Whale Breaching

On Becoming a Whale Watching Convert

Alaska, Wildlife Photography

Humpback Whale Tail

The brilliant and underrated comedian Demetri Martin once said, “Whale watching is a very similar to watching people on a boat become disappointed.”

My previous whale watching trips have always been a futile endeavor. Everyone would get all excited by a fluke half a mile away and snap photos with a camera phone. We’d then wait about seven minutes for it to resurface so we could all try and take another blurry photo of a whale back.

After spending half a summer in Glacier Bay, I have been converted – I have found whale-watching religion and I sing its praises from on high. Do you have a personal relationship with whales? Have you come to accept whales as the most amazing animal on Earth? Can I step inside your home and show you some materials?

Glacier Bay Wildflowers

View from Halibut Point before my religious conversion.

My religious conversion came on June 23 of this year. All the elements were in place for a spiritual experience: I was at Halibut Point at sunset, the Fairweather Mountains were out in all their glory, a riot of wildflowers covered the shore, Hitchcockian swarms of sea gulls swirled around and for good measure several bald eagles glided overhead. Then I heard it. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! I turned around expecting to see a flannel-clad Alaskan shooting a gun into the air, but instead saw a humpback whale slapping the water with his tail.

Off to the other side, I heard what sounded like my Dad blowing his nose, a shocking noise for the uninitiated. I looked over to see a towering column of whale snot and water vapor shooting 50 feet up in the air and a humpback the size of a school bus glide through the water. He arched his back and made a deep dive with his tail slipping gracefully into the water. I was gobsmacked.

I spent about two hours watching the eight or so whales in the cove. I always heard them before I saw them – the oilrig gusher of whale breath erupting from the water would betray their position. The whales were singing, sometimes sounding like a booming trumpet from heaven, sometimes making a screeching noise like a giant door with squeaky hinges.

Seeing whales from the shore was awesome, but a few days later I took it to a whole new level by going kayaking in the same waters. Being up close to a leviathan isn’t for the feint of heart. Not long after we got in our kayak, this happened:

Bells on a Kayak

I looked back to see water splashing as if a meteor crashed behind us. A whale had breached, and although we didn’t see it, we saw the subsequent splash and felt the thunderous blast. We turned and went closer to shore…just in case.

Then over the weekend I went on the TAZ tour boat. After about 2.5 hours of seeing whales surface close to the boat – awesome on its own –  a whale decided to put on a display by breaching repeatedly.

The whale would come flying out of the water, nearly getting his entire 80,000-pound frame into the air, twirl around with the grace of a ballerina and then crash into the water like a fat kid doing a cannon ball. Between breaches, the whale would shoot his body half-way out of the sea and smash his head onto the water, which was nearly as cool in its own way.

I am now a whale evangelist, ready to spread the good word with a religious zeal. If you died today, could you say that you’ve seen whales? If you haven’t come to Glacier Bay to see this, you really should. It is one of the great wildlife spectacles on Earth and unlike Demetri Martin, you won’t be disappointed.

Whale in Bartlett cove

Whale snot and water vapor shooting up as high as the trees.

Whale Breaching

Whale breaching seen from the M.V. Taz.

head lobbing

Whale “head lobbing.” No one knows for sure why they do it. Maybe they are gawking at tourists.

Whale head lobbing

lunge feeding whale

A whale lunge feeding. Note: this is a color photo everything is just gray because Alaska.

Whale at sunset

Whale in Bartlett Cove at sunset.


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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

24 thoughts on “On Becoming a Whale Watching Convert”

  1. When I was on a whale watching trip in Nova Scotia, we watched people in zodiacs nearly get thrown from their raft as the right whale swam directly under them. It is hard to describe the grace of their breaching. If you haven’t seen it, no words can really express the beauty.

    • Laura,

      Very true. If you haven’t seen it person, that is difficult to describe. I wonder if those people in Zodiacs should have been that close?

  2. Wow amazing I think I’d be converted too. I’ve seen whales a few times on the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, entire pods, some breaching, but nothing like what you’ve described. As soon as whales are spotted the ferry slows down to a crawl. Can you imagine the howling outcry if a ferry hit a whale?!

    • Alison,
      A cruise ship hit a whale and killed it in Glacier Bay a few years ago. They have skeleton on display here and it is huge – looks like a dinosaur in a museum. So yes, there would be a big outcry.

      I guess you will need to come up to Glacier Bay to see more whales now!

  3. What an incredible sight to see Jeff! My husband & I went whale watching when we were in Cape Breton. The whales we saw were much smaller, but breathtaking to watch nonetheless! It was one of the moments where at first, I was trying to capture that perfect shot but in the end, I put my camera down as I was missing out on something magical right before my very eyes.

    • Lynn,
      You make a great point about photography. It is really difficult to get a good shot because you have no idea where it will surface from. When you finally see it, you have almost no time to focus and frame it. I put the camera down for a while too.

  4. that traveling nurse says:

    It is such an amazing sight! We didn’t get to see breaching and bubble netting but the flukes and the snot blowing as you call it is an experience by itself. This was in Juneau. Would love to do this all over again!

      • that traveling nurse says:

        We plan to work there hopefully next year! Praying and keeping my fingers crossed. 🙂

  5. Jeff these are extraordinary! No wonder you are converted. Did you feel in danger at any time? I would love to experience this. Wow!

    • Sue, we never felt danger really. Crossing the open water with the whales in the kayak was a little unnerving.

      However, a couple of my friends were kayaking and had sea lions who kept messing with them. Those can weigh 2200 pounds (or 1000kg for the international readers out there) and can be really scary.

  6. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    I love whale watching trips. Never get tired of it. I’m not sure if I’ve just been lucky or if I – for once in my life – have the right attitude about it. I’m always enthused. Even if the actual whale watching isn’t the best, I’m typically in a gorgeous location.

    But I have somehow never seen a whale breaching. So now I hate you.

      • Adventures in Kevin's World says:

        Oh I wish I could. When I helped open GB in 2012 I didn’t get to see much at all.

  7. Kat says:

    Wow, I didn’t know that when a humpback slaps its tail on the waters, the sound is BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Thanks for sharing, Jeff 🙂

  8. Haha..awesome post! I have had both amazing and very disappointing whale watching experiences. I have spent many an hour on tours looking for whales. Had an amazing encounter in BC where we saw two pods of orcas. It was amazing, they swam under our boat and I could see the shadow of them under us. Pretty awesome. Looks like you had a pretty awesome experience as well. Your pictures tell a great tale! 🙂

    • I suppose with any wildlife watching experience, the fickleness of the animals plays a big part. I think it is funny though that we merely see the back of a whale and get excited. I can’t imagine any other animal where this is true. “OH MY GAWD I JUST SAW THE BACK OF AN ELEPHANT!”

      Thanks for the comments!

  9. Pingback: 49 Reasons I Love Alaska, Part I | Planet Bell

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