Bubble Feed

Any North bound cruise guest has romanticized the whales of Alaska. It’s been drilled into them that a cruise through the Inside Passage promises numerous glimpses of mighty humpbacks breaching, belugas dancing below the surface as ghostly white blurs, and the black dagger fins of the keen Orca. And there’s a good chance that your cruise will deliver these promises. Whales travel to Alaska to feast. They are happy and fat, and will happily dance for spectators.

One thing, though, that the cruises fail to mention (but I warned my guests at the docks), is that if you have your camera out and ready, there will be no whales. I swear, it’s just how it goes.

The other fascinating thing about Alaskan whales is their learned behavior known as bubble feeding. It’s a strategy unique to whales the spend the summer months feeding in Alaska, passed from generation to generation as mother whales taught their calves. A humpy will dive deep and blast a ring of bubbles around a school of herring or fingerlings, scaring them close together; thus, making the mouthful a little bigger. As the fish school grows tighter, suddenly the whale bursts to the surface with its mouth agape, devouring everything in its maw. The problem with this, is that a humpy doesn’t care if you, a kayaker, is in the way when she’s feeding (not that she wants to eat you, but she certainly doesn’t care).

It was a stereotypical rainy Ketchikan day. Aubrey and I had five guests that composed a single family. And what a treat of a group. First off, Aubrey is adorable and so delightfully impish that it’s always a pleasure to be in her company. And second, the family was adorable. Mum and dad chose a kayak together, Aubrey took the oldest child, and I took the triple kayak with the youngest and middle.

We paddled out to glassy waters, enjoying the marbled murelettes bobbing on the surface. In a flash, the pudgy birds would vanish beneath the surface, and they were always amusing in the defenses. We brought the girls ochre stars, the rough and resilient starfish of the pacific northwest that cover the steep coasts of Ketchikan with their jagged rainbow hides and notorious for the legend where local fisherman tried to rid the seas of the stars by ripping them in half (forgetting that all sea stars can become two sea stars in such circumstances and instead doubled the population), and even edible bladderwrack and bull kelp.

Now bladderwrack is extremely healthy. But it’s also pretty disgusting… I mean, bladderwrack, for crying out loud, why would you want to eat something with that name? It’s about as appetizing as split pea soup after watching the originsl Exorcist. But, surprisingly, it tastes a lot like overcooked, salty green beans, so it’s not that bad. And, as an added bonus, it’s one of those strange plants that’s high in protein. So try it if you get the chance, and if you can overlook HOW it obtains it’s high protein (the sea plant filters the water for decaying animals and absorbs their nutients; hence, the gooey filling). Mmm… bladderwrack.

Everyone tried the plant and agreed that despite its name and strategies, it’s fairly palatable. But the youngest loved it. She was completely prepared to live off of it, and she stashed some on the deck of the kayak for later snacking.

We rounded Eagle Island and pitied poor mama eagle with her drenched eaglets, but they were tough and would be fine, and continued onward to the next island with intent on visiting a small cove to find a sea cucumber.

As we reached the cove, we were given the bief warning: the erratic bubbles. And without a moment to spare I hollared to everyone to back that ass up into the cove! BOOM!!!! Twenty feet beside us a humpback broke the surface with such explosive force we felt some of the driplets reach our faces. Everyone shrieked with excitement and fear. BOOM! she breached again, mouth lolling and head thrashing. “This is incredible!” The middle child yelled. And apparently the whale had dislodged an entire plant of bladderwrack, because the youngest did not hesitate to miss the opportunity,  “LOOK AT THE SEA WEED!” she hollered.

Ah, the simplicity of youth.

Boom! The whale playfully breached some distace away before slapping the sea with her tail, signaling that she was diving much deeper and we would not see her again. Off to fairer realms I suppose, but what a chance encounter.

Aubrey and I looked at each other with smiles of equal parts “too close for comfort” and “wow.”

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