The old adage proved true and after last night’s red sunset the day broke calm, flat seas and not a breath of wind. Nevertheless the day began with excitement when Greg the naturalist spotted a group of Orcas off the port beam before we had even crossed the bar to leave the bay! The crew of Deception had suspected that we would see whales today, but none of us expected it so soon! The orcas, numbering not more than 8 or 9, swam in small groups. They surfaced near an iceberg, breathing quietly. They blew twice and submerged again, reappearing minutes later next to another piece of ice. Greg thought they might belong to the transient class of Orca; mysterious, nomadic groups of whales that specialize in hunting other marine mammals. Could they be entering Tracy Arm to hunt the Harbor Seals that use the ice as a refuge? The orcas disappeared into the ice, and we turned back towards the open waters of Stephens Passage.
As we rounded Point Astley to make the turn to the south we sighted the first humpbacks of the day, a group of three making feeding dives in the plankton-rich waters over the rocky bottom. With over 70 miles to go today we didn’t linger long, and after a few minutes of observation we came back up to speed. Soon we entered the widest part of Stephens Passage, twenty miles across from Gambier to Hobart Bay. It wasn’t long before we again spotted the black scythe of a killer whale’s dorsal fin cleaving the surface. Two females swam slowly to the north, each with a tiny baby. The clumsy movements and yellow tinge to the little one’s white patches indicated that they were only a few weeks old. It is not common to see orcas in general, but to see newborn babies is another thing entirely! Heathy predator populations are an excellent measure of ecosystem health, so this scene is an encouraging indication. We waited at idle for them to pass, careful not to disturb the young family.
Approaching the chain of islands which include Akusha Island and The Five Fingers we were surrounded by humpback whales. Some lazed on the surface, perhaps napping, others fed just below the waves, while others played exuberantly, leaping from the water or floating belly up and slapping their long pectoral fins against the water. We passed close to the Five Finger Light- the first manned lighthouse in Alaska – and shut our engines down just south of it to watch as a group of ten or so whales swam in huge lazy circles, lunge-feeding spectacularly at the surface. They broke the surface with their mouths agape and we could clearly see as the accordion-like pleats of skin on their throats expanded to made room for the hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water and krill. Great bushy combs of baleen hung from their upper jaws, ready to strain out the food as their tongues forced the water out through the cracks. It is not often you have the chance to see the inside of a whale’s mouth!
The show continued all afternoon as we moved closer to Petersburg, turning the corner at Point Fanshaw still in miraculously calm weather. Whales spouted and dove in all directions, their tails appearing vertically like exclamation points before disappearing from view. The occasional bear loped across the rocky shore and small boats trolled for salmon just off the beaches. Traffic increased as we approached the funnel of the Wrangell Narrows, through which all north- and southbound inside passage traffic must pass until at last the town hove in to view, quaint wooden houses under the trees, gathered close around the hardworking port. Docking in the swirling currents is always a challenge but by 5:30 we were all tied up, none the worse for the wear. Katie and Allison from Navigator joined Greg the naturalist for a hike across the channel on Kuperanof Island while others explored the Scandinavian main street and fresh seafood on offer downtown.