When the cruise ship was in on Tuesday, I was out for a wildlife tour to tell the guests about all the amazing wildlife around our home. Since the day was nice and many animals were out, this was a very enjoyable tour. We had already sighted sealions, seals, sea otters and various birds, when we were hailed by another tour boat that there were whales in the area. After a short spurt over to the indicated location, the skipper cut the engines a safe distance away from the spouts and occasional backs of a group of humpback whales. The whirr of the engine gave way to the puffs of whale spouts and the cries of gulls. As we were watching, mesmerized, there seemed to be several groups forming a large circle and we caught glimpses of flippers and flukes, and on one occasion the whole big mouth of a whale taking a large gulp of water at the surface. Humpback whales are baleen whales and feed on krill or small fish. When they take in a mouthful of water, the food gets trapped in the baleen while the water gets squeezed out with a combination of powerful throat muscles and a supersized tongue.
Moments later, the sound of a blow made us all look in the same direction and a whales’ back appeared off the starboard side. As we watched, it went on and on for what seemed like a very long time until a small dorsal fin came up. This was unmistakably a very large whale, much larger than the humpbacks around us.
Allready in awe of what I had seen, I was offered a chance to repeat the experience the very next day by tagging along on a whalewatching charter. This time we spotted the fin whales first. There was a group of five or six whales. These whales were leisurely cajoling around at the surface, sometimes rolling on their sides, showing us their light bellies and waving their flippers, and sometimes coming up in pairs or threes. When after a while they slowly moved off and began to dive out of sight we spotted more blows in the distance. Again, here were humpback whales. We spent some time watching a mother whale with her calf surface and dive, when the fin whales moved in closer and we watched the fins and humpbacks pass each other so close, that they may have made body contact with each other.
I felt very privileged to have been allowed these short glimpses into the lives of some of the largest animals to roam our planet. Not only are fin whales the second-largest whale after the blue whale, they are also very fast swimmers owing to their perfectly torpedo-shaped and slender bodies. I don’t claim to be an encyclopedia of whale biostatistics, but I looked up that fin whales weigh about 74 tonnes, grow 90 feet long and can live 80-90 years. There are only two described subspecies; the Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere fin whale. The ones here in the North Pacific do not genetically fit either of those, and are probably a separate as yet unnamed subspecies. While fin whales are migratory, it is believed that the three populations do not mix. However, fin whales are known to mate and have calves with blue whales sometimes, giving birth to blue-fin hybrids.
While looking up whale information I became very enthralled by the interesting evolutionary history of whales, but if you would like to find out what’s behind the “nasal drift”, that will be a topic for the next amazing nature column.
Switgard Duesterloh Ph.D, is an assistant professor of natural sciences at Kodiak College. She operates the Kodiak Ocean Science Discovery Lab and teaches ocean science to students throughout the Kodiak Island Borough School District.