Category Archives: Orcas

Silvers, Humpbacks, and Orcas

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The silver salmon are returning to their home rivers around Juneau. Time to put up some silvers for winter even though it is raining. This is bad news for Aki. But she doesn’t sulk when I leave the house burdened down with lunch, a thermos of tea, and heavyweight Scandinavian rain gear.

3We leave Tee Harbor under heavy rain. The captain bounces the C Dory through the south Shelter Island tiderips toward the Point Retreat lighthouse. From there we cruise along the shore of Admiralty Island to grounds that usually offer good fishing. A humpback whale surfaces while we gear up our trolling leaders with herring. The whale, like the salmon, targets herring. Diving on them, the whale tosses its flukes skyward and disappears.2

We boat a pink salmon, a rockfish, and a potbellied silver salmon. Because they don’t freeze well, we release the other pink salmon we hook. Between strikes a trio of orcas appears, seeking the same thing we do—salmon.

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Yin and Yang

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The dogs looked miserable even though they reclined at the feet of doting owners next to bowls full of food or water. In the sidewalk seating area of an Oregon brewpub, they coped with 100-degree heat by sleeping. Tired from a morning bike ride along the Pacific and full of pub food, I felt like joining the pups. Aki, who even though she likes to sleep next to a heating vent in winter wouldn’t know what to do about the heat.2

The next morning, while getting in one last bike ride before our return to Alaska, I thought about the flexibility of man and dog. In urban Oregon, dogs stay home while their owners ride crowded public transport to inside jobs. Each must look forward to the nightly reunion. They have many walks in the rain and some in snow. But one sniff of the tea roses perfuming the bike paths and you know that they have a gentler climate than Juneau. They have shopping, wineries, fancy beer parlors, and quality cell phone coverage. We have Costco, a hometown brewery, and ready access to the woods and sea. Orcas chase salmon and sea lions in front of Juneau. What predators work the streets of Portland?3

This morning, back in Juneau, I join Aki for a walk on the Rainforest Trail. Soft rain collects on the path-side plants. It soaks my pants when they brush against the cow parsnips leading over the trail. How nice, little dog, to be soaked by rain rather than sweat, to walk through air cool enough for comforting fleece. Aki, who rarely has to pant, would probably agree.4

The Orca

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Statistics about human/killer whale interactions will tell you that none of the big porpoises have ever attacked a human. But you still worry that you might be first. Maybe it’s the name or the times you’ve watched one grab 1000 pounds of sea lion and toss it back to it’s children to finish off. I try not to think about that when Aki’s other human and I launch our canoe onto the waters of Tee Harbor where a killer whale has just surfaces a half a kilometer away.2

Aki whines and paces around the canoe. Her humans paddle and scan the water for another whale sighting. But only a pair of marble murrlets show on the surface. From the mouth of the harbor I spot the killer whale. It is miles away on the other side of Favorite Passage. But water sparkling on its back makes it easy to spot.3

Winter Orcas

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While I’m checking out a spruce tree that now leans over the trail thanks to the last windstorm, Aki darts down the trail and out of view. When she squeaks, I trot around the corner and see her groveling before a matched pair of Australian shepherds. The dogs’ owner apologizes but I assure him that my little poodle-mix is just inviting the shepherds to play. With that cleared up, he tells me about the orcas. “You should see the whales the minute you break through the trees,” he says, “and with that telephoto you might get good pictures of them.”

I hustle toward the beach, scan the water, but only find a small raft of ducks near the surf line. Further out, near the northern edge of Shaman Island I briefly spot a splash of white water like that caused when swells strike against a partially submerged rock. But there is no rock there so maybe it was a killer whale roiling in the water. Encouraged, I scan for the plumes formed when an orca exhales or the sail-like dorsal fin of a mature male. But wind-blown rain clouds my glasses. The wind would wipe away any ocra plumes as they formed.

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It should be enough to know that I am close to a pod of killer whales, but I want to see them fin, maybe even spy hop.

They must be the wolf pack—the meat eaters that hunt down seals and sea lions—not the larger pod we see each summer chasing down king salmon. I’ve kayaked near the summer pod several times, never felt threatened, even when a mature female swam to within twenty feet and rolled on her side to eyeball me. But even on a calm, warm day, I wouldn’t launch my boat into waters where the wolf pack hunts other mammals.

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