Thursday, August 18, 2022

Whale Watching in Alaska

I've been away from blogland due to a fabulous trip my hubby and I recently took to southeast Alaska.  We returned a week ago, but I captured so many images it's taken a fair amount of time to sort, cull and edit them all.  But I'm now ready to share - beginning with the whale watching trip I took on the second day.

The "Taz" my tour boat for the day

My hubby recently celebrated a milestone birthday.  In our family, important birthdays are celebrated with big trips.  Since hubby loves fishing in Alaska I knew that was on the agenda.  But I was hoping to also include a National Park visit.  Then through a Facebook page called "Travelers of the US National Parks" I discovered Glacier Bay National Park.  Located in SE Alaska near the tiny town of Gustavus, not only did the place offer wildlife and glacier viewing, there was also lots of charter fishing tours available.  Perfect!  I found lodging, purchased airline tickets, and we excitedly counted down the days.

Gustavus harbor

Our first day in Gustavus I went halibut fishing with my hubby (I'll cover that trip in a future post.)  But on the second day, I let my hubby go fishing without me because I wanted to do some wildlife viewing.  So I signed up for a whale watching cruise.

Fledgling pigeon guillemots

While fishing we saw many whale spouts from a distance.  A couple of whales even swam relatively close by, arching their backs and slapping their tails on the water.  Our boat captain pooh-poohed the idea of me going on a separate whale watching trip stating "You can see just as many whales coming fishing with me."  But since I'm terrible at doing two things at once, I wanted to concentrate on just taking photos and not trying to fish at the same time.  

Thar she blows!

So the next day I boarded a ship called "The Taz" captained by a man named Todd.  At first I was skeptical.  The boat looked a little worse for wear and the captain seemed to match his boat.  But as I was about to find out, this man knew his stuff.

It was fun to watch the whales spouting

Glacier Bay is known for it's summer populations of Humpback whales.  The whales spend winters in Hawaii where they mate and have their babies.  During this time the whales do not eat at all.  Once summer rolls around, the whales return to Glacier Bay for food.  Having fasted all winter in the tropics, these large mammals arrive hungry.  The Humpbacks gorge themselves on the plentiful schools of small fish that concentrate in the ocean's cold waters.  They eat up to 22 hours a day in order to store enough fat reserves to make it through the next breeding season.

I got tons of tail photos every time a whale dived

It took a bit of time for our boat to travel to the area where the whales were last spotted.  But soon on the horizon we all began to see the tell-tale white mist of a spouting whale.

Some whales had white tails

There appeared to be a pod of about 8 whales.  It was really neat to watch them all spout at once, their white columns of vaporized air rising from the water's surface.  You could hear the air exiting the blowholes in a loud "whoosh."

Splashy, splashy

I assumed this was as close as we'd get.  But Captain Todd had other plans and steered the boat towards the pod.  Soon, we could clearly make out the whale's broad backs and watch them arch upwards before diving into the water.  (We were told that's why they are called humpbacks)  The last thing we'd see before a whale disappeared was it's tail.  So impressive to watch!

Then the sun came out!

Although the boat did get much closer, it was still required to keep a minimum distance from the Humpbacks, which the captain respected.  Oh boy, was I glad I'd packed my large 100-500 zoom lens and 1.4x extender.  Those came in mighty handy to zoom in and get some close-up shots of all this whale activity.  

This whale looked white and spotted

It was fun to watch the dives and spouts.  Every once and awhile a whale would stick his fins above water.  But that was all we saw of these humungous critters.  Well - until the entire pod started bubble-net feeding.

The pod bubble-net feeding

The first time it happened everyone on the boat was stunned.  The entire pod surfaced at once, their noses in the air and mouths open.  A splashing frenzy ensued for a moment before all the whales sunk back into the water.

The bubble-net feeding was so cool to watch!

Todd's assistant, a very nice woman (who's name I've now forgotten) explained this most interesting behavior.  Bubble-net feeding is a cooperative method Humpback whales use to gather large amounts of food.  Using vocalizations to coordinate the pod, whales will circle a school of small fish and begin exhaling out their blowholes to disorient and corral the fish into a "net" of bubbles.  Once the net has captured enough fish, one whale will sound the call and the entire pod surfaces with their mouths open to catch the trapped fish.

Sinking back into the water

Per Wikipedia: "As the whales swim up to the surface to feed they can hold up to 15,000 gallons of sea water in their mouths.  Humpback whales have 14 to 35 throat grooves that run from the top of the chin all the way down to the navel.  These grooves allow the mouth to expand.  When they swallow they stream the water out through their baleen as they ingest the fish.  The fish that they ingest are also a source of hydration for them."

