Humpback Whales in Southeast Alaska

Story and photography by Neil McDermott

Humpback Whale. © Neil McDermott

     The only place on earth you can observe Humpback whales working as a team bubble net feeding, is here in the pristine, nutrient rich waters of Southeast Alaska. This most impressive act of cooperative feeding was on display from early October to Mid-November in the Eastern Channel and up towards Silver Bay in front of the aptly named whale Park here in Sitka, Alaska.

Gray Whale Fluke. © Neil McDermott

    The Alp like peaks of Tongass National Forest and the crimson streaked dormant Mt. Edgecumbe volcano provided the backdrop as we watched a pod of 15 -20 humpback whales cruise back and forth across 500’ deep waters searching for the huge bait-balls of krill, herring and salmon fry. When they found their prey, the leader of the pod called to the team, synchronizing the pod mates dive and actions.

Humpback Lob-Tailing, thought to be an aggressive behavior. © Neil McDermott

     As Owner / Captain of, A Whale’s Song Expeditions, my guests and I had breathtaking courtside seats while the whale’s supplied the play-by-play announcing of their activities. Eavesdropping on their communication with our on-board amplified hydrophone, we would hear the pitch of feeding calls from the leader abruptly getting higher and louder. Each time I heard this I knew my guests would soon be astonished as the whale’s heads would erupt with huge mouths open, throat grooves bulging with fish and seawater flushing through their baleen plates. In seconds several hundred Glaucous Gulls would quickly arrive screaming and swarming the upwelling waters full of herring with some of the more courageous gulls seeming to steal the bounty from the surfaced open mouths. On the occasion these engagements arose adjacent to our vessel, the noise of the whale’s grunts, calls and whistling exhales united with the gulls crying, although quite loud, had a natural soothing effect on our souls.

The only place in the world to witness Bubble Net feeding is in Alaska. © Neil McDermott

     My guests and I were fortunate to have this scenario play out as often as twenty times during many of our 3-hour expeditions while being treated to other acrobatic humpback displays as we watched them breach, lobtail, flipper slap and spy hop. Watching the graceful and athletic performances of these 20 plus ton beautiful creatures instinctually serves to remind and motivate all of us for the sustained need for conservation, education and research to help protect the precious marine environment.

     Mid-March through the end of April is an exciting time to see bubble net feeding when the herring spawn. Locally known as “Sac Roe” the spawn concentrates the whale pods and stimulates the feeding activities of all marine life around Sitka. October through January are also ideal times to delight in this behavior as Megaptera novaeangliae gorge themselves before making their migratory journey to the calving and breeding grounds in the shallow, clear, warm waters of Hawaii.

     Witnessing bubble-net feeding behavior make jaws drop, and exhausts camera and cell phone batteries from the constant shooting of this display, no matter how many times one has seen whales. It’s no wonder Sitka was dubbed, “The Gem of the Pacific.”

     There are only two ways to get to the first Capital of Alaska, Sitka, by air or sea, and many ways to enjoy your journey. May through September, Sitka is a port of call for many mega and small ship cruise lines that transit the inside passage from May through September.  You can board the ferry at Bellingham, Washington, Prince Rupert, BC, or Haines, Alaska (at the north end of the Panhandle). Alaska Airlines has daily jet service from the lower 48 to Sitka. Delta Airlines offers 1 non-stop daily to and from Seattle beginning the end of May through August. If you can take the time, a trip to Sitka on the Alaska state ferry system and the Alaska Marine Highway is state treasure that is a reasonably priced seafaring alternative. 

     If you would you like to get close to the action in a small group setting photographing these acrobats our company offers photography expeditions throughout the year. For details please check out our website, https://awhalessongexpeditions.com

Sea Otter wrapped in Bull Kelp. © Neil McDermott

     Sitka is situated on the shores of the Pacific Ocean at the foot of glacial-carved mountains. The picturesque village’s Tlingit and Russian heritage can be seen throughout Alaska’s first capital.