Nick Jans

Oct 04, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

Breathing

“We’ve got whales,” said Mark Kelley, as we rounded the point, my little cabin cruiser Chance cutting through the slick, glass-green swell. “Two there, four or five more across the way, off to the left, behind us…holy mackerel, look at ‘em. They’re everywhere.” As I throttled down, he dug in his camera pack. Sherrie dialed in her binoculars, and our dogs—Gus, the retired Seeing Eye Lab and Chase, the Blue Heeler, tested the air, nostrils quivering at the strange, wild scent.

It was one of those early September days that come between the rains in Southeast Alaska, when the world seems to hold its breath. Light, sometimes silver, sometimes golden, spilled through rafted clouds, casting sea and land in spot-lit, shifting patterns. And before us, the mountain-rimmed, tide-swept bay, several miles long and two wide at the mouth,  was so full of humpback whales—dozens of them blowing, rolling and diving in their unhurried, timeless rhythms—that I imagined the water bulging upward, displaced by the sheer volume of their bodies. Even though I was on full alert and at minimum planing speed headed in, I had to heel over hard once to avoid an equally startled whale who’d surfaced off our bow. As Mark had said, they were everywhere.

At the end of each summer—the last two weeks of August and into mid-September—most of the thousand or so humpbacks in Southeast gather at such places, scattered along the coast. Is it concentrated food that brings them? Is it a social occasion? Or is each area a staging point from which to launch their annual southward migration? While we can only guess at their collective purpose, the loose, milling congregations mark the shifting of the seasons, regular enough to circle on the calendar. By October most of the whales will be gone, off on their 3,000-mile journey across the North Pacific to their wintering and breeding grounds off Hawaii. Others will aim near Mexico and Japan, and a few toward Costa Rica. Moving at an average pace of five miles an hour, pausing only for brief rests, some will make the trip in as little as five weeks. Through the winter, they’ll eat little or nothing for several months, preoccupied with breeding the following season’s calves, or giving birth to and nurturing this year’s. Their fast won’t end until they return to Alaska waters in May. To put that metabolic feat into perspective, imagine grizzlies that, instead of entering their dens, migrated across a continent and back, breeding along the way–all without eating. Only the whale’s 25 to 35-ton bulk, along with its prodigious ability to feed and store energy, allows for such excess.

Despite the huge distances involved, humpbacks are creatures of habit, retracing routes learned from their mothers and imprinted on memory. How they navigate the trackless expanse of the sea is a mystery; theories include navigation by the stars or sensing the magnetic field of the earth itself through iron deposits in their brains’ frontal lobes. Perhaps they can sense currents and wave patterns, smell their way, or use land forms as guides when they rise above the surface to glimpse our world through grapefruit-sized eyes. The whales, as usual, keep their own counsel, the details of their lives hidden by the chill, swirling darkness through which they move, a world as foreign to us as the chasms between stars. We may lower hydrophones to record their complex vocalizations, make shallow, brief dives among them, and pore over the massive, blubber-sheathed bulk of dead specimens; but most of our observations are limited to the scant moments when these mammals—sixth-largest and most acrobatic among the large whales—brush against the atmosphere that we call home. It’s here that we meet, linked by our shared dependency on straining oxygen from the air.

Imagine, though, a pair of lungs large enough when inflated to fill my 21-foot boat stem to stern, channeled through twin nostrils each the diameter of a fist, and the currents of cold air surging to fill the tremendous vacuum, held long minutes through a dive (five or eight, occasionally much longer), then exhaled in a vaporous, pluming burst. Of course I’d heard the sound of that release a thousand times over the whale-rich waters of Southeast; even under normal conditions, it can carry a mile or more. But there, in the confines of that bay, in the glowing stillness of that afternoon, the flat sea and close-leaning mountains forming a sounding-board, the explosive sigh of so many whales breathing—Huuuunnnhh….Aaaaahhhhh…Ooohaaaa—vibrated in the air, overlapping like strange breaking waves. One particular whale’s exhalation resembled a ship’s foghorn–an incredible, Jurassic trumpeting that seemed to reverberate from everywhere. And, for the sheer size and numbers of great beasts around us, the largest old females over 60 thousand pounds each, their calves the equivalent of a paltry elephant or two, we might as well have been floating on some ancient, monster-filled sea.

