The first one went off like a shot. In the distance, a burst of vapor rose high above the water’s surface. It was quickly wiped away by the wind and followed almost immediately by another nearby burst, and then another. There were six blows in total, orcas, killer whales, rising to the surface to breathe before diving in unison, reemerging always closer to us than the time before.
Our ship, the National Geographic Sea Bird, had been steaming towards Petersburg, a small fishing town on Mitkof Island in Southeast Alaska, to make an afternoon of flight seeing when the orcas interrupted our plans. Luckily, we had the flexibility to stay and watch as the orcas emerged onto a stage of slack water, looming gray skies and snow-capped mountains.
Commonly known as “wolves of the sea” (25-foot long, 8,000 pound wolves), the orcas moved deftly through the icy waters as a tight knit pod, presumably following the path of a large school of herring or other bait fish. Their “performance” was nature’s choreography at its finest. They dove out of sight, rolled at the surface, and sometimes stopped still to angle their heads downwards and slap their powerful tail flukes repeatedly against the water in a behavior known as tail-lobbing.
The railing of our small ship was swarmed by people with eyes wide open and cameras focused, each captivated by the pageantry of what they had hoped to find in Alaska, but couldn’t believe at the moment.
Watching the orcas reminded me of time spent as a child watching deer in my parent’s back yard. In suburban Philadelphia, white-tailed deer have become one with urban sprawl and although they are expected house guests, their visits always make for good entertainment, especially for a child. I was infatuated by their peculiar ways. I recall fogging up the living room window in the winters, watching the deer so closely, for so long, wanting so badly to be with them on the other side.
The ship’s railing was now my window. And I leaned against it with all of my weight. Standing next to me was a 76-year-old man with binoculars pressed against his reddened face and a nine-year-old pony-tailed girl, his precocious granddaughter, who pointed and jumped with every splash. “Oh. My. Gosh!” she screamed.
Harking back to my silly little deer days, I wondered what a profound effect that this trip and these feeding orcas might have on the girl. Would she talk about them with her friends at school? Would she paint pictures of them in art class? Would she grown up to become a marine biologist specializing in cetaceans?
Her grandfather and I shared a smile over her head as the orcas, now directly below us, blew mist onto the ship’s hull. One by one, they came to the surface with their white bellies showing, corkscrewing, only to dive again with their black backs to the sky. The man’s binoculars, now rendered useless, hung loose around his neck.
Minutes of near pandemonium passed on board, but soon the herring led the killer whales away from us. The splashes grew smaller. Binoculars returned to their owner’s faces. Long breaths were taken. The captain fired up the engines and once again pointed the ship towards Petersburg, hoping to make up time along the way. The little girl ran to find her mother and tell her how close she’d been to “the killers.” The incredible encounter had come to a close.
Hopefully, the girl will carry the memory of the orcas with her for the rest of her life. Maybe she will recall the encounter as a complement to other adventures. That’s all one can hope for in exposing others to the precious wonders of the world. I certainly keep the memory of the encounter with me; those wolves of the sea; those deer of my thirties.