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

4 comments:

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

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

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

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

    ReplyDelete

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