Bubble-feeding whales and fireworks for the Fourth

More than half a dozen humpback whales spring to the surface as they employ the technique of bubble-net feeding at the confluence of Tenakee Inlet and Chatham Strait, Alaska. We got a spectacular show.

AHOY FROM DELIGHTFUL SITKA, Alaska, the original capital of Russian America before William Seward negotiated the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867.

Lots to tell about. I’ll dive right in.

Thursday, June 30

Three good things this day:

(1) Bubble-feeding whales! At 9:15 a.m., as we were departing Tenakee Inlet and about to head south on Chatham Strait, multiple spouts ahead alerted us. We’d hoped we might see this fascinating phenomenon called bubble-net feeding, in which a handful of humpback whales join in a feeding ritual in which they dive deeply together and then expel bubbles that drive fish and krill to the surface. The whales then open their mouths as they propel themselves upward with baleens raking in all the nutrients they can get. The first tip-off was when I spied big tails, one after another, slapping the surface as they sounded, or dove. We spent almost an hour, idling back and forth in Osprey, enthralled as at least half a dozen humpbacks cast their “net” again and again in waters ranging from 100 to 400 feet deep off South Passage Point. This was crewmate Bill Watson’s birthday, so Barbara M. dubbed this “Bill’s Birthday Bubble Feed.” We saw whale heads thrust out of the water together and giant flukes slapping the surface, and more tail slaps than ever before. Barbara M., Dana and I shot photo after photo and videos galore. “An experience of a lifetime!” crowed Dana, the professional photographer. Commenting on the video she shot: “You can hear me, saying ‘Oh, my god,’ again and again. I was literally crying!”

As the whales concluded their dives, we heard a whale call, like a mooing Jersey cow mated with a bassoon. Chilling. Then, finally, a whale call like a ship’s foghorn echoed off the forested hills. Wow.

(2) We made good time into Hoonah Sound, and researched tomorrow’s passage of challenging Sergius Narrows. Slack water would be at 7:15 a.m., requiring hoisting anchor at 5:15. Found a secure and pleasant anchorage at little Nismeni Cove, where eagles called to us from treetops and a whale came to visit at the mouth of the cove around dinnertime.

Game time aboard Osprey with your scribe, at left, and Bill Watson and Barbara Marrett. Dana Halferty photo

(3) For Bill’s birthday, I grilled burgers, and Barbara and Dana baked an orange-flavored cake with icing they creatively colored with juice from frozen blueberries. We also devoured Klondike ice-cream bars procured from the store at Tenakee Springs. I took a little extra insulin. Fun night after an exciting day!

Friday, July 1

Day 35 of our 70-day voyage – halfway through!

I’ll take this moment to briefly reflect on the voyage so far. It has gone remarkably well (knock on wood, scratch a stay, turn three times and spit!). To my own surprise, I’d be fine if it was done now. The adventures have been memorable and fulfilling. Icebergs! Glaciers! Bubble-feeding whales! Charming towns and villages. Waterfalls like no others, and a grizzly in our first week. I’d like to see more bears (from a safe distance) and I’d love to see breaching whales, but now I’m just getting greedy. I’m a little homesick for my island routines, and I miss Galley Cat (who has been chased by foxes in my absence) and my daughter (who had a great adventure in Europe but came home with COVID).

But. We are in Sitka now, staying at the dock for four nights for some shore leave and recharge time. It will help. I won’t gall all of you back in your cityside routines by feeling too sorry for myself.

Beautiful downtown Sitka.

I do miss my dear wife. I saw this voyage as part of a healing process, but I think that’s flawed thinking. The void in my life is like a wound that will scar over but never fully heal. However, this trip is a lovely distraction, and I’ve made some wonderful new friends, which makes life better.

Three good things this day:

(1) A misty morning gave us calm seas for an easy passage of Sergius Narrows. Arrived Sitka at 11 a.m. and without advanced reservations secured a slip for four nights, keeping us here through the Fourth of July weekend festivities. (A parade on Monday!)

Dock neighbors watch Sitka’s fireworks from the crow’s nest of a moored fishing boat.

(3) After a tasty dinner of panko-crusted cod, we watched an old movie and paused for the town’s big fireworks show, watched from the roof of our boat. In Alaska, where it stays light late even at lower latitudes, the fireworks weren’t until 11:30 p.m. I didn’t hit the sack until 1 a.m. Slept until 9 the next morning. What luxury!

(2) I explored Sitka on foot, and the clouds cleared to reveal the town’s glorious setting among a giant bowl of snowy peaks, including the nearby Mount Edgecumbe volcano, recently declared “no longer dormant” after a few months of tremors. Forested islets dot the harbor. The beautiful St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral is downtown’s historic centerpiece. Found good Wi-Fi at yet another fine-quality Alaska public library. Hooray for librarians, all.

Sunset silhouettes the distinctive spires of St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Sitka.

Saturday, July 2

Three good things:

(1) The lovely Totem Trail in Sitka National Historical Park. We saw totem poles of many designs nestled among pristine forest along a wide, graveled path edging the scenic shoreline.

Along the Totem Trail in Sitka National Historical Park.

(2) A fascinating hour at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Alaska’s oldest museum, poring over the comprehensive collection of tools, regalia, and everyday household objects and clothing of native Alaskan tribes, dating back to the early 19th century. Among interesting factoids: Since they did not transfer taste to food as resinous cedar or fir might, alder or birch were the preferred wood for dishes and utensils.

(3) Late in the day, I enjoyed a one-man guided tour with a ranger of the restored Russian Bishop’s House, part of the national park, including the original bishop’s private chapel from when Sitka was the capital of Russian America in the early 19th century.