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East coast, west coast: From Massachusetts to the last frontier

We were heading south along Chatham Strait towards Warm Springs Bay when the fog started rolling in. The thick blanket came at us and began to block out what had been a cheerful, sunny day. The wind died completely and the glassy waters of the ocean melted into the sky in a translucent, purple-blue hue. Sounds became muffled and the eerie tranquility of the fog settled around us. The humpback we were following had been under for a while and we were pretty sure we had lost it when we saw a dorsal fin break the surface. The tall, curved fin jutted proudly upwards and was nothing like the humpback whale’s short, abbreviated dorsal—it belonged to one of the resident killer whales inhabiting the area. Leonie shut the engine off and we drifted in silence, punctuated by the splashing of the orca moving away from us. Two more fins came slicing through the water heading directly toward us, and I rushed to the side of the boat. Looking down, I saw a sleek, black and white body slide gracefully by our boat, the juvenile swimming on its side and seeming to indulge in a moment of curiosity to inspect us. The whales disappeared into the fog and for a moment we were alone on the boat, a small island in a sea of fog and water. Then the engine purred to life and the moment was broken.

Resident killer whales in Chatham Strait

I grew up in Essex, Massachusetts—a small town north of Boston known for a long-running feud between two local restaurants over who invented the fried clam, an improbably large density of antique shops, and a slowly dwindling tradition of building large wooden sailboats. It’s a long way from Alaska in more ways than one. However, maritime influences are strong there, and the area has a presence in the field of humpback whale research. In grade school, my class would be taken out, rain or shine, on a whale-watching field trip every few years. Sometimes we would be surrounded by the splash of breaching whales, while other years a boatload of green-faced students would stumble their way back onto the dock after a day of cold, wet misery without a fluke in sight.

These trips were what first got me interested in cetacean research. How could something so large and magnificent sustain itself? Were they as wise as they seemed? How on earth could an animal swim all the way to the Bahamas and back each year? I decided that I wanted that lifestyle, too—I would live on a boat in the Caribbean in the winters and have a cottage in Maine in the summers, dedicating my time to researching humpback whales. I told Ms. Stenberg as much in my sixth-grade ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ essay. 

Solitary bubble netting humpback whale

Then I grew up. I lost the rosy glasses and realized that not many people are actually active in the field of cetacean research, and there is little funding to be had. I turned to genetics for a time, then gravitated back to ecology and the marine world. I did research on a small island in the Bay of Fundy, looking at how harvesting the slow-growing intertidal seaweed dominating the coastline affected the ecological community. I graduated with a liberal arts degree in Biology and quickly realized that potential employers were looking for something more, so I chose a Master’s program that would give me an attractive skill set. My program is in Physical Geography and Ecosystem Analysis, which boils down to learning Geographic Information Systems (GIS, jokingly called Guaranteed Income Source), modeling, programing, remote sensing—all geared towards ecological applications. It felt like a risk—would specializing myself in something so non-marine preclude me from doing the work I really wanted to do? When I got the position at the Alaska Whale Foundation, I was over the moon. Here was a chance to work in the field, with whales, while also using GIS.

Working in the field with cetaceans is nothing like the pedestrian citizen seems to expect. Whales don’t spend their time gamboling about, swimming up to boats and pulling off flashy breaches to impress their human admirers. They have a job to do—eat. They are in the nutrient-rich waters of southeast Alaska to build up enough fat reserves to travel south in the winter where they will mate and reproduce. All the fancy breaching, bubble netting, lob tailing, flipper slapping—it happens, but not on repeat like a well-filmed documentary. 

A humpback whale breaks the surface with a whisper. A loud poof as it exhales. Vapor shooting up in the air, floating in a fine mist. The sigh of an accordion as it inhales, if you’re close enough to hear it. Water streaming down its inky hide in silky ribbons, a trail of ripples blossoming where its sleek body breaks the surface. An arch, the dorsal fin riding high above the water, then the vertebrae forming a serpentine ridge sliding down into the water. A fluke, if you’re lucky, the tail lifted high, suspended for a moment, then slipping silently into the water. Four minutes, seven minutes, twelve minutes later, the whale surfacing again, a few breaths, and it dives below the water once more. 

That’s what we work with—trying to find a whale that spends most of its time below the surface, and trying to predict where it will be next. We take identification pictures, take a skin sample if we’re lucky, then leave the whale alone. 

Alone, untouched, pristine. Alaska is, in many ways, the last untouched piece of wilderness in the United States (of course you can argue with this, but comparatively speaking it’s still wild). In Massachusetts, fishermen struggle with the collapse of what was once one of the greatest cod fisheries in the world. The coastline is built up and most rivers have dams blocking historical fish runs. Essex, Massachusetts is nothing like Warm Springs Bay. The same salty-sea tang mixes with the fumes of boat fuel to form a perfume that is recognized world-round as the scent of the sea. Gulls cry overhead and waves crash against the shore. However, there are no proud mountain peaks dropping swiftly off into the water. No harbors covered in the sheen of leaking boat fuel and floating trash. A bald eagle nest would be the congregating place for dozens of avid bird watchers. If a bear were spotted along the coast, a hysterical resident would most likely be phoning the police.

I am lucky enough to experience it all for four short months—the bears, the mountains, the hot springs, and best of all, the whales. I can only hope that the conservation spirit at the Alaska Whale Foundation continues and its concern for wildlife is present in the rest of the state for generations to come. If you haven’t figured it out already, I find great joy in the little things an Alaska resident has most likely grown immune to.


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