“Watch the birds, they’ll tell you where it’s coming!” yelled Mike, the first mate of the Misty. Suddenly, the flock of seagulls dives toward a point on the water, as five 40-ton giants of the sea came blasting through the surface, mouths gaping wide open to gorge themselves with fish. Then, the team of hunters catches its breath, and dives down for another run.
Before our tour of the Kenai Fjords in Alaska began, we were warned about high seas and the fact that it was very likely things could be cut short, and it was possible we wouldn’t see any of the highlights, including the Aialik Glacier. We had to decide if it was still worth taking the trip, and if not for the fact that our plans had been ruined the day before because of weather, I think I would have been all for sitting this one out. I’m glad I didn’t.
Humpback whales feed using a process known as bubble netting. It was something I’d always wanted to see, and it was more incredible than I could have ever imagined. National Geographic’s got nothing on the real thing! The suspense and action above water is amazing enough, but to understand how impressive this truly is, you have to go beneath the surface.
What is bubble netting?
The whales work together as a team, first emitting a high pitched sound to confuse a school of herring, causing them to bunch up near the surface (this is known as a “bait ball”). Then, one whale swims in a circle, blowing bubbles to form a barrier that traps the fish. Last, the whales all blast up towards the surface with their mouths open. The herring never had a chance. The gulls that swoop in take care of any fish lucky enough to evade the whales.
Here’s a video of the bubble netting technique in action:
The biggest surprise about humpback whales?
I discovered one other thing about whales that can only be experienced in person. The smell of whale breath is atrocious! The closest comparison I can come up with is a mix of burning rubber and rotting fish. And what’s more mind-blowing (if you can even concentrate long enough to think) is that you can smell it from hundreds of yards away!
Perhaps this particular example of why you’ve got to be there won’t exactly motivate you to plan your next trip to Alaska, but it does illustrate how watching nature videos, or a history documentary, or seeing photos does not replace going somewhere and taking it all in for yourself. All of it – even the smells.