"WHOOOSH. . . WHOOOSH.... "
"There he is, port side!"
This gray whale was a surprise. We
see hundreds of them along the wild margins of the Pacific Ocean north of
Sitka, Alaska, where we conduct mothership kayak tours. Mostly they transit
the open ocean, but this day we had a companion inside a protected bay, one
of our favorite kayaking haunts. As we proceeded toward anchorage, he
casually cruised the shoreline, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
This anchorage is our staging area
for kayak explorations of the inner tide races and lagoons. During the next
two days, we often observed the gray following the shoreline to the outer
reaches of the estuary and back. He was small, apparently a juvenile, with
the mottled markings characteristic of gray whales. Solitary behavior is
infrequent except among males, so we made that assumption about his gender.
Several times we observed him trailing a feeding plume, the result of his
scooping the sandy bottom and sifting for edibles. Though alone, he seemed
healthy and content. We left and returned in a week, and much to our glee
the whale was still there, approaching us more closely and willingly sharing
The whale’s presence in that
particular bay in June must be viewed in a larger context. The California
gray whale population, having recovered from being intensely hunted, is
thought to be approaching historic highs of about 30,000 animals. We are
still learning about their life cycle. We do know the females give birth in
winter months in the salty lagoons of Baja California. Starting in early
spring, they migrate five thousand miles north and west to the rich, shallow
feeding grounds and ice fields of the Bering Sea, traveling along the
western coast of North America.
The spectacular northern coast of
Southeast Alaska, including West Chichagof- Yakobi Wilderness Area, is a
labyrinth strewn with islands, offshore reefs and breakers. To the east,
four thousand-foot snow-capped mountains rise out of the sea.
Years of observing gray whales here
have led us to expect certain behaviors. They are often seen dozens at a
time, in smaller groups, from the outer reefs to several miles out to sea.
Scientists tracking them have observed behaviors of waiting and catching up,
suggesting discrete travel groups. They generally make steady northward
progress while in the open ocean.
In more sheltered waters, the grays
show different behavior. They linger and rest for days or weeks, feeding
opportunistically. Until recently it was believed they did not feed during
migration, but scientists now admit exceptions to that rule. Although the
prevalent rocky bottom on the Chichagof- Yakobi coast prevents widespread
foraging, we have observed them feeding in several places. One of our
favorite viewing locations is a high rock promontory, overlooking a
semi-protected sand-bottomed bay. We watch them meander undisturbed below
us, resting and feeding. They are always here during these months, likely
because these buffets are few and far between.
After a year’s absence, underway
toward the bay we had shared with the juvenile gray, we had no inkling of
the surprise in store. He was still there, or had returned, still alone. We
could not believe our good fortune. And something had changed. As we
continued into the heart of the bay, he moved along the shore parallel to
our course. Coincidence, of course. Then, as we anchored, he slowly circled
our inner sanctum. Was he welcoming us back? He remained within sight while
we prepared to kayak the lagoons.
Whale watching & paddling with Earl Gray
Photo: Linda Radnich
Nightfall comes late to Southeast
Alaska in spring. As we sat reliving events after a
long day of kayaking the inner reaches with eagles, seabirds, and even a
mother brown bear with two cubs, we heard our whale friend exhale. Now
accustomed to his presence, we talked about the privilege of being alone and
on good terms with this amazing creature in this magical corner of the
planet. One tea-drinking guest suggested we name him, so "Earl" it was. Earl
Gray spent the night with us, very close by, resting, his subdued
exhalations floating eerily through the stone silent wilderness.
The history of the relationship
between the California gray whale and humans is long and sometimes bitter.
Some coastal native American groups hunted grays for subsistence, using all
parts of the animal and respecting their greatness. The hunts carried out by
other cultures, including our own, were quite another matter. These
slaughters took place in the birthing lagoons of Baja, where grays were
concentrated and trapped, and in favorite feeding areas of the Bering Sea.
As the sea turned crimson, whaling crews learned that grays under attack
shed their placid nature, sometimes smashing pursuit boats with their
gigantic tails and sending hunters to a watery grave. It was not without
reason that gray whales, among all whale species hunted, were named
"devilfish" by the Japanese. The California gray whale population was
decimated by the 1870s, with hunting on the remnants continuing sporadically
past the middle of the next century.
Whales are long-lived, so the grays’
memories of the hunt must have persisted into recent decades. Elders with
wounds or memories of narrow escapes could be expected to teach avoidance of
men in ships. But as the passage of time dims generational gray whale
memories, there is a change afoot in human-gray interactions. In The Eye of
the Whale, Dick Russell describes a scene that is increasingly common in the
lagoons of Baja: gray whale mothers and calves purposefully approaching
small boats containing guides, scientists, writers, and tourists, to be
touched, even petted, and to look, eye to eye, at a more benign human than
ancestor whales could imagine. For Russell, "The look exchanged penetrates
to my very depths. It feels as though I am being read by the whale, as
though my entire life, for one endless moment, is an open book."
Intimate gray whale-human contacts
that occur in the lagoons are still rare or nonexistent during migration.
Yet it is clear our friend Earl was choosing to be near us. Another time, we
observed over fifty grays in an outer bay. We quietly kept our distance and
drifted for an hour, while pairs took turns departing their group and
approaching us, sometimes to within 50 feet of our boat. This, too, was
clearly purposeful behavior. They had no fear, and they were making contact.
We were the object of their ritual. We were in awe.
We have not seen Earl Gray since
that memorable night he slept with us in the lonely bay several years ago.
We have returned several times, watching in vain. But all things seem
possible now, and perhaps someday we will have a reunion.
© Captain Jim Kyle
holds a US Coast Guard 100 Ton Passenger License and an M.A. in
Environmental Policy. He has been a commercial fisherman in Alaska since
1962 and has operated Alaska on the Home Shore charters since 1997.
Ph: 1-800-287-7063(01) or