When we planned our Alaskan excursions, we were limited by a number of factors. For example, most of the fishing trips required you to be ten years old and David had just turned nine. As you may have guessed, many of the activities involved communing with nature in the great Alaskan outdoors. Unfortunately, Juliana hates to be cold. Or hungry. Or having to exert herself. In Juneau, however, we found one fishing expedition that had no age limit. There was no question of taking Juliana; the last thing anybody wanted was to be stuck on a small boat with her crying, seasick self. It was understood that Ritu would go with David while I did something with her. I immediately looked at the whale watch options. The first time I ever went on a whale watch must have been nearly 20 years ago. We were staying in Cape Cod and took a day trip to Provincetown. Since then, I've gone whale watching in Florida and Hawaii. Alaska offered multiple whale watches in every single port. When I came across one that used terms like "cruising in warm comfort" and "complimentary snacks and warm beverages" I knew we'd struck gold.
The day we arrived in Juneau, we disembarked the cruise ship and went our separate ways. Ritu's parents came along on the whale watch with us. The day was cold, foggy overcast, and gray but the cabin of the boat was indeed warm and comfortable. And there were chips! And Milanos! And hot chocolate! Juliana was appeased. The boat even provided a number of sets of binoculars for passenger use. I, the seasoned whale watcher, had of course brought my own.
I was concerned about the weather. Visibility was somewhat limited and although the cruise promised a refund if no whales were spotted, I wanted to see whales, dammit. The naturalist who guided the tour explained that the overcast day made for good whale watching. If you've ever gone whale watching before, you know that what you're looking for is almost no more than a glimpse: the ridge of a black back curving out of the water, the misty spout of air coming from a blowhole, and occasionally, if you're lucky, the flip of a tail breaking the surface. With the sky and sea both gun metal gray, the contrast of slick black whale against the soft background would actually heighten our ability to find them.
It wasn't long before we saw our first whales. Juliana could see from where we were sitting. She was mildly interested in the whales, but moreso in the snacks.
With grandma and grandpa on board to keep Juliana happy (and stuffed
with Milanos) I was free to venture up to the open deck. Despite the cold, I was
perfectly warm and dry in my new fleece and jacket. I had my
binoculars, but the whales were so close that I didn't need them. The
air was heavy with water, but not quite raining. I didn't realize how
wet the air was until I went to wipe my face and my hand slid across my cheek.
My face was entirely beaded with moisture and I'd never even felt it.
The boat approached a group (pod?) of maybe three humpbacks and we watched as their backs broke the surface again and again. Every few minutes you would see their tails flip out of the water, signifying a deeper dive.
Then came the fun of trying to see where they would re-appear. This is my favorite part of whale watching. The engines are quiet and everyone on the boat stands silently, scanning the water for that first hint of the surfacing whales. It's like standing in a grand cathedral or a cavernous museum, overwhelmed by the solemnity and beauty. When you see the whale spout--and the mist hangs silver in the air--it shouldn't be that much different than the air and sea, but it is. You can't help but make a small noise of astonishment each time. You point and say "there". People softly ooh and ahh, as if watching fireworks. We were close enough to hear the sounds of the whales spouting. It made a loud whoosh, almost something like an elephant would make with its trunk. I'd never been close enough to hear that before. To hear a whale.
After awhile, the whales moved on and so did our boat. As we headed back towards land, our guide began to get excited. It turned out that we had come across some whales who were bubble net fishing. This is a kind of co-operative feeding in which a number of whales, sometimes up to a dozen, dive together and swim in a tight circle around a school of fish, all the while blowing out air to make a bubble barrier which visually confuses and contains the fish. At the cue of the leader, they swim upward with their mouths wide open gulping down vast amounts of herring or krill.
My brother in law went on a whale watch during another shore day. He came back unimpressed, asking why people even do that. I tried my best to explain what it meant to me. I am not a religious person, but the closest I get is through nature. I think it has to do with stepping out from my everyday life and realizing that I am a part of something bigger. To realize that we share the earth with these giant creatures. To realize that there is an entire world hidden beneath the sea and the only time it touches our own is in these brief interludes of surfacing whales.