This is an article about Alaskan Gray Whale from Wave~Length Paddling Magazine, published bi-monthly from their offices on Gabriola Island, B.C., available in print in North America, and around the world on the web.
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Whale Watching - Alaska Gray Whale Encounter

by © Captain Jim Kyle
The gray whale and whale watching tours in Alaska
Preparing for the whale watching encounter       Photo: Jim Kyle

"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 his abode.

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 encounters - Earl Gray returns
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.

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