One thing was clear;  whatever other reasons the whales had to congregate at this spot, just now they were preoccupied with the main business of the season: inhaling the endless buffet in the nutrient-laden currents of the Inside Passage. While in Alaska waters, humpbacks forage up to 20 hours a day, gulping great maws of seawater and straining out hundreds of pounds of herring, candlefish, or shrimp-like krill through the rows of baleen that line their toothless jaws. They pause only to bask and nap on the surface for a few minutes at a time. On this particular day, feed was so dense that the depth finder, bouncing its sonar pulse toward the bottom far below, often showed a solid band of black just below the keel. Though humpbacks are noted for their wide range of photogenic, above-the-surface behaviors—lob-tailing, fin-slapping, spy-ho

pping, and spectacular, gravity-defying breaches—these whales were too busy cramming their gullets to bother with such displays. Apparently conditions were so good they didn’t need to engage in lunge-feeding or bubble netting, tactics which often send groups of whales crashing through the surface head-first, jaws agape. This day it was every whale for itself, swimming and diving and gorging at will.

Good news for them, but bad for pictures, it turned out. With so many whales milling around—a dozen spouts, backs, or tails sometimes visible at once, spread out at all points of the compass, a fraction of the total number actually there (40 whales? 60?)—we found ourselves almost dazed, like lions awash in a sea of zebras, unable to focus down on one group. The whales’ movements were unpredictable and disconnected; two would dive a hundred yards away, headed toward us, then rise, long minutes later, a quarter mile farther out. Cows and calves, single animals, and pods of up to a half dozen appeared and disappeared as we drifted on the outgoing tide, sometimes rising so close and suddenly that we instinctively leaned back from the enormous, water-parting bulk of their passing. At times, the overpowering fish-reek of their vaporized breath washed over us, clinging in our nostrils. Periods of intense, too-close to focus-and-frame activity, burning through rolls of film while struggling to match lenses to changing conditions, merged with periods with too little water and sky, bad lighting, and not enough whale in the viewfinder. “So many,” I heard Mark mutter. “Why is it so tough?” While I perched on the cabin roof, he ranged the back deck, and Sherrie, an intent dog under each arm, sat by the forward hatch. At one point, faced with a humpback 20 feet off our bow, Chase, like any good cattle dog,  sprang to the boat’s defense, hackles up and stiff-legged, an edge of abject panic in her bark. As the unconcerned whale dove, she settled back with a triumphant, relieved growl. Gus, being a Lab, was more copasetic; what he wanted most was to trade a little friendly end-sniffing with that big, weird thing.

The light inevitably faded along with the day, and we headed home. In the end, I came away with a small handful of images; I kept a dozen or so slides, while most spiraled into the trash after a quick glance. Most weren’t bad, but nothing captured the experience or was particularly useful from a professional point of view. Mark, more picky still, told me he kept just a couple. Somehow, the spectacle of the day, like the lives of the whales themselves, had eluded our attempts at capture in a formal, visual sense. But sound imprinted on memory is another matter. All I have to do is turn inward for a moment, late at night, and the world is filled with the breathing of whales, huge in the silence.

Breathing first appeared in Alaska Magazine, followed by The Glacier Wolf.
All writing and photographs are copyright of Nick Jans 2010

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Nick Jans is one of Alaska’s most recognized and prolific writers. A contributing editor to Alaska Magazine and a member of USA Today’s board of editorial contributors, he’s written 9 books and hundreds of magazine articles, and contributed to many anthologies. His range includes poetry, short fiction, literary essays, natural history, outdoor adventure, fishing, and political commentary. In addition, Jans is a professional nature photographer, specializing in wildlife and landscapes in remote locations. He has been the recipient of numerous writing awards, most recently the co-winner of two Ben Franklin Medals (2007 and 2008) and a Rasmuson Foundation artist grant (2009). He currently lives in Juneau with his wife, Sherrie, and travels widely in Alaska. He returns each year to Ambler, the arctic Inupiaq Eskimo village in which he lived for 20 years, and the place he still calls “home.”   For more information, please visit Nick’s website, http://www.nickjans.com/

Adrift, Autumnal 2010

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.
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