Whale watching options in Southcentral Alaska
[by Lois Simenson]
“A whale is aiming straight for our boat!” I shout to my husband, Marc, as he downshifts the motors to a low idle near Gull Rock in Kachemak Bay. I rush to port, gripping the gunwale. A humpback whale is barreling toward us. My heart thumps adrenaline, and I think Is this whale going to ram us? Then it dives. The sea swirls as it closes over the 40-foot cetacean, dwarfing our Bayrunner.
Moving to starboard, I summon X-ray vision to penetrate the emerald bay as the whale glides soundlessly underneath our boat. We wait. The humpback shoots from the water several hundred yards distant in a full-bodied, half-twist breach. Whoomph! It displaces water and dives again. I’m ashamed for thinking the whale would intentionally hurt us. They’re smarter than we are, it seems.
Usually, I hear a humpback before I see it: Spray propelled high above the sea-surface like a catapult. The mist hangs momentarily, then dissolves. I glass ahead of the spray, anticipating the whale’s next appearance and am rewarded with a glimpse. Its fluke displays black-and-white markings unique to each whale, like a fingerprint.
Our cabin overlooks a gravel beach across Kachemak Bay from Homer. Humpbacks sometimes enter our cove during high tides. Last summer while standing on our mooring fl oat, a small humpback broke water and rolled next to the float, one eye checking us out. We stared at each other, his lone eyeball rolling around, then he sank from view.
Some nights we hear the drizzly breathing of a humpback as it sleeps in the cove. One night, we howled at one whale’s loud comic snoring in July’s rosy twilight. It sounded like a sleeping King Kong, sawing wet logs. Who knew whales snored?
Seward’s Resurrection Bay
Last July during a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park, humpbacks breached all around our boat. Two younger whales took turns breaching in the choppy seas. As our 95-foot vessel rocked in the rough water, I tried capturing a photo of one whale lob-tailing, waving its fluke high in the air. Click! Got it! Alas, my photo was blurred from the waves splashing the windows, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete it. That blurry photo was a hard-won prize. I like the full-day boat tour, because my chances are greater to see whales. We see orcas on these tours too, near the outer islands. To me, humpbacks are the most exciting to watch. They frequent Kenai Fjords National Park between April and September.
Each spring, gray whales migrate through Alaska coastal waters on their way to summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. April and May are best for gray whales. We’ve taken the spring boat tours out of Seward to see the grays. For those preferring to stay onshore, drive Lowell Point Road south of Seward. It overlooks Resurrection Bay and whales can be spotted with binoculars.
Whittier’s Prince William Sound
Tour operators out of Anchorage take whale watchers on full-day boat tours through Prince William Sound. Most tours showcase tidewater glaciers, but orcas are often seen. Years ago, while I surveyed sizeable chunks of glacier ice splash into the sea, a pod of five orcas slipped past on the opposite side of the boat. Thankfully, someone saw them and hollered. I prefer the large boat tours for this reason; with so many eyes to spot whales and other marine life, I rarely miss anything.
Anchorage’s Turnagain Arm
Each summer we stop at Beluga Point along Turnagain Arm to see beluga whales. From the rocks, we watch them glide through the water, white backs gleaming. Baby belugas are dark gray, then turn white as they mature to about 15 feet long. Unlike other whales, they can move their heads up and down and side to side, making them seem more playful. The Cook Inlet belugas chase hooligan in the spring, then salmon in summer and fall. In the 1980s, Cook Inlet belugas numbered 1,300. A recent count, however, stands at 340. In 2008, the Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Their numbers have dwindled due to several known and unknown factors. Aware of this, I appreciate seeing them even more.
Homer’s Lower Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay
Several tour companies navigate lower Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay, and the Barren Islands and Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska. Halibut charter boats on their way to and from fishing grounds often encounter humpbacks, orcas, and minke whales. Sea-kayaking is an adventurous option for a personal whale-watching experience; visitors can rent kayaks on their own or take guided tours out of Homer.
Every summer, I look forward to humpbacks returning to our cove. At twilight, I’ll listen for the tell-tale whoosh. With luck, I’ll hear them sing. I imagine a low vibration that gradually escalates to a high, echoing frequency. I’ll drop onto all fours and lower one ear into the cold, shadowy sea—to listen.
“What are you doing down there?” Marc will ask from the cabin deck above.
“Listening to whales,” I’ll reply.
“You can’t hear them from the beach, only underwater,” he’ll say.
“I know,” I’ll say, and then close my eyes, thinking if I concentrate and listen long enough, I’ll hear them sing—my secret between the whales and me.
Lois Simenson lives in Eagle River. Her story about wildland firefighting in Alaska won a 2016 Alaska Press Club award for the Best Alaskan History category.