By Roberta Kravette
My First Day on
Prince of Wales Island
"Watch the birds," Michael said.
Following the tilt of his chin, I saw Michael’s focus: straight ahead about 30 brilliant points of white were bobbing slightly on the water's nearly smooth surface. My eyes, after the long day, are having trouble focusing on anything.
I had arrived just last night after flying across the continent from New York to Seattle, puddle-jumping to Ketchikan, and ferrying across the Clarence Strait through some of North America's most astoundingly beautiful country. This morning the sun's first rays woke me at 5 AM creating ghost-mist on the bay outside my window. I jumped up ready to explore Prince of Wales Island, Alaska!
What: Humpback whales bubble-net feeding.
Where: Prince of Waled Island, Alexander Archipelago, Alaska
When: Best: Late March to Sept.
Who: Families, Adults
See: Destination: Prince of Wales Island for more.
More Creatures Than I Could Imagine
At 4 PM, our little boat is headed back toward the town of Craig and a hot meal.
We had spent the day discovering more creatures than I had thought could exist in a myriad of tide pools on dozens of karst islands; we had watched a raft of hundred sea otters dive and float and feed their babies; and we had checked the camera traps that caught images of the Alexander grey wolves that swim from forested island to forested island, then gathered their hair and other evidence for an on-going study.
I was introduced to marbled murrelets, the sea bird that nests in old-growth forest canopies, and and got barked at by harbor seals, I learned about sea lettuce and bullwhip kelp, and how to look for salmon as they returned from the sea. It was more than I could have imagined in a single day. But now, I was beginning to lose steam.
All I Saw Were Gulls Bobbing on the Water
The wind sends ripples across the blue-grey water. Above us, a ceiling of thick clouds rolled across the sky as far as I could see. And around the little boat, islands, deep with ancient cedar trees, formed a three-quarter circle opening northward to the sea.
Michael tells me that this stretch of the Inland Passage, called the Clarence Strait, can get choppy. Still, on this overcast afternoon, the sea barely undulates — not a single feather on any gull moves.
But these birds were not at rest. And suddenly neither was I.
We slowly inched forward, stopping about 200 yards from the scene. Tense and alert, the birds are waiting …but for what?
Michael tells me to get ready.
Suddenly The Waiting is Over
In an instant, a swirling burst of calling, squawking white feathers is airborne.
The water shatters under them.
The huge humpbacks explode straight up, out of the water like rockets from some secret undersea station, mouths as big as garage doors open and gaping. In a single split second the stillness had fractured into a tangle of behemoths and foam and birds.
Then, as quickly as they appeared, the whales fall back into the sea again.
The birds dive precisely into the place where the whales have just disappeared. They pull up and fall again. And then … silence.
What a sight! Experiencing humpback whales bubble-net feeding is something I will never forget.
After a few minutes, the birds took flight again, but quietly this time. They headed away, over the water between the islands, north.
First one, then two, then three columns of misty spray appeared above the surface like directional signals toward open water. The humpbacks are following the fish, Michael said.
The birds were tracking the whales.
We watched at a distance. Where the explosion had been, the water once calmed to a ripple, giving no hint of the drama we had just witnessed.
Humpbacks Here Are Both Migrants & Residents
Here in southeast Alaska, in the strait between the mainland and the Alexander Archipelago, non-breeding humpback whales are year-round residents with the population peaking in late March when migrating humpbacks return from their winter waters around Hawaii bringing new-born calves. (Prince of Wales Island has a great Humpback Whale Festival to welcome them)
The babies will still be nursing, but the returning adults are hungry. They feed little, if at all, in the warm southern waters of their breeding grounds. Instead, they live off their fat (blubber) until they can return north.
Once the migrators arrive, they have just months to feed enough to sustain themselves through two migrations and the breeding season.
Although not all humpback whales do it, bubble-net feeding has evolved as an efficient way to feed multiple individuals simultaneously. ****
Humpback Whale Conservation Status
Humpbacks, hunted for their oil, were almost extinct by the 19th Century. In 1980’s popular fascination with their distinctive songs bought awareness. Today they are back to 35-40% of their 1940’s population. Greenland, Norway, Iceland, and Russia never stopped hunting whales, including humpbacks. Japan agreed to the 1986 hunting moratorium, but still took between 200 and 1200 per year for "scientific" purposes. In July (2019), Japan reversed its stand and began openly hunting whales again, but they have agreed to keep the hunt within their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone. How Japan's decision will affect the humpback whale population is unknown.
What Exactly is Bubble Feeding?
What is Bubble-net Feeding in Humpback Whales?
Bubble-Feeding Seems to be a Learned behavior. Not all humpbacks do it. And although they all follow the process, the exact procedure seems to vary a bit from group to group. This excerpt from a BBC video explains the unique teamwork used by humpback whales to "bubble-feed."
The Amazing Humpback Whale Bubble-Feeding Technique
Bubble-net feeding is a cooperative behavior, "teamwork" requiring two or more humpbacks working together, each with a job. This behavior is noteworthy as the whales are a relatively solitary species. So, catching a pod of the massive humpbacks bubble-net feeding is thrilling to watch.
It all begins with a group of humpbacks, usually lead by a single individual. The whales dive deep, watching for small fish schooling between them and the surface.
Once they locate their prey, the whales, still well beneath, encircle them. They bombard the fish with sonic noise while creating vertical columns of bubbles they make with their blowholes. Panicked, the disoriented fish form a tight ball. Now, surrounded by a wall of sound and bubbles, escape is impossible.
The humpbacks are enormous, but most of the bubbles they form are tiny – (#1) seltzer sized! From our small boat, it is almost impossible to see them, or the enfolding drama, even on the practically smooth surface. Only the wildly excited gulls give a hint of drama enfolding below.
While the rest of the whales encircle the corralled school, a single humpback, the leader, will swim under them. At the right time, the leader sounds a "feeding" call. At this signal, the entire group simultaneously explodes up through the center of the fish-ball filling their enormous mouths with hundreds of gallons of water and fish, breaching the surface and sending the gulls into a frenzy.
And then they fall back again, disappearing into the sea.
The opportune gulls feed on the leftovers.
It all happens fast, so fast that it is almost impossible to understand what I had just witnessed. I am re-energized, ready to follow the gulls and whales.
But, Michael reminded me, it is getting late. The sun is beginning set. And tomorrow is another day, the humpbacks will be here, in the waters off Prince of Wales Island, and so will I.
Stay tuned for more about my adventures on the incomparable Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. If you are interested in exploring Prince of Wales, too, let us know. Roberta’s trip and accommodations were entirely paid for by Roberta and Les. Special thanks to Michael, Katie, and Stephanie who generously donated their time and resources to showing me their amazing Prince of Wales Island.