My First Whale

Alaska Travel Blog

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There's watching captive whales at Sea World perform silly stunts for dead fish.  And then there's watching wild whales.

You never forget the first whale you see that's not caged.  There's always something fresh about it in your mind and each time I tell this tale, I smile.  I can only compare it to someone seeing a movie for the first time back when cinema was new and unheard of.

It was WAY TOO EARLY on May 25th, 2005.  I was working for a small cruise boat made up like an old sternwheeler from the Mississippi.  She was called the Empress of the North and normally she did 7 day cruises up and down the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the northwestern part of the US.  For the summer, she was repositioned to the inside passage of southeast Alaska.  The cruise was 11 days up to Juneau from Seattle and then regular 7 day cruises carried on within the passage until a second repositioning cruise brought her back to the river in mid September. 

Anyway, it was WAY TOO EARLY and before I worked in the galley, I was a busboy of sorts in the dining room.  It was very excruciating to be honest.  28 days at sea with 3 split shifts a day through the entire 28 days.  Sure, I got to see some cool stuff, but every day I was exhausted.  Come the 3rd week on the boat, you kind of 'stepped out' mentally.  That was the only way to get through sometimes.  So I'm sound asleep at probably 3 or 4am.  My best friend was the baker on the boat, so she worked nights.  She knew exactly what to do, regardless of the time, when there was a whale.

I hear my curtains in my bunk ripped open and a nudge on my back, 'Jordan, there's whales off starboard.'  That's all she said and walked out the door.  That's all she needed to say!  I sat straight up and got dressed so fast I didn't know if my clothes were on backwards or not!  It was like Christmas morning and I was 7 years old again hoping to unwrap my huge book of whales that I'd asked for.

I went down the hall, half asleep, somewhere in la-la land trying to figure out which side was starboard.  I still hadn't gotten used to that terminology.  I guessed right and turns out I was right.  As I topped the stairwell and opened the door this HUGE humpback whale throws itself up out of the water in front of what would become a spectacular sunrise.  My jaw dropped and all I could say was, 'Holy sh*t.'  There were others from the night shift standing around and chuckling at my comment.  They'd all seen whales before, so obviously I was a newbie.  I then realized I didn't have my camera!!!  So, i ran back downstairs and into my locker hoping the batteries were charged and that I had an empty card.  It all worked out, but I realized that whales are really hard to photograph if you don't have the camera set on continuous shot.

The whale lept twice more while I was up there and each time all I managed to photograph was a big splash.  I got some great sunrise pics and some pics of the fluke and flippers, but it would be a few cruises later before I got a really great pic of a humpback breaching.

It's really hard to convey the magic of whales or the size of them.  You see them on television, be it the National Geographic or Discovery, and sure they're big.  But until you really have this beast beside the boat flapping its flipper at you and eyeballing you with these huge eyes, you can't really grasp how amazing they truly are or how small you really are.  Evertime I saw one it was like that feeling you get on a roller coaster just as you're about to drop off the BIG FINAL DROP and all that adrenaline is built up in this hair raising scream.  Of course, I didn't scream when I saw the whale.  It was just a big, satisfying sigh. 

I'll never forget them.  :)


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