Traveling with a renowned wildlife photographer on a whale-watching cruise.
Story by Janine Niebrugge
This morning I set out on a whale-watching adventure with my husband, Ron. Joining Ron on his photo shoots is one of the great perks of being married to a nature and wildlife photographer.
We begin our tour in the quaint coastal town of Seward, Alaska, gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. We’re Seward residents, so we take every opportunity to go out on the water. As our boat leaves the harbor and cruises through the protected waters of Resurrection Bay, the captain gives a brief history of Seward.
I’ve heard the story many times, of course, but I happily listen anyway. Seward was founded in 1903 as the terminus of a railroad line serving the Turnagain Arm gold fields. But long before that, the area boasted a colorful history of Native American and Russian settlement.
Not wanting to miss anything, I stand on deck smelling that familiar salty sea air, eyes searching the horizon. The coast seems especially beautiful this morning, and I spot several bald eagles and a mountain goat high on the sheer cliffs that rise from the ocean.
Soon someone spots a sea otter, and I move to get a closer look at this charmer. He’s floating casually on his back, grooming himself; his white face reminds me of an old man’s.
As we round the bend near Caines Head, the captain announces that he has spotted a small pod of orcas. I move toward the front of the boat to get a better look. Sure enough, I can see the arching movements of the orcas swimming gracefully through the water. We motor closer and the boat stops. One of the orcas swims close to the boat, giving us a chance to take pictures.
Ron recalls that on one of his most memorable whale-watching trips, they came upon what’s known as a super pod of orcas. “There must have been 50 in the water around us,” he remembers. “Everyone on the boat was speechless as we took in this amazing moment.”
Minutes later, I’m watching another nearby orca when it suddenly leaps completely out of the water and crashes down on its side. I can’t believe my eyes! While humpback whales breach fairly regularly, it’s rare to see an orca do it. It’s so exciting! And imagine the odds of having your camera aimed at that exact spot at that exact moment. Ron says catching an orca breaching is a once-in-a-lifetime photograph.
Then the captain gets word on the radio of a nearby humpback whale that’s putting on quite a show, so off we go.
When we arrive, I am not disappointed. There are few sights in this world more dramatic and thrilling than an animal the size of a school bus launching itself into the air. And this humpback is breaching repeatedly. Researchers don’t know for sure why whales breach, but if they do it just for fun, we share every bit of this humpback’s joy.
After a while, our frisky whale settles down and swims so close I can smell its fishy breath as it blows out the old air and takes in the new. Then the humpback dives below the waves, leaving us with a farewell wave of his fluke. Wow!
As we continue the tour, we see puffins with their comical faces, sea lions lazing in the sun and Dall’s porpoises frolicking in the wake of our boat. We cap it all off with the thunderous roar of ice calving off tidewater glaciers. What a day!