Saying howdy to the humpbacks

By Tom Adkinson
Special to

Part 1 of 3

Only about 10,000 to 15,000 humpback whales swim the world’s oceans, and I’ve seen about 20 of them. I count myself lucky.

I knew that my whale-watching trip while my cruise ship spent a day in Juneau could have been a bust.  The excursion company certainly didn’t make any guarantees.

Whale spout

However, optimism abounded since almost all of the whale-watching companies I found online noted, “We can’t promise whales, but we’ve seen whales every trip for the last 10 years” or some similar phrase.

It would have been just my luck to be on the trip that broke that string of successes, which is why I don’t buy lottery tickets.

This day, however, I should have invested big in Powerball tickets.

I opted out of the trips offered through the cruise ship and found a small operator. A nice couple from Louisiana joined my extended family of eight to fill a boat operated by Alaska Galore Tours.

Somewhere on the three-hour itinerary that had places named Auke Bay, Favorite Channel, Stephens Passage, Lynn Canal and Saginaw Channel as possibilities, we struck gold – or a misty exhalations, as the case may be.

To everyone’s credit, no one bellowed, “Thar she blows,” when we finally did see a spout.


Then there was another. And another. And another. And soon enough, we saw multiple great bodies roll and gigantic flukes (tails) rise into the air as humpbacks turned nose down and dove.

We’d kept the string of successful days intact, and the captain zoomed off over spoutless water – and away from other boats – searching for a sight he’d seen the day before.

We stopped, watched and waited – and then it happened. A group of humpbacks rose in unison in a tight circle, their open maws sticking several feet into the air before sliding back underneath the almost-calm surface.

They were bubble-netting.

It’s a technique in which a hunting group forms a circle, dives about 50 feet down and then blows a wall of bubbles as they spiral to the surface. The bubbles trap krill, plankton and/or small fish, and the whales feast as they speed upwards.

We watched as the process repeated itself and the word went out over the various boats’ radios. Soon, we had company for the spectacle.


Mature humpbacks are about 50 feet long and weigh 30-40 tons. They feed in these cold, nutrient-rich waters and then migrate to tropical climes to breed and calve. While feeding, they consume up to 5,500 pounds of food a day, which is even more than the consumption of the average cruise ship passenger.

Our bonus came when our captain lowered a microphone off the edge of the boat. The groans, grunts and squeals of the feeding humpbacks were an amazing soundtrack to what we were watching.

“Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and the Discover Channel had nothing on us that day.

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