Saturday, July 28, 2012

Whale watching: who's watching whom

There's a subject I have always been hesitant to express, but digitizing all my whale slides from the boating years has brought it up again and maybe it is time to let it out.

You see, I think I had an extra sensory connection with the killer whales in Prince William Sound.  Pretty outlandish, huh?  Probably, but I noticed in the photographs something I had never  picked up on before. 

During my years there, the federal government published rules about approaching whales. The guideline is no closer than 100 meters and 300 meters if a calf is present.  Now, given this affinity I am speaking about, what do you do when the whale comes to you?  A perfect example came one day as I was motoring along parallel to a pod of killer whales.  In the group I could see a couple of calves.

Surprisingly, one calf turned away from the pod and headed straight for the boat on the surface.  He actually swam under the  boat and I stopped and turned off the engines, fearing a calf unfamiliar with boats might be cut by the propellers.  The calf swam around and under the boat, once rolling on his side to look at me.  Then I looked up and saw two adult females charging at the boat also on the surface. (It has been written they have a nanny system where one female will watch another's calf) I just sat, a little nervous about what could happen.  The calf continued its exploration while the two females stayed close by, occasionally swimming under and around the boat and rolling to look up at me.  I could hear their chirping through the hull.  They danced around me for maybe 10 minutes, then with the calf's curiosity apparently satisfied, they swam away to rejoin the pod.  I wonder what would have been the charge if some marine mammal regulator had seen that.

That said, what I noticed in this collection of these photographs is how many pictures show a whale or whales coming toward the camera, rather than alongside or running away. 

If you look in front of the white spot you can see a calf's fin.
Over the years I had many experiences where whales approached the boat rather than the other way around and that made me begin to think they recognized me, or at least the sound my boat made in the water.

During the years when I had my own boat, a little 19-foot, well, sort of a cabin cruiser, that was what I wanted  most to do.  While others went fishing, I went to find the whales.  On calm days I could drift in the middle of a wide passage and read a book until I heard them breathe.  Once I spotted them I would cruise over, being careful not to point the boat right at them.  What I liked to do was figure out their speed and direction and than stand off a ways and cruise right along with them.  More often or not they would come over to the boat for a while, swimming along with me right next to the boat.  At times I could have reached over the side and touched them.  Their antics got me into trouble with the harbor folks or at least opened me up for ridicule.
The wavy finned male again.

My small boat had a 40-gallon fuel tank which limited my range.  I usually carried a couple of 5-gallon cans to supplement that.  I would go as far as I could on half that fuel, leaving half to get me back.  Half plus 5 gallons I always held in reserve in case something came up.

So, three weeks in a row I got to playing with whales on the way back to the harbor and stretched my fuel.  The first weekend I ran out about 300 yards from the harbor mouth and had to call the harbormaster to tow me in.  Once was OK.  But the same thing happened the very next weekend.  By then the harbormaster, who fortunately was a friend, too, wasn't angry.  In fact he asked if I was in any trouble and could he finish his lunch before he came out to get me.  Then came the third week and that time I reached the fuel dock pretty much running on fumes.  Like I said the tank was rated at 40 gallons.  That fill-up took 41.  There wasn't even anything left in the hoses.

Over four or five years I spent many happy hours with the whales and it was during that time I began to sense that connection.  I noticed if I showed up in an area, they would often come to the boat, swim by on their sides looking at me, spy hop with their heads out of the water and there was even one quasi erotic event that still has me shaking my head.  One day just cruising along with the pod a female came over and was swimming right along with the boat almost close enough to touch her.  Then as if on a whim she rolled onto her back and swam along next to me belly up.  She did this not once, but four or five times.  I laughed but I had this sneaking sense some kind of seduction was going on there.

When I went to driving larger charter boats I was afraid I would lose them as they would not recognize me on a different sounding boat.  I shouldn't have worried.  When we were around them I always made sure to step out onto the weather deck in hopes they would recognize me.  A couple of instances convinced me they might.  In one they came up on a 37-foot boat I was running and played in the bow wake the way porpoises do.  It was amazing.  They were jumping completely out of the water ahead of the boat as we moved along.  In another instance, I had been taking a party of BLM surveyors around the sound.  Up to the one point it had been a wet, messy week. Just about everything on the boat eventually got soaked.  When the sun came out one day, while the surveyors went to shore, the crew woman and I hauled out every bit of fabric we could to dry in the sun while we drifted waiting for them.  We had left only thin, V-shaped opening on the windshield between two sleeping bags.  I happened to look up when that opening went totally dark and then I heard a huge splash. I was afraid my crew had fallen overboard and I ran out on deck.  She was fine, and I saw the whale swimming away, probably laughing another of those bubbly whale laughs.  We figured the whale had breached right next to the boat and the resultant splash had thrown water all over our drying sleeping bags.  Thanks guys.

I graduated to larger tourist vessels and again feared I would lose them, but they still came to the boat.  How close?  Well, we had a low deck in the stern. One of the crew kids was hanging over the rail one day trying to spot the whales that were around the boat. All of a sudden one swam out from under the boat, came to the surface and exhaled all over him.  Whale breath is not  a pleasant odor.  He came running up into the wheelhouse and asked if he could use my shower.  I asked why and he told me that story. He asked again and I said no.  This was a young man you could kid with.  Looking disconcerted he asked why.  I told him, "well, that whale is an endangered species and in order to wash the breath off you, you are going to have to file an environmental impact statement."  The people in the wheelhouse just about died laughing.  I let him take a shower and borrow some of my clothes.

On that boat we tried something a little more sophisticated; I began using a hydrophone.  If conditions were right and the whales were staying in a small area, I could stop the engines and drop the microphone overboard and their calls and sounds played through the loudspeaker system on the boat. It was amazing to see a crowd of people oohing and ahhing over whales suddenly go absolutely silent as they realized they were hearing the whales as well as seeing them.  I still have cassette tapes from that hydrophone and hope someday to digitize them as well.

I'm not sure if all this has convinced anyone of that connection with whales I felt.  I am not convinced myself, but I remember at times I could feel it, something going back and forth between us.  This all came up transferring these photographs and seeing in how many of them they are coming toward the boat, it makes me think maybe I was onto something.

There was one last incident.  Chilling.   Early on during the Exxon Valdez oil spill I was taking a crew of cleanup workers down to the ship.  This was before the oil had spread all over hell and gone; it was still close to the ship.  About five miles north of the ship we began to smell the oil.  Ahead of the boat  in the dim light of dusk, a killer whale suddenly rose out of the water, diving forward like porpoises do right across our course in front of us.  I had the boat on autopilot and went out to say something to the owner who was sitting on the bow.  I asked him if he saw that.  He said, "yeah, I hope he doesn't get into the oil."

A thought hit me and I said, "What makes you think he wasn't trying to tell us the same thing?"

Here's the gallery. See if you can pick out the ones where the whales are heading toward the boat

The singing whales of Alaska's Prince William Sound


  1. Tim, I remain completely convinced of the connection you've written of here. No doubt about it!

  2. Thanks, Carrie, You having been there and seen several of our encounters makes me think I am not totally nuts.

  3. Really fine essay, Tim! I would not be at all surprised that the whales grew to know you and respect you.

  4. Your story doe not disappoint.. It is powerful, compelling, well-written, visual, and Impressive. You knocked my socks off.


Interesting quotations

· " “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. Kurt Vonnegut

“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” Stephen King

The thing about ignornance is, you don't have to remain ignorant. — me again"

Never debate with someone who gets ink by the barrel" — George Hayes, former Alaska Attorney General who died recently

My dear Mr. Frost: two roads never diverge in a yellow wood. Three roads meet there. — @Shakespeareon Twitter

"The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling," Adm. Ernest King, USN

Me: Does the restaurant have cute waitresses?

My friend Gail: All waitresses are cute when you're hungry.

I'm not a writer, but sometimes I push around words to see what happens. – Scott Berry

“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

We are all immortal until the one day we are not. – me again

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Sister hits moose on way to visit sister who hit moose.

Man loses his testicles after attempting to smoke weed through a SCUBA tank

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve