Visiting Humpbacks in Juneau – 7/17

My favorite part about visiting Juneau was the Humpbacks. In a small harbor we get on the whale watching boat and as we get settled we see a Harbor Seal swimming near the boat ramp. I didn’t get a good look at him, just a dark head against the bright surface of the water. As we boarded the boat our guide told Brooke how best to get pictures of the whales: 1/1000 shutter speed and continuous shooting.

This whale is named Cornucopia. She loved showing off her fluke.

On the boat ride out to where the whales were hoped to be, the guide gives us information on them: what they eat, how they all have different markings in their tails, that they migrate. He also asked questions one of which was if we knew why they were called humpbacks. So I guessed, because of the way they dive. I wasn’t wrong. When he was talking about their filter feeding he showed us a baleen (what humpbacks have instead of teeth) and asked if we knew what they were made of. Hint: it is the same material out fingernails are made of. So I answer keratin and our guide looks at me and goes, “do you want a job?”

We get out to where the whales are (not too difficult to find because of all the boats) and we see their backs arching out of the water with “the most pathetic excuse for a dorsal fin,” the guide’s words not mine. Their flukes come out of the water as they dive and as we would see them the guide and boat captain would call out the name of the whales based on their tale markings. Now humpbacks don’t live in pods, they are actually solitary whales. However, they will hunt together if they are all in the same place at the same time and want to. There were seven whales working together led by an older female named Rubber Lips and no I  don’t know how she got the name.

In the same general area there was also a male hunting alone that they had dubbed Flame. We didn’t see much of him because the group was bubble net feeding and it was fascinating. Here is my understanding of bubble netting. An older female whale directs were the others go and once a whale is given a position they always hold that position.  The whales find a school of fish and surround them in a circle while blowing bubbles from their blowholes and flashing their pectoral fins. Another whale is below the school and when the fish are in a tight enough group that whale makes a sound indicating to the others to move. The group surges upwards and to the surface. Suddenly all you see is these giant heads and gaping mouths breaking the surface tension of gray, dark water. We could sometimes figure out where the whales were going to come out of the water at based on where the birds were hovering but it wasn’t a perfect indicator.

The coolest thing was when the group came up out of the water just a few yards from the boat. We were using the long lens (75-300mm) and up to that point the whales had been a good distance from us. Brooke had the camera at the time and had it zoomed fairly far out and suddenly they were just right there. The moment was wonderful, seeing these giants working in such a coordinated fashion. They were completely unconcerned about us. Their world is the deep cold waters and we are just strange creatures floating on the surface.

**All pictures taken by Brooke McGee


This story was adapted from a blog post, read the original here:


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