Deckhand Diary: Orca Quest

“I don’t know where to point my camera!” The girl on the bow voiced what we all were thinking. I stood on the bow of the Orca Song, on the inaugural Orca Quest tour, surrounded by orca on all sides. The straight dorsal fin of a male slid up through the calm waters of Agnes Cove. A female and calf appeared, splitting the reflection of the mountains around their wave-shaped fins. Another female surged through the surface, disappearing on a path directly towards our bow, and the boat went quiet as Captain Nat turned off the engines. This was my chance. I dropped the hydrophone I had held at the ready and twisted the settings around the sound of water, hoping to eavesdrop on the calls of these brilliant animals. The pod was silent today, but as I leaned over the bow toward the emerald green water of early summer, the female orca rose again and split the silence around the sound of her breath.

Orca frequent Resurrection Bay year round, but in the latter half of May, something special happens. Red or sockeye salmon gather along the west side of Resurrection Bay, while king or Chinook salmon pass throughout the waters, and the resident orca pods quickly follow. Unlike transient orca, who feed on marine mammals and hence stay so stealthy they almost seem to suck all noise from the sea, or offshore orca, who come and eat and leave trailing a path of shark carcasses behind them, resident orca are the pictures of play. Feeding on fish such as salmon, they form bulging pods that leak surface-active behaviors such as spyhopping, pectoral slapping, and even the rare breach. In May, as pods grow denser around the coastline, the orca fins of Resurrection Bay almost seem to bridge the gap between sea and air.

On this first trip, we had hit the jackpot. After a brief stop into Spire Cove, where the waters rich with plankton were a reminder that the food chain hangs heavy in Alaska, a fact that the harbor seal pup swimming through rocky spires kept present in our minds, the Orca Song picked up speed. Since leaving Seward, Captain Nat had been in constant contact with other tour vessels on the water as we all searched out the locations of wildlife, and a boat ahead of us had just made the call: Orca. We saw our first blow just as we came up on Cheval island. A pod of resident orca peeled away from the coastline, where three gray whales were making their way north toward the Bering or Chukchi Sea, and together the orca pod turned out towards the center of Resurrection Bay. To our starboard side a large male kept a dignified distance, his tall black fin wavering against the distant line of white peaks that formed Montague Island. Closer to us a female rose and plunged into water so still it could have been sky. They were traveling fast, at 6 or 7 knots as Captain Nat reported from the wheelhouse, and we moved in parallel with their path. We slowed as they changed direction, until a male appeared outlined against the long sweep of Bear Glacier. Glacier pooled in the reflection of the water, mountain peaks bubbling beside, as his dorsal fin doubled itself into a diamond.

“You’re a ghost,” one lady whispered to me as I eased quietly forward into a gap in the line of camera lenses to tell her that dorsal fin would reach 6 feet on an adult male. “A very knowledgeable ghost.”

The limited time we spent with any pod to avoid stressing the animals was running out, so ghost mode turned off as we picked up speed and I walked around the boat, seeking out questions. I directed some passengers to the catalogues Captain Nat had spent several hours the previous night creating, which held photo IDs of every orca known to pass through our local waters, all organized by their pod and marked by the identifying factors that made it possible to match individual animals with last minute’s photos of the the orca still swimming off our stern. Nat had another pod in sight, though, so after a few minutes of getting excited all over again about the matriarchal social structure of orca and the many reasons why orca are smarter than me, we slowed again. This time, the pod sat within the sheltered waters of Agnes Cove. Whereas the last pod had surfaced in sky, this pod swam through the mountains. The boat sat still as we listened to the sound of their breath, and we were a part of this cove, tied into the sunshine that sparked the water.

Then, for a few seconds, the pod stood still. With just her eyes and the dome of her melon out of the water the female watched us, light glinting off her dark forehead. A male sat beside her in the water, and a calf, three dark bubbles on a blue sea. Then the calf ducked out of sight as the mother rested, and the male spyhopped once to show us his pectoral fin. I ran up to Captain Nat, and he said we were probably watching a mother orca nurse her calf.

Every day on the water is different, and that is why I love these trips. Never had I seen this exact behavior. Wildlife viewing is magical simply because it is that: wild. The animals follow their own lives, and we do everything we can to follow them. Wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, which is precisely why I love the idea of an orca quest. Armed with everything we need to succeed, we set out into the wild waters of Resurrection Bay, and each day, search the waters for black fins. Even after so many days on the water, I have never been on a trip, whales or no, that has not set me in awe of the abundance of species that make these waters their home. We search for the apex predators, the wolves of the sea, animals smarter than I will ever be. Every single drop of water moves upwards to orca, the height of the food chain, and so to understand them is to understand the entire bay, from the plankton that color the water that rich green, to the humpback and gray whales that surface in these waters, to the sea lions who sun themselves along a dangerous coast.

This was why I was here, I thought, as I stood holding the hydrophone on a deck of people silent with the wonder of animals that they now knew. In the search for orca sat the core of wildness, expansive, as full as sky on water. These whales tied our worlds together, breath by dive, the mirrored image of ourselves. We wouldn’t always find them, but that made these moments even more special. Made their world that much fuller. And the potential each morning of finding sunshine curving around the back of a female orca, or of watching a calf learn life through play, or of learning the space contained in the swaying of a male’s dorsal fin, that potential made every day onboard the orca song an adventure.

And standing on that bow today, with orca beneath, Captain Nat above, and on all sides passengers alive with new wonder in the face of wildness, I could not wait to quest again.

 

Tamara Lang is a returning deckhand with Major Marine Tours in Seward. She is a writer of creative nonfiction and the author of “Upstream: A Written and Photographic Journey up the Los Angeles River.” Her writing and her travels can both can be followed on Facebook at Tamara Lang Writes, or at tamaralang.com.

Orca Quest Cruise
Orca Quest
Orca Quest Cruise
Orca Quest Cruise
Orca Quest Cruise