Any sort of water activities, fishing or scuba diving, off the Kohala coast in winter involves a chance of seeing a whale. Indeed, Kohala is not just the part of the island we call home, it is the Hawaiian word for whale. In winter the whales are here in large numbers… Boat or drive north of Kawaihae and the odds approach certainty that you will see not just a few, but a lot of Humpback Whales as they cruise the waters along this sheltered coastline. Rental cars are parked along the coastal highway wherever a pod can be seen. Just getting to a dive site can involve navigating around a pod or two as blows and fins are seen in all directions. Dive beneath the water and you can listen to the songs of the whales echoing eerily through the blue.
A trio of Humpback Whales pass by off of point Adolphus, Alaska, 30 June 2004
During the winter these whales can be found around all of the Hawaiian Islands. They come here to mate and give birth in the warm tropical waters. The most sheltered areas in the lee of the large islands have the greatest concentrations, this includes the Kona and Kohala coast of the Big Island. Through January, February and March the whales can be seen all along the coast. Much of these waters have been designated the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
to protect these unique animals during their winter stay.
Humpback Whales closing the bubble net at the entrance of Peril Straight, Alaska, 25 July 2006
Come spring the Hawaiian population of whales head north, to the food rich waters of Alaska. It is an interesting experience, in addition to regularly seeing these whales off the Kohala Coast, I regularly see them on the other end of the migration while boating in Alaska. The activity of the whales is different at either end of the journey, in Hawai’i they pretty much just hang out and sing, slowly cruising the coast or just hovering below the surface for many hours. In Alaska it is all about eating, here you watch whales circling through food rich areas over and over. Sometimes the whales cooperate to create bubble nets, encircling shoals of krill or herring.
In past journeys to Alaska I have had many opportunities to watch these majestic animals. We regularly stop and watch when we get the chance, drifting while whales feed around us. Hopefully this results in good photos to enjoy and post on the blog. At the end of the trip I fly back to Hawai’i to resume my usual life. But when winter comes the Humpbacks will follow, returning to the warm tropical waters around the islands to mate and give birth to the next generation. I look forward to seeing them off the Kohala Coast and listening to their songs while diving in those warm waters.
What are the odds of encountering the same whale at both ends of this journey? I wonder.
The ship's electronic chart after trolling the Shark Hole in Salisbury Sound for salmon all morning
I like fishing… In moderation.
Sometimes the order of the day is fishing, fishing and more fishing. No problem, Deb loves fishing! Go have fun dear, enjoy some more fishing. I’ll just sit up here and drive.
Drive back and forth across the same spot over and over again, as slow as the boat will go. So slow the vessel barely answers the helm, taking her own sweet time to turn. It is a peaceful job of driving, as long as the little charter boats stay out of my way. I am driving a boat five times their size that just keeps moving with minimal regard to whatever I do to the wheel.
I just sit back watch the bald eagles, a humpback whale threading through the swarm of charter boats, and watch the log on the GPS display slowly fill in with the record of repeated passes…
The pole twitches, then jumps… Fish On! This was the first time this season we had rigged for salmon and dropped the outriggers and lines, setup for trolling along the south coast of Admiralty Island. We did not have to wait long for results.
It was clear this was a large fish, the pull on the line was substantial. Deb strained with the reel, cranking it as hard as she dared. But unlike the usual coho salmon it did not fight and jump. We were worried it was a pink salmon, not as desirable a catch, these fish usually come in docilely to be netted. The far more desirable silver or coho salmon rarely give up without a fight and require real work to reel in. But when we got the first clear look at the fish it was indeed a silver.
Deb happy to display her catch, first of our season, a very nice fish indeed
When we pulled the salmon from the net the reason odd behavior became clear… The hook was in the tail.
Somehow Deb had snagged the fish just a few inches from the base of the tail. There is a reason for this, Coho salmon often hit their prey to stun it before turning to consume it. This tactic works well for herring, not so well for a double hooked leader.
This salmon was the first we have caught this season, another fact that made my wife a very happy fisherwoman. I am afraid she had become infected with that dread disease, an addiction to lures and poles and the thrill of catching those wily fish. Not that I can complain too much about the results. However the fish was caught, this was a very nice salmon, making an excellent dinner that evening.
The jokes began almost instantly, comments about her unusual techniques to catch a fish. All in good sport, the pursuit is full of fish tales and jokes. Deb caught more than a few beautiful coho over the next few days, but we have not let her forget the Tailhook Incident.
We expected to find the bears at the back of the bay, where the stream and the salmon would be.
The mission of the morning was to see bears. So we cast off lines at Tenakee and headed up Tenakee Inlet. There are several side bays along this large inlet, each with streams that attract the bears. The salmon had not quite started to move into the streams, a bit early in the season yet, but they were around. We hoped the bears would be around as well, congregating at the streams in anticipation of their yearly feast.
It was a surprise when my dad spotted this bear, we were just starting into the bay and still a mile from where we expected to find bears. As everyone grabbed binoculars we steered towards shore to get a better look.
So often the bears will run for the woods when a large white object appears. This bear just kept eating grass. A further surprise… Just as we got closer a small bear cub appeared at mother’s side. Deep water just off the rocky shore allowed us to get the boat in quite close. On occasion the mother would look up at us as we drifted in for a closer look. The array of pointing humans, binoculars and cameras were dismissed as unimportant as she continued to graze along the shore.
The cub was a handsome fellow, dark, with a collar of golden fur. He stayed close to mother, but seemed curious. We may have been the first humans he had ever seen. He watched us intently from the safety of mother’s side.
There were several bears at the stream and the grassy flats at the top end of the bay. But the shallow water would keep us from getting anywhere near with the boat. The total was nine bears that morning, including four cubs, three with the same mother. With the morning’s plan a success, we headed back to Tenakee to collect our crab traps.
A mother Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) and cub on the shore in Long Bay, Tenakee Inlet, AK
The Nordic Star anchored in Ford’s Terror
Time to cut the connection, for the next few weeks there will be little oportunity to slake my digital thirst. Marine radio offers little bandwidth, limited to simple audio and the daily marine weather forecasts.
For the next three weeks we will be cruising from Juneau to Anacortes. Three weeks of fishing, sightseeing, whale watching and photography. It should be a good trip, time spent with my father, an uncle and good friends.
There will be the occasional opportunity for contact, brief stops along the way to get fuel and supplies, places that may also offer a 3G signal. Those moments will be brief, just a chance for updates and perhaps a phone call to my wife to let her know I still exist. I can only consider the mountain of messages that will await my return to the digital world.
It is a rather long list.
Looking down the aisles of a Fred Meyer grocery section
Three weeks of food for half a dozen people reduced to a spreadsheet printout. As usual, I draw the shopping detail, a few hours in the Juneau branches of Costco and Fred Meyer. The result will be a vehicle filled with food.
After it is all purchased there will be the chore of carrying it all down the dock and stowing it away into the many cupboards and freezers aboard the boat. Invariably this will occur at low tide when the ramp to the dock is steepest.
- 5dz eggs
- 3 bags frozen potatoes o’brien
- 5lbs sugar
- 1 box tea, assorted
- …this list goes on…
The procedure is fairly well practiced at this point, this is not the first time we have done this. I know where to find everything, in a supermarket I visit about once a year. The list is refined each year, it has a history now, the failures removed and perhaps a couple new menu ideas included.
We will rely on catching a few fish along the way. If the lines come up empty the menu may get a bit monotonous. But this is Alaska, we will catch something.