Hometown Whales

The first time I saw a humpback whale it was so close I could have thrown a rock and hit it —and I don’t have a great arm. A group of us were kayaking along a fjord in Alaska and the whale came between us and the steep rock wall. Four times it surfaced just beside us and we were all to stunned, entranced and awed to take a picture.

After that trip seeing whales became part of most vacations. Humpback whales in Kauai. Gray whales in Baja. Orca in British Columbia. Blue whale in the Sea of Cortes.

But then there were “our” whales, the ones we see almost every year. On and off in April and May Gray whales come into the waters off our beach cabin on Puget Sound in Washington, as part of their annual migration from Mexico to Alaska.

This didn’t happen when we were growing up there, but over the last twenty years has become pretty routine. The same 10 – 12 whales come each spring. Whale researchers have named and identified two we often see, named Patch and Trim-tail because of their distinction features. Others simply are identified by numbers. They come into the shallow areas seeking the ghost shrimp and tubeworms that live in the sand. After the whales have been through the sand bars at low tide are marked with large divots, evidence of the digging the whales do with their fins.

Using their tails and fins, the stir up the sand, apparently taking in great gulps of water, food and sand. Yellow, cloudy water appears as they move along.

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This summer for some reason at least one gray whale has hung around longer, into August. Appearing now twice in the last couple of weeks, it spends several hours cruising up and down just a few dozen yards from shore, often unnoticed by the people along shore.

Twice now we have been lucky enough to be out in our kayaks when the whale appeared. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. Gray whales don’t have the sonar locating ability of orca, but our guy appears to keep track of its surrounding by sight, sometimes keeping its distance and other times appearing out of nowhere just beside us. Researchers report gray whales often approach boats. Are they curious?

When we get downwind, we can smell it’s fishing breath as it blows. But we can also hear a soft intake of breath after it’s blown — if the breathing of a 30 ton creature can ever be called soft.

I don’t care how many times I see these guys, they are always special.

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