One Whale of a Trip

It was the first real vacation I have taken in years. By “real,” I mean no assignments, no deadlines, and no priority other than to relax as much as possible with wife Liz aboard a 900-foot-long luxury-appointed floating four-star hotel.
Mission accomplished, after nine days on the water, traveling from Seattle through Southeast Alaska’s “Inside Passage” via the Princess cruise ship Sun Princess. Stops included Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, B.C., along with a fascinating run through the Tracy Inlet.
Breaching Humpback WhaleIf you have never before seen ice floes, that in itself is worth the trip.
 I had been to Alaska twice before, once to Sitka and the Baranoff Wilderness Area, and the other to Waterfall Resort out of Ketchikan. Both were fishing trips aimed at salmon and halibut, and both were wonderful experiences.
 They still, however, were job-related, with pending assignments. This go-round, I decided the assignments would have to come into place after we returned home. But, I also decided, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in El Paso that I was going up to this incredible country without my camera gear stowed.
 The Nikons, from my fisheye to my 400mm “wildlife lens,” accounted for a disproportionate amount of the allowable weight per airplane passenger. It was tempting, for a fleeting moment, to leave the cameras at home.
 That moment passed quickly. In retrospect, I am very glad I made the extra effort (the telephoto alone weighs over 7 pounds).
 We made field trips in Ketchikan and Skagway, both of them enjoyable. But the whale-watching boat out of Juneau was perhaps the pinnacle of the voyage, especially from a photography standpoint.
 The naturalist on board our boat had seen hundreds of whales on hundreds of trips. So you can imagine my surprise when, upon sighting the first humpback whale of the day, she freaked out.
 I believe the expression was “Oh, my God; Oh, my God,” and so on.
 “What’s the big deal?” I asked.
 “They’re breaching,” she answered. “I have never, EVER, seen this.”
With that she was off for a pair of binoculars.
 I was alone on the stern when the first massive mammal broke the surface. The rest of the crew … and there were a bunch of people on that boat … were waiting inside, drinking hot chocolate. I wanted a clear shot of a humpback, and given the number of people on board knew that my best shot would be my first, without anyone’s shoulder or beanie cap to position the telephoto above.
 Whale-watching boats are not allowed to get inside 200 meters of a whale. We were just beyond that range when the first humpback showed up.
 I knew … no kidding … that whale was on its way up before I saw it. It was difficult to dispel the belief some of the passengers held that I was a psychic of sort, given my ability to predict whale appearances once those folks had come out on the deck.
 I finally explained. If you can tell there are 14-inch speckled trout under a bay surface just by looking for “nervous water” created by panicking baitfish and shrimp, it isn’t too difficult to tell when 50-plus feet of humpback whale is about to make its debut through ice-clear water.
 The tiny shrimp known as “krill,” the mainstay food source of the area’s whales, rarely go to the top, from what the resident whale expert told me. When they do, the only way the humpbacks can feed is by “broaching” … literally careening up out of the water and then crashing back on down atop the unfortunate little crustaceans.
 It happens very, very infrequently, I was told. Accordingly, I was very fortunate to capture the photo you see posted here. I got this one, and several others like it, by pre-focusing the manual lens on the areas in which the water began seething with the initial arrival of the fleeing krill.
 “Nervous” bait?
 I don’t think so.
 “Terrified” is much more appropriate.
 God grants you special gifts every once in a while.
This is one I will never take for granted.
More Alaska images to come in the near future … In the meantime, stay posted on Great American Outdoor Trails Radio Magazine (www.gaot) for the podcast of this trip that I am producing with GAOT host Jim Ferguson and crew.
Hope you enjoy seeing it just a tiny bit as much as I did making the trip.
It wasn’t cheap.
It was, however, worth every penny.
Even if I did “work” a bit.

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