Where Humpbacks Breach—Alaska 2021 Trip Report(s)

By Joe Van Os on Sep 28, 2021

Sometimes the dozen or so bubble-net feeding humpback whales surfaced so close to our boat their misty, fishy breath drifted lazily over our small group of bow-based photographers. In what we jokingly called an “Inside Passage facial,” their moist salty spume provided—in wine parlances—a refreshing and complex aroma, with earthy notes of herring and krill with a hint of bile. Few people can say they have had that kind of amazing close encounter.

Our two back-to-back photo groups had escaped their pandemic confines just prior to the insidious Delta outbreak. Both groups found themselves leaving the Petersburg harbor—ten days apart—on our wonderful homey yacht on two gray overcast afternoons. Each group traveled over the same general area on our voyages and both groups encountered and photographed more than 100 whales. Yet, like every time we venture into wildness, the trips were decidedly different—and that is the wonder of nature as well as the luck of the draw.

Herring, herring and more herring would be the theme for the first trip. It was a banner year for herring as massive shoals of fish stippled the water’s surface—often covering several surface acres and representing uncountable tons of these small sardine-like fish. Captain Dennis Rogers said this was one of the most impressive herring years he had seen in quite some time—and he has worked these waters for 40 years. In some bays numerous bubble-netting groups could be seen from our boat. In this part of Alaska, a group generally consists of 12–20 whales cooperatively herding schooling fish with the use of expelled bubbles to surround them. Then they lunge through the tight “herring ball” with their massive mouths wide open engulfing thousands of fish along with thousands of gallons of water.

The photography was spectacular! We had more opportunities to photograph bubble-net feeding groups at close range on this trip than most of the combined trips we have offered on this boat, and others, over the past several years. Individual lunge feeding by single whales was also a big plus on this trip as whales approached our boat, mouths wide open (and resembling huge toilets with the lid up) with fish flying in all directions as the whales engulfed up to 7000 gallons of water in a single gulp. Because of all the fish available the whales were totally preoccupied with eating, so while bubble-nets and lunges were plentiful, breaching was not as common as it usually is at this time of year—but there were still some good breaching whale shots to be had.

We photographed fantastic Steller sea lion (a.k.a. northern sea lion) haul outs, shot incredible mountain scenics in the Tongass National Forest, and lots of photogenic icebergs that had calved from the LeConte Glacier.

One memory I will always keep from this trip is our photography of a gorgeous chunk of ancient sapphire-blue ice we encountered on our visit to the glacial terminus where this tidewater glacier meets the sea. I have seen many glaciers and beautiful icebergs from my dozens of trips in the Arctic to Antarctica, but I have never seen such color and internal detail as this ice chunk exhibited. For this trip, it was the “icing” on the cake!

The second photo cruise started ten days later, and things had changed since the start of the first trip. For me, the first obvious change was all the photographers in this group were women and most of them were Sony shooters. Both relatively rare occurrences!

As we headed out, we rounded Kupreanof Island in Frederick Sound and then down into the Chatham Strait. We decided to go relatively straight down to the bays with the massive shoals of herring, and much to our surprise the amount of herring to be seen on the surface, as well as with our depth finder’ was greatly diminished. Perhaps the hundreds of whales that were formerly in the area had eaten them, or maybe the fish had simply moved to another location? In any event, there were still enough bubble-netting whales to make an extended visit here worthwhile—but it was nothing like the spectacle we saw on the first trip!

The weather got a little “choppy,” so we crossed Chatham Strait over towards Baranof Island to search for whales and landscape photo opportunities in the leeward side of that massive island. There we started to see individual and small groups of whales traveling northward. And then, we discovered “Where Humpbacks Breach” after they had apparently finished with their amazing feeding frenzy that we experienced on Trip One.

Some whales breached a dozen times in a row, some only once or twice. Over the next couple of days we had many “breaching shot” opportunities—often with the snowy peak of Baranof’s Mount Ada in the background. Like the first trip, several of these whales were "new to science" when their under fluke patterns were submitted to the "Happy Whale" whale identification data base. Then, as if someone magically pulled a plug on their energy, most of the breaching stopped. But our photos “were in the can.” 

So, no more humpbacks. Then word came of a huge pod of resident orcas many miles north of us in Chatham Strait. We decided to go for it. We traveled for miles passing beautiful scenery—but no orcas. Several hours had passed and we discussed calling off our quest. We decided to go a little further when Captain Dennis spotted a tiny break on the water some miles ahead. Suddenly we were in a big and widespread group of orcas, and we were thrilled to “shoot” so many of them—many big males as well as mothers with calves and lots of individuals.

Throughout the eight-day voyage we photographed bow-riding Dall’s porpoises in glassy water, harbor seals and their pups on calved icebergs at LeConte Glacier as well as more beautiful ice. Hauled out sea lions, rugged shorelines and a variety of birds rounded out our photo portfolios.

Food is always a great experience on this trip and passengers on these voyages certainly ate well. Many in this second group were interested in how our food was prepared and chef Therese Gorsich gave us several splendid kitchen tutorials as we traveled from location to location during our “photography down time.”

These were both exceptional whale photography tours—probably some of the best “topside” whale shoots in the world. As a reminder of these adventures, when I returned home and unpacked, my jacket still smelled mildly of the “Inside Passage facial” with its earthy notes of herring and krill with a hint of bile. The washing machine took care of it!

Be Sure to check out Joe Van Os’ 2021 Trip Photos (see Tour 1 Slideshow above)

Tour 2 Slideshow

Explore Our 2023 & 2024 Alaska Whale Trips

• Where Humpbacks Breach 2023

Whales, Wildlife and Wilderness 2024