A fishing boat watching the whales

From Wikipedia I also learned that bubble-net feeding does not occur everywhere.  Alaska is conducive to the activity due to it's cold waters and the high amount of summer sun.  These factors are perfect conditions for producing large quantities of the fish Humpback whales prefer.


More tail action

Although I tried to get photos of the first feeding frenzy, it happened so fast I only got a few out-of-focus images.  After that I tried to keep a closer watch on the horizon.  But once the all the whales dived there was no way to guess where the pod would resurface.  The only clue was watching the flocks of seagulls circling overhead.  Readying to pick any uneaten fish out of the water, those birds seemed to have a sense of where the whales might reappear.

Just cruisin'

Lucky for us, the whales continued their bubble feeding frenzy.  The next time they all resurfaced, I was ready.  This time I managed to get some action images that were in focus.  Yeah!

Another feeding frenzy

Since the boat captain and his assistant did two tours a day throughout the summer, they were very familiar with the whales.  The assistant even pointed out that one of the whales was a calf.  I don't know how she could tell - their backs and tails looked the same to me - all ginormous!

A calm moment

At one point the calf swam very close to the boat.  Unfortunately for me, I had too much lens to capture such a point-blank image.  But I did manage to get one very interesting picture - an extreme close-up of the whale's blowhole spewing water everywhere.

I could've watched the feeding all day!

The other thing that was fun to photograph was the whale's tails right before they dived.  The tail would pop out of the water, and if you caught it just right you could freeze-frame the rivulets of water that streamed from the tail.  I must've taken hundreds of images of just whale tails!

This whale got so close to the boat he filled my lens

To our delight, the pod kept bubble feeding.  This kept everyone on their toes, trying to guess where the whales would pop up next.  It was such fun to watch, no one wanted to leave.  Our captain kept saying: "Folks we really have to turn back soon.  But we'll wait for one more before we do."  And then the whales would surface and he'd say "Okay, one more."

I loved how the water ran from their tails

Captain Todd was very patient and allowed us to view these magnificent creatures for probably longer than usual.  It had been such a wonderful day of whale activity that no one wanted to leave, even him.

Everyone up!

As the captain was starting to prepare for departure, two whales poked their backs out of the water so I zoomed my camera in on them.  Then I heard everyone on the boat gasp.  I turned my camera to the right and there in my lens was a whale breaching!  I hurriedly pressed the shutter and managed to capture two images before the enormous creature hit the water in a huge splash.  Oh my goodness what a cool thing to witness!

Even better, one of the images I captured was actually in focus!  Here it is for you all to enjoy.

A lucky photo of a breach

It was a wonderful way to end what was the best day of wildlife viewing I've had in awhile.  I was so glad I'd decided to go on this whale watching cruise instead of another day of fishing.  I saw much more than I would've had I sat in a fishing boat.

Waving goodbye

As we were heading back to the dock, Captain Todd chatted with me.  I learned he'd been conducting whale watching tours out of Gustavus for 17 years.  With so many years of experience, Todd knew where to find the whales and how to tell if they were going to breach, dive, or bubble-feed.  He remarked that this cruise would spoil me for future whale watching tours.  I think he's right!  If you're ever in Gustavus I highly recommend The Taz Whale Watching Tours.  They really do know their whales.

Lots of seabirds follow the whales

Here's a very crude cell phone video I took of the whales bubble-net feeding for your enjoyment.

This whale watching tour was my most favorite activity during my time at Glacier Bay National Park.  But the following day my hubby and I did a boat tour of the park that was a close second.  Coming in my next post, a full recap of that day.


  1. ...I have been on a number of underwhelming whale watches in Maui. Yours looked fabulous.

  2. What an incredible experience! I love that you happened to get such an experienced guide. That spotted whale sure looked unique.

  3. You were truly spoiled by Todd and the whales. Magnificent creatures to watch. I went out here, 2 weeks ago but the whales were having a quiet day. So wonderful to enjoy your day here. Happy, significant birthday to your Hubby. I hope the big one didn't get away!

  4. WOW! WOW! WOW! That is amazing and incredible. I think my jaw dropped at the first picture and stayed there as I scrolled though and read your commentary.

  5. You are making me miss living in SE Alaska. You haven't lived until you have kayaked super close (not on purpose!) to whales and then had to hastily backtrack.

  6. Whale watching in Alaska! Oh my gosh, how amazing. These captures are fabulous.

  7. Remarkable! Aren’t you glad you have digital so you don’t have to worry about film?

  8. Great shots of the hales they are such massive creatures!

  9. What a wonderful whale-watching tour! I would love to see the whales bubble feeding! You captured great images of great creatures!


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