One of the most exciting and interesting activities people look forward to when visiting Southeast Alaska in a boat is the opportunity to see whales in their natural habitat.
The two most common species of whales people are most likely to encounter are humpback whales and orcas (also known as killer whales).
The humpback whale population in Southeast Alaska is growing and numbers in the hundreds of animals. These whales migrate back and forth between Mexico and Hawaii in the winter and Alaska in the summer. While in warm southern waters there primary activities include mating and the birthing of calves. In Alaska they are all about feeding. Colder waters can hold more oxygen and therefor support more life. It has been reported that the average humpback whale consumes up to 3,000 pounds of krill, herring, candlefish or salmon fry every day. Some adolescent whales will remain in Alaska over the winter.
Humpback whales are up to 50 feet long and weigh as much as 40 tons. They are a relatively docile, curious and active rorqual or baleen whale. They feed on small sea creatures using baleen to act as a sieve to strain water out of the huge mouthfuls of fish and water that they take in the feeding process. They are known for their acrobatics or aerial displays of breaching (jumping out of the water), tail lobbing (slapping their huge tails on the water and pect slapping (rolling around and slapping their pectoral fins on the water.
While we make every effort not to approach these to closely and not disturb them, they are curious and at time will either deliberately or from lack of caution surface near the boat while we are drifting. This can result in some very exciting eye to eye interspecies encounters.
These whales arrive in the spring and are common in all the waters we frequent during the entire charter season.
Orcas or killer whales are the other commonly encountered marine mammal. Orcas are the largest member of the porpoise family and have teeth rather than ballen. They are divided into two categories, the resident pods, fish eaters that are large extended matriarchal families of as many as forty animals and transients groups, meat eaters, usually no more than ten animals who hunt for mammal such as seals, porpoises, young humpbacks and sea lions.
Orcas are always on the move, sometimes covering as many as 75 miles in a day. They are not at all predictable in their location. We just have to be always on the lookout for the black fins breaking the water. Orcas are a keenly intelligent animal, active, curious and at time quite friendly and seem to be as interested in humans as we are in them. On numerous occasions we have had transient orcas come over to the side of the boat after a hunt to show off their catch to the people on board. At times they will run along side the boat like giant porpoises.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of NOAA and the Department of Commerce has published guidelines for boats engaged in whale watching. These include the following:
The humpback whale approach regulation has been in effect since July 2001 and requires that you:
- Not approach within 100 yards of a humpback whale.
- Not place your vessel in the path of oncoming humpback whales causing them to surface within 100 yards of your vessel.
- Not disrupt the normal behavior or prior activity of a whale, and
- Operate your vessel at a slow, safe speed when near a humpback whale.
General Marine Mammal Viewing Code of Conduct
- Remain at least 100 yards from marine mammals.
- Time spent observing individual(s) should be limited to 30 minutes.
- Whales should not be encircled or trapped between boats, or boats and shore.
- If approached by a whale, put the engine in neutral and allow the whale to pass.
Even if approached by a marine mammal
- Offering food, discarding fish or fish waste, or any other food item is prohibited.
- Take the Lead, Do Not Feed
- Do not touch or swim with the animals. They can behave unpredictably and may also transmit disease.
How to Observe Marine Mammal Behaviors and Minimize Your Impact
While viewing marine mammals, your actions should not cause a change in the behavior of the animals. Individual animal’s reactions will vary; carefully observe all animals in the vicinity. Assume that your action is a disturbance and cautiously leave the vicinity if you observe behaviors such as these:
Whale Watching Videos Taken Aboard Alaskan Song
This video was taken during one of the most exciting and dramatic encounters we have ever had. We were cruising along at our normal speed of 8.5 knots. We started seeing scattered groups of 3 to 8 Orcas on either side of the boat off in the distance. We maintained our heading and reduced our speed to eight knots. Several groups of Orcas changed their headings and starting coming towards our moving boat. When they caught up with us, they started darting back in forth along side the boat, diving under one side and coming back up on the other and cris-crossing back and forth in front of the bow. All of this happening while holding course and spee. Occasionally Orcas both big males, with the tall triangular dorsal fins and female with their smaller crescent shaped fins would swim within a few feet on either side of the boat and look up at our guests and even spray them with their spouts.
This is a compilation of photos and video taken last week. We had an amazing experience with a large pod of orca that swarmed around the boat, back and forth and ran with the boat like porpoises for almost 5 miles. This video includes some great underwater footage captured by our GoPro…Enjoy
Posted by Alaskan Song Yacht Charters on Monday, June 27, 2016
In this video we were drifting about 150 yards away from a small group of transient Orcas that were on the hunt for seals. The orcas came over and showed us the results of their hunt.
Almost back to Bellingham! Two days ago up by Desolation Sound we encountered a small group of transient killer whales. These we some jumbo sized orcas. They were obviously hunting down something so we approached and drifted a respectful distance watching. After a while they came along side Alaskan Song and showed us what remained of the harbor seal they killed. Watch carefully and you can see the scraps of meat and fur in their mouths.
Posted by Alaskan Song Yacht Charters on Wednesday, September 23, 2015
In this video the with the same small group as the last, an orca came swimming along side and performed a swimming back flip right next to the boat.
At the end of this video a big bull orca does an underwater 360 backflip and comes up swimming backwards…so cool!
Posted by Alaskan Song Yacht Charters on Wednesday, September 23, 2015
In this video a humpback whale breaches, leaping fully out of the water
Hannah Haupt, our stew for the past three years captured a breaching humpback on video two days ago. Great Job
Posted by Alaskan Song Yacht Charters on Monday, July 17, 2017
Here a group of a dozen or more humpback comes to the surface in a bubble net or group feeding effort.
15 humpback whales surface while group or bubblenet feeding
Posted by Alaskan Song Yacht Charters on Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Another bubble net lunge