As the bulk of the cruise ship season winds down here in scenic Sitka, I find myself reflecting on the rare sightings we have witnessed and were able to share with our clients over the past 8 months.
The animals entertained our customers with glimpses of themselves and their behaviors, our customers entertained us, and sometimes even strained to entertain the animals. These are memories that enrich my life and reinforce my certainty that I have the greatest job, (if one wants to call it that) in the world.
We were delighted watching a couple of juvenile orcas leaping over the adults in the pod while they were swimming alongside our vessel on a glassy smooth sea. A Hollywood stunt woman astonished us with handstands on the bow of our boat with snow-capped Mt. Edgecumbe volcano in the background. Another client, a former bandmate of Ray Charles, played his trombone in effort to attract humpbacks and caused nearby fisherman to gawk curiously. The fisherman did seem to like his rendition of the Star Wars theme, but the humpbacks, while sighted often on this expedition, had no interest.
We were amazed to closely watch and photograph a happy sea otter enjoying a meal of octopus sashimi near a raft of over 40 of his furry friends, including otter pups nestled atop mom’s bellies, wrapped up in a kelp bed.
We were also lucky to witness and hear a literal ton of herring leap 2 feet above the water's surface, inside a ring of percolating bubbles. This was followed immediately by 6 open-jawed humpback whales exploding through and engulfing the biomass a mere 60 ft away from us. We are fortunate to have encountered many similar bubble netting feeding behaviors by humpbacks throughout the season.
The memory of the sounds we took in are etched as sharply in my memory as any optical observation. It was easy at times for us and our customers to decode the communications and sounds of the animals that were audible via our hydrophone. Sometimes the statements were booming with clear meaning; other times they were loud and mysterious, as is the nature of many humpback whale vocalizations. Their high-pitched dialogs alerted us to impeding lunge feeding, but the other Jurassic-like sounds and songs remain a beautiful mystery to us and even the most scholarly researchers. When the sounds made by the animals didn’t reach our ears, their communications remained clear. Such were the times we watched coastal brown bear sows with their cubs foraging along the beach and then suddenly scurry in a different direction, or the tail wags from a Sitka black tailed deer alerting others of our presence.
It’s impossible to remove the tranquility and the excitement we experienced on one calm overcast morning in April. While slowly drifting, we heard the recurrent waves on the Kruzof shoreline, hundreds of marbled murrelets peeping unremittingly, glaucous gulls crying occasionally, the blow of a humpback, and soft exhaling puffs of harbor porpoise, all while watching two shallow feeding gray whales. This rich experience has not been matched at any other time for me. Who knew peace and exhilaration could be so harmonious?