Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Whale Tails

I've been having a great time this summer taking people on whale watching trips and boy have the whales been doing their share!  Whales and glaciers are the two things that I don't think I will ever get bored with seeing and experiencing.
I really thought that I wanted to be a marine biologist at one time and still have an occasional regret that I did not pursue that course, but an active and inquisitive mind can still do its own learning and research and not being bound by the constraints of science can make the experience even more fulfilling and insightful.  I don't have to be concerned with being anthropomorphic or getting judged by scientific peers, I can just enjoy the creatures and their place in the world and make my own observations.  But still, being a marine biologist would be pretty damn cool!
I decided to add a new feature to our whale trips this year by giving folks something to help them identify with the whales so I started taking pictures of the tail flukes (tail flippers) to put into a book so that we can identify individual whales.  They all get a name and an entry regarding when and where they were sighted, what they were doing, and who they were with.  It is something really fun for the whale watchers, for me, and eventually the information will be given to actual whale researchers for their data collections.
So far, we have 16 different whales photographed and identified in the book with the photos taken by me, Nancy, Mikey, and whale watching clients who have generously and eagerly donated photos.
I thought I'd share them with whoever out there reads this blog.

This is Vancouver who has been a pretty regular whale to see on our trips.  So far we have always seen it in a group of at least 6 whales and have watched them bubble feeding several times.  Vancouver is very easy to recognize because of those scalloped ends of the flukes and the white designs there.
Humpback whales are identified by the tail flukes:  the white and black patterns are like fingerprints, they are unique to each whale.  The trailing edge of the fluke, the top edge in the photo, as well as the notch where both halves of the fluke meet are also identifying features which help in identifying individual whales.

Victoria.  Honestly, I don't know the gender of these whales yet so the names may not really fit.  Victoria and Vancouver are together often.

Jackson.  This whale's fluke made me think of a Jackson Pollock painting, hence the name.


Ghost.  All white or mostly white flukes are the least common in the humpback world.  Ghost is a regular and we have seen it in two different locations about 20 miles apart.


Both of these are of Montana.  So far we have only seen Montana once by itself but with two other lone whales in the vicinity.  Montana is memorable because we got to watch it scratching itself on a rocky reef for several minutes.  It swam very close to a rock reef exposed at low tide and then just stopped and laid on the reef just barely underwater and blew bubbles.  Then, we saw its tail and flippers come out of the water as it twisted its body against the rocks!  It did this several times until moving on.  After it left the reef, I drove the boat over to the spot where this scratching was taking place and found a sort of trench in the rocks just big enough to fit a whale where Montana had been grooming.  Pretty damn cool!

Freedom.  This was a new whale to us just seen and photographed yesterday in a group with Vancouver, Victoria and Eclipse.


Grizzly.  Another new one from yesterday travelling and feeding with Vancouver, Victoria, Freedom, and Eclipse

Aurora B




So, one of the things most interesting, dramatic, and just plain cool to see humpback whales do is bubble feeding or bubble net feeding.  This is a cooperative effort usually involving several whales and as far as humans know, is unique to humpbacks in the NW Pacific.  The whales find a school of small fish like herring and then one of them blows bubbles in a circle around the school to corral the fish and force them towards the surface, then the other whales come straight up with their mouths open and gulp them down.

Like this.

At the end of our trip yesterday, I had planned to go by a recent shipwreck for some photo opportunities and as another interesting Southeast AK experience when we came upon something very unexpected.  First, a few photos of the ship I had intended to visit.

This is a wooden fishing tender called the Deceptive C that lost power somehow and then drifted onto a rocky shoreline not too far from Wrangell.  No one aboard was hurt as it probably took awhile for the boat to drift onto the beach giving the crew an opportunity to either abandon ship or be picked up by other nearby vessels.  All fuel and fluids and valuables able to be salvaged are typically removed under Coast Guard supervision and then the vessel's fate is determined by several factors.  I don't think there is a plan to try to salvage the ship but I am not sure what its final fate will be.

This was the unexpected shipwreck that we encountered on the way back from the whale trip.  From a mariner's perspective, this would be considered a very bad day!  I don't know the story behind this mishap but this sailboat is perched on a charted rock in a charted and clearly marked reef in a very large body of water where avoiding the reef is very easy.  Somebody wasn't paying attention!  We stopped by to offer assistance to the guys patching the holes in the boat but they were OK and had a plan when the next high tide came in.  Be careful out there!!

An update on the above sailboat- I ran into some of the folks who were on the boat today in town and learned the story.  They were on autopilot but the current pushed them off course and obviously whoever was on watch wasn't watching very well!  Luckily for them, they were very close to a shipping channel and there was a commercial fishing opening in the area as well so they had several vessels keeping tabs on them.  They were on the rocks for over 24 hours until a high enough tide allowed a commercial fishing vessel to pull them off the rocks.  They did sustain some significant damage to both keels, it is a catamaran, and were taking on some serious water so had to do quite a bit of bailing until the fishing vessel was able to lend them a pump which could outpace the water coming into the boat.  They got towed to Wrangell where the boat got drydocked this morning for repairs.

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