For the sport of it

One of the activities we decided to do while in Alaska was a whale watch. The humpback whales which mate and give birth near Hawaii in the winter come to Alaska for the summer to feed on the abundant fish and krill found in the waters off Alaska.

In Icy Straights, Alaska, the cruise ship anchored and we transferred to a 125 passenger ship specifically designed and crewed for sighting whales. We headed for Adolphus Point where the currents bring an abundance of food for marine mammals. On the way our very bubbly (for 7:30 in the morning) guide told us to look for the animals. They do not use sonar equipment to try to find whales as it disorients the animals and is injurious to them. Humpbacks are an endangered species having been hunted in the 19th and 20th centuries until there were less than 1,200 left. But protection efforts over the last 3 decades are helping to restore their numbers.

We scanned the horizon and soon a spout was sighted. As a whale surfaces they exhale sharply to clear the water off their head so they can breathe. The exhalation is powerful – about 300mph so it vaporizes the water over the blowhole creating this distinctive geyser of water vapor over 20 feet in the air. (These spouts are also called blows.) After a few surface blows this whale we were watching dove showing its tail flukes. We spotted Stellar Sea Lions and some other whales who were feeding. At one point there was a whales in each of the directions around the boat. The Captain announced he wanted to check out some “unusual behavior” he had spotted and sped us off another mile or so. As we approached we saw a whale slapping the surface with his flipper (approximately 15 feet long).  Suddenly another whale emerged and also began this slapping.  Then the first dove and came back up out of the water mouth open doing a slap with his head! Soon these two whales were slapping and diving and coming up breeching and then falling back into the water. The Captain and Guide were amazed they had rarely seen this behavior singly let alone with two whales. Here were creatures as big as a schoolbus launching themselves out of the water with two strokes of their powerful tails and falling back in tremendous splashes.

It was probably two males or a male and a female the guide surmised. They know it is not a feeding behavior and it did not seem to be aggressive. The onboard naturalists  speculated it could be some form of communication.

Watching it I did not need a scientific explanation. It seemed to be pure joy. Creatures rejoicing in an abundant creation. They were sharing the joy of being in that placed of abundance and were sharing the joy with their companion. It seemed so real, so obvious, and so unscientific I did not share my opinion with the guide.

For Nancy and I this has been a special magical time. But from the whale’s point of view this was just what whales do. They were not on vacation. They were being fully themselves in a day early in this season of feeding preparing to go back to Hawaii of the winter. What a pity that we humans are not better at this unfettered joy in our everyday life. It seems we have to be taken out of our life to find this kind of joyous expression. What if we were to take a lesson from these large mammals and find the joy in our life here and now in our normal life. Our personal life and the life of the world would be far richer as we regularly practiced this behavior. And we would also have others wondering what WE were up to.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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