Where Humpbacks Breach 2019 Trip Report #2

By Joe Van Os on Aug 15, 2019

Our trip was just about over. As our boat was tying up to the dock in Petersburg, Alaska, the pungent smell of fish wafted from the nearby Icicle Seafoods plant. Our boat’s captain, Dennis Rogers, turned to me and said, “In Petersburg, that’s the smell of money!” Dennis has lived in Petersburg for 40 years and he captained a commercial fishing boat for about half that time before getting into the tourist industry. Fishing and crabbing are the life blood of much of coastal Alaska. Over 21,000 coastal Alaska residents are directly employed by the commercial fishing industry, accounting for 15% of all rural working-age adults.
The commercial salmon fishery in Southeast was not doing very well this year and neither was salmon sport fishing. One couple who I met in our hotel lobby told me they’ve come to Alaska every one of the past twelve years to catch their limit of salmon and halibut, but this year they were “skunked” by the salmon. Breaching humpback in SE AlaskaBy contrast, our Where Humpback Whales Breach photo tour had struck the “mother lode” with hundreds of humpbacks and a smattering of orcas throughout the trip. With a spectacular show of whale breaching on most days, and one amazing evening of bubble-net feeding with incredible light, it ranks as one of the most amazing whale experiences I’ve had in my life—and I’ve had many!
Virtually every day we traveled over mirror-smooth water surrounded by rugged coastal mountains and skirted by impressive old-growth forest. These forests have withstood the test of time, having never been logged since they slowly colonized the land that was exposed when glaciers receded after the Pleistocene. For tourism, the weather this season has been extraordinary—sunny almost every day with unseasonably warm temperatures in most of Alaska. But here in Southeast Alaska, the state’s wettest region was experiencing an extreme drought and the “nice” weather was generating wildfires in the interior. Humpback whale fluke with sunsetUnfortunately, the smoke from these fires obscured the landscapes in some areas we visited. Perhaps the only upside was that it also made for incredible, fiery sunsets on several evenings. As a photographer, I longed for a few damp and brightly overcast “Alaskan” days—but we never got even one!
Photographing breaching whales is quite an adventure. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, with breaching whales, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” There is simply no way to predict exactly where or when one of these 40-ton sea monsters will breach. When they do, their twisting bodies fling water in all directions before creating a huge splash and a thunderous boom that can be heard for miles. You have to be on your toes shooting these leviathans—camera at the ready with a high ISO setting to freeze the action while simultaneously paying close attention to the background.
Despite all this beauty, things are not well in Alaska. The fires are a symptom of the changing climate which is creating the dry conditions that give rise to severe wildfire conditions in Alaska and throughout the western states. Landscape of SE AlaskaFurthermore, while we were enjoying our “mother lode” of whales we learned that a Canadian company was just about to get a “mother lode” of its own. Shortly after Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy met with President Trump, the EPA announced it would not oppose the Pebble Mine (copper and gold mining project) that has been opposed by the fishing industry, environmentalists and Native American tribes. Under President Obama, the EPA opposed the project, determining the massive open-pit mine would pose too much of a risk to Bristol Bay, with the potential of a “complete loss” of the bay’s fish habitat. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world and the most valuable single fishery in Alaska.
This mine will be an irreparable scar on one of America's last near-pristine wildernesses. If the Pebble Mine is allowed to be built it will create a colossal footprint on the landscape—as large as Manhattan and nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. The mine will produce millions of tons of toxic waste that could leach into two nearby rivers. This expansive extraction of gold and copper will seriously impact the local fishing and tourism industries. And, like so many mines of this type, it is not a matter of if the mine will fail, but when it will fail—with the subsequent impact extensive and the cleanup cost exorbitant.
Humpback whales bubble-net feedingYou can do something about this! Visit www.savebristolbay.org .Then contact your members of congress and urge them to do everything in their power to stop Pebble Mine. There is an app available for IOS and Android called “5 calls” which conveniently connects you by phone to the offices of your senators and congressional representatives as well as local state government office holders. And just this week the EPA has announced the gutting of the Endangered Species Act. If we love nature as much as we say we do, its time to stand up to the “powers that be,” once again.

Group photo

Related Tags:  alaska, humpback, whales