long migration to Hawaii.

I brought my fishing gear aboard and decided I couldn't miss this perhaps-once-in-a-lifetime event.

I had intended to "get the big one" Saturday, and had left my camera and lenses at home. Now I called Terry, my wife, and asked her to bring them to me at Knudson Cove. As it turned out, I got almost 500 photos of "the big ones."

I wasn't alone. Many other boaters, along with people watching from Clover Pass Resort, Knudson Cove Marina and homes along the shoreline took the opportunity to witness the rare sight.

Sonia Christiansen watched the whales cavort for eight or nine hours from her home on a hill north of Knudson Cove. The show continued for more hours on Sunday, and she had a chance to see more action Tuesday, she said. The whales moved around as they fed and, from her elevated position, Christiansen could see the rings of bubbles rising before they broke the surface, she said. Sometimes, she said, she could hear the bubbles rising.

Kelly Jenks saw the humpbacks Saturday and Sunday, as well as two pods of killer whales on Sunday, while boating through Clover Pass to and from fishing holes in other places, she said.

She stopped and took photos for more than an hour each time, she said.

She also saw porpoises on Sunday but they were moving too quickly to get good photos, she said.

Misty Pattison, manager of Knudson Cove Marina, said the whales were active each day since Saturday. By Wednesday, she said, the bubble-netting activity seemed to be tapering off. But some of her customers who rented skiffs said that the whales were breaching jumping out of the water that day. One boater reported seeing a whale jump nine times, said Pattison.

The cruise ship season, with its stream of charter fishermen, had ended, but the whales brought a new, surprise customer base to the marina.

"We're getting lots of whale-watching traffic," she said.

People with large cameras were coming out and renting skiffs, she said.

There also had been many sightings of killer whales and some interactions between them and the humpbacks, she said.

Boaters told Pattison that there'd been some tension when the killers approached a juvenile humpback, she said.

Tore Lynne, who was fishing alone Monday on his 22-foot cabin cruiser, watched the bubble-netting activity Monday. He also reported seeing many sea lions that day and that they followed his boat around. They interfered somewhat with his fishing, he said.

Of course, when whales remain in an area for days on end, they also are around at night. Char White and her husband, Bruce, couldn't see whales from the comfort of the hot tub at their Raspberry Lane beachfront home, but heard them blowing late at night.

"It was so cool," she said.

It has been, and apparently continues to be, cool.

It also has been a photographers daydream and a lesson: Don't leave the camera at home when going outdoors in Alaska.



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