My dad and I were doing a roofing job in the nearby village one summer, which meant we had to commute every morning by skiff.
It's about a fifteen minute run, with breathtaking scenery. It's the same route we took when I was a kid going to to school in the village, and I'd seen it in all its moods.
That morning it was glassy smooth. Sportfisherman were out in their fiberglass speedboats and riveted aluminum skiffs. Sea gulls were everywhere, brilliantly white in the sunlight, dipping their beaks under the surface to troll for the rich feed.
The placidity of the water, the steady drone of the outboard, and the gentle warmth of the sun on my face almost put me into a trance. It was one of those pearly blue days, where the sky, the mountains, the water, the very air seemed to be a light, near translucent blue.
Without warning, the mirror flat water exploded in front of us.
A huge black cavern burst out of the bay directly in our path, exactly the right size to swallow our 13-foot Boston Whaler, with us in it.
My dad wrenched the tiller handle arm of the outboard. I grabbed my seat with both hands as we swerved violently.
The huge humpback whale ignored us as we sped past its monolithic, open mouth, water and teeming krill straining through its baleen. I could see right inside, where, but for my dad's quick reflexes, I might have taken up residence a few second before.
It took a while for our heartbeats to return to normal.
How often, I wondered, did people commuting to work have THAT happen?
I've been around these magnificent creatures for most of my life and have a great respect for their size and oblivious power. They're never deliberately dangerous to humans, any more than we're deliberately dangerous to the mollusks on the beach that we occasionally crunch underfoot.
But you never can tell when or where they'll suddenly rise from the depths.
A friend of mine, when he was a kid, was out fishing with a companion when a humpback surfaced directly under their skiff. The skiff and companion went one way and my friend ended up on the whale's back. He was taken for a bit of a ride before he slid off into the water and was rescued, along with his companion, not much the worse for wear.
It could have had a much less happy ending and the story always stuck in my mind. It leaped to the forefront one overcast, choppy day when I was out looking for firewood logs in my rowing skiff. I suddenly saw a humpback spout and begin cruising up on my stern like a nuclear submarine. You better believe I rowed for shore as fast as I could and let it have the right of way.
I'm not going to pull a Herman Melville here and give you several dozen chapters on cetaceans, but there are a few interesting facts to know about whales, and humpbacks in particular. First of all, something that surprised me, genetically speaking the closest relative of the cetacean family is the pig. (Porpoise comes from the Latin for "pig-fish.")
Humpbacks reach 45 to 50 feet in length and have fringed baleen plates made of keratin suspended from their upper jaws. This baleen is sometimes found on beaches and hung in the homes of locals. The humpbacks have pleated throats and bellies that allow the body to expand to take in huge quantities of water as they strain the small krill (shrimp like crustaceans) through their baleen.
Most humpbacks spend only April through November in Alaska, filling up on krill, before headed south for Hawaii--like so many Alaskans, or "snowbirds." Some humpbacks, as I can attest, stay the year around. A guest on the guide boat I cooked on once expressed sympathy for newborn humpback whales. "Imagine your first experience of life being born in that cold water!"
Kayakers are advised to bang their hulls with their paddle frequently to warn whales that they are there and not edible.
The shoreline around here is sheer, plunging deep to the bottom so that the humpbacks, despite their size, can swim extremely close to shore.
One day, as I was hiking along the rocky shoreline, a whale rose right beside me. A great exhalation exploded from its blowhole, covering me in a fishy dampness. As it cruised lazily forward I kept pace beside it on the rocks.
It's great eye looked at me curiously, glossy and intelligent. It didn't veer away or submerge. Barnacles freckled its slick skin, creating drag that it might knock off by breaching in the near future.
We continued for several minutes, me clambering over the rocks in my rubber boots, it easing gracefully through the water. Side by side we traveled under the expansive Alaskan sky, until I suddenly ran out of rocks.
With one last look at me, it cruised on into the wider bay.
I wondered what stories it would tell of the strange, awkward land creature that had traveled with it that day.
My oldest brother, Jamie, often makes the 30-40 mile run to and from Ketchikan, sometimes at night, in his skiff. (The difference in distance is due to whether he skiffs to the suburbs or all the way down town.)
Sometimes, if the strait is calm and the tide is with him, he'll turn off the engine and drift toward home, saving on fuel. He's in no rush. Sometimes he'll fish, sometimes he'll sleep, or he'll simply sightsee. He is, after all, on the Inside Passage, a destination famed for its beauty that people pay a lot to cruise.
One full moon night as he was drifting toward home, a family of humpbacks, including babies, surrounded him. They rose gently all around him, exhaling hot breath through their blowholes on all sides. They didn't bump him or act aggressive, despite the fact that they had babies. They seemed to adopt him as one of their own, drifting with him gently, and making their strange songs on the surface. After a while he sang to them and to his amazement, they sang back. He did it again, to see if it was just a coincidence. But every time he sang, they responded.
Jamie said he traveled several miles with them, communicating with them. It was just them in the vast silence of the night, the full moon silvering the endless forest on one side and glowing on the swells of the distant mountains across the tinseled strait.
Eventually the whales slipped into the depths and he continued on home.
It's at night that you hear the whales the most.
I remember one night my parents came home in our 32-foot fishing/logging boat with a load of fall stock-up groceries. I went out to meet them in the skiff, where they'd anchored up in a nearby bay for the night. When I cut the outboard engine and tied up alongside, the only light coming from their wheelhouse windows, the night around us pitch black, we heard the whales.
If you think whalesong is eerie underwater, you should hear it on the surface. It is indescribable, really, what you might expect alien music to sound like. In amidst it are strange, almost mechanical sounds, as if Captain Nemo's submarine is swimming with them, the noises hollow and metallic. in counterpoint to all this are the steam locomotove exhalations from their blowholes.
We sat listening to this strangest of all symphonies until they sounded into the deep.
At night in bed I often hear them singing on the surface--the strait they travel is only 300 feet away from my pillow.
When they breach in the stillness and silence of the wilderness night, it sounds like dynamite being blasted.
At times they'll produce the same effect, over and over again, by slapping the water with their tail, or lying on their sides and slapping the water with their fourteen-foot high--almost as tall as my house--flippers.
There's no point in trying to sleep through these echoing explosions. I lie there and listen to them, reassured to know these amazing creatures are there, that whales still exist in our manically busy, exploitative world.
I was completely on my own out here for a time, knowing absolutely that I would see no human as I went for a late afternoon stroll. I was entirely alone in the world.
It was a beautiful evening, but curiously lifeless. No birds or animals made a sound or came into sight. It was as if I was the last living being on the planet. the mystery and loneliness of it drew me on. I climbed the rocks to find a perch that overlooked the calm, lifeless bay filling with sunset color, the mountains blue with distance.
It was perfectly quiet, all was still, the sky and water tinted with amber, peach and pink, reflecting in the placid water that licked gently at my feet.
My heart lurched and I almost fell off my rock when the water exploded. A column of whale, only twenty feet away, missiled straight out of the still water as if it had been launched from a silo.
It went up and up, immense and monolithic, more than half its body length. The sheer power and size, so close, appearing out of silence, stunned me and took my breath.
Gravity caught up with it and its giant bulk crashed into the bay with a detonation that echoed and echoed. Waves boiled away from it and crashed into the rocks at my feet, tossing spray into the air.
Moments later there were only ripples. The quiet peace of the sunset closed in again.
I sat there a long time...the whale didn't appear again.
But I knew I wasn't alone.