Although every year has its surprises, our Focus on Whales trips in the summers of 2006 and 2007 were especially remarkable. Why? Well, it was the herring. Herring? You know, those seven-inch silvery, fast-swimming schooling fish. We’re talking vast schools, acres upon acres of herring. But don’t expect us to change the name of our trip to Focus on Herring anytime soon, because it’s not necessarily the herring itself that provides the thrill. It was all the critters attracted by the herring—the eagles, harbor seals, Dall’s porpoises, gulls and humpback whales.
I first saw, no I actually first heard, such huge schools of herring around 1995. On an otherwise clear day, we were watching a few humpbacks as they quickly disappeared into a thick fog bank that was moving our way. We tried to follow the whales, but lost sight of them in the fog. We could not see them, but we sure could hear them, their lusty blows just out in front of us somewhere. We slowed and stood out on the bow to try to figure out what direction to go when another sound caught our attention, the sound of raindrops falling on the water. No, it couldn’t be raindrops, the sky had been clear just before the fog enveloped us. Then we noticed the source of the sound. It was thousands of herring flipping at the surface all around us. All of these splashes sounded like a heavy rain shower on the water. Then just ahead of us, barely visible in the fog three humpbacks surfaced coming right at us. Each of them opened their giant mouths and plowed, side-by-side, like giant harvesting machines, right through the school of herring.
Well that was over ten years ago and until the last two summers, I had not seen herring that thick again. But for the last two summers the herring have been exceptionally thick. It just so happens that the herring attract all the animals we love to see. Find the herring and watch the show. This last summer we happened upon a huge school of herring, all flipping at the surface. Dozens of bald eagles were diving on the herring, hovering above them then swooping down and trying to grasp them in their talons. If they caught one, they would momentarily hover in an attempt to transfer the fish to their beak. After catching one, they went back for more. The photographic opportunities were amazing.
Over the years our local knowledge has paid off. We have learned where the herring “hot-spots” are and routinely check these during our trips. It is in these spots where we typically find bubble-netting groups of humpback whales. Herring are very fast and single whales are not successful feeding on herring. But a group of humpbacks executing a highly choreographed prey capture strategy can be quite successful. They begin at the surface swimming close together, and then quickly dive. Most of the group travels close to the bottom, under the prey. Ascending, they herd the prey by flashing the bright white undersides of their flippers. Loud, repeated feeding calls are broadcasted to further drive and concentrate the prey. (Listen to a feeding call) One whale remains at about sixty feet deep to release bubbles. The bubble blower moves forward in a broad arc, releasing a curtain of bubbles up to 120 feet long. The bubble blower circles back, creating a rising cylinder of bubbles. The whales rush into the bottom of the net and force the prey to the surface. Their arrival at the surface is synchronized in a spectacular group lunge and engulfment. Though I have seen these lunges countless times, it is still breathtaking each and every time.
At one of our hot spots in 2005, we came upon a group of about a six humpbacks attacking the herring. Herring were everywhere. Harbor seals, steller sea lions and eagles were there too feeding on the herring. After a while we noticed more humpbacks joining in with the group. They lunged on the herring several times and then split up into multiple groups. Later that day, there were four feeding groups within sight. This was new to me, something I had not seen in 15 years of whale watching in Alaska. Seeing a single bubble-netting group is spectacular, seeing multiple groups seemed beyond belief. Thank you herring, thank you.
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