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  • hollygittlein

The Killer Whales of Kachemak Bay, Alaska

Returning to Alaska, my home base, after a few years of traveling and working in the South Pacific and Hawaii has been a blessing, especially during these unpredictable times of the coronavirus. This summer of 2020 I found myself back with my family in Wasilla to reconnect to the deep roots and stability that a bloodline provides. Alaska’s raw beauty, vast wilderness, and untamed nature were good for my wanderlust soul. During these times of upheaval, I find that I must focus on connecting with Nature at a deeper level to remain grounded.

Currently, truth is hard to find and discern. What is really going on? The media and science seem to be in a scramble of filtering out a lot of information and throwing it at the public. But is it accurate? Daily, new ideas, assumptions, theories, and prognoses are bombarded at us. Instead of focusing on this scramble, I turned my attention to Nature, the one source of Truth. A tree is a tree, a whale is a whale, and water is water. What I learned from my experiences and time with the traditional cultures of the South Pacific is that security and foundation reside in wisdom. It seems we now live in a time of vast information, the technological age, but very little wisdom. Collectively we are now trying to find a balance. I find my balance in Nature. In the elements. Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. Therefore, for the past five months, I set my intentions and focused on these basics here in the land of primal nature: Alaska.

It started with a return to the sea. I had been landlocked for some time during quarantine and my ocean soul needed a dip in the salt of planet Water. The earth is 71% water, perhaps we should call our home planet Water versus planet Earth? I loaded my trusty boat, a sea kayak, and headed to Homer, Alaska to spend time with my friend and colleague Olga von Ziegesar.

Research scientist Olga Van Ziegesar scanning the horizon for signs of whale activity.

Olga is the founder and director of Winged Whale Research,, a small organization that has been studying humpback whales for the past 40 years up here in Alaska. Generally, the study occurs in Prince William Sound, located north of Homer. In 2020, the year to hunker down, Olga decided to stay put in Homer and perform her research in Kachemak Bay. I arrived in July and most humpbacks had already passed through to other waters, so Olga was focusing on the identification of pods of resident and transient Killer Whales in the area. Since 2010 I have helped as a seasonal research assistant for Olga's humpback whale research, this would be my first time with killer whales and I was excited for the opportunity.

During my time in Homer, we went on three excursions of two to four nights at sea looking for whales. It wasn’t till the third trip that we were lucky enough to run into some whales.

We were sailing from Port Graham, a native village, back towards Homer. It was July so the sun was still up all night and we filled our days with all things Alaskan. We kayaked with sea otters and hiked to glaciers. We sunbathed, swam in the freezing ocean, and caught salmon to put in the freezer for the upcoming winter. It was wonderful weather in July and we were taking full advantage.

The research vessel is named the Whale One, a Mc Gregor sailcraft, a hybrid that doubles as a motorboat and sailing boat. We had our sails up that afternoon and a soft breeze was gently caressing us back to civilization. The sun was blazing. We were laying around soaking it up, we had two fishing lines off the stern, and were snacking on fresh veggies from Olga’s impressive garden. Suddenly we heard a blow. That is the sound a whale makes when it reaches the surface to breathe. We both popped up from our stretched-out positions.

“Did you hear that?” asked Olga.

I nodded not wanting to make any noise, both of us looking all around for a sign that it was a whale. “Poooouuuuuf” we both heard it and then Olga pointed them out in front of our bow. They were coming right towards us, a pod of killer whales. Just what we were looking for. I leapt up to the bow and dropped the sails. Olga scrambled around the stern transforming the boat from sailing rudders to the outboard engine and reeled in the fishing lines. Within ten minutes I was at the helm motoring towards the whales and Olga was standing with her camera poised to capture photo identification.

Killer whale documentation is done by capturing a picture of the left side of the dorsal fin where it meets the back of the whale, called the saddle. Each whale has a unique marking. These killer whales were feeding and moving around all over the place. I targeted two whales that were swimming together and I set the pace of the boat with them. We were traveling between eight to twelve miles per hour; the whales ducking and diving, coming to the surface, going straight, then darting off in another direction. They were all over the place and hard for me to follow. Olga is an expert and good at what she does; she coached me through a bit of driving while simultaneously dialing the camera in on her subjects. I kept her on the two whales and we were able to get photos of the big bull and the smaller whale with him fairly quickly.

The matriarch is seen feeding with a young killer whale. Notice the saddle patch marking on the dorsal fin used for identification.

Killer whales practice the culture of matriarchy. What does that mean in the animal kingdom? The same as it does in our culture, we are animals too you know, it means that the female is the predominant force that holds the group together. In killer whale pods, the elder female is the leader of the pod, the matriarch. In fact, males will swim next to their mothers their entire lives. While Olga and I were chasing these whales around in a rodeo of dance, hunting, and play I began to contemplate the culture of whales and the culture of humanity. I started pondering my theory that the source of humanity's societal, environmental, and economical challenges are due to our disassociation from nature... from our Mother Earth. Perhaps if we returned to staying in sync with our matriarch, like the killer whale bulls staying with theirs, then humanity could swing back into balance with the flow of nature. Perhaps, the whales can show us the way? If only we stop to pay attention and listen.

“Get closer, go a little faster!” shouted Olga over the engine noise, her face pressed against the camera.

My mind had taken over and I wasn’t paying attention! In order to really be good at sea and especially documenting animals, you must follow the number one rule of Nature: be in the present moment. I shut off my mind, dropped into my body and heart, connected to the sea, and started to flow with the movement of the cetaceans. It is challenging to identify killer whales. They go everywhere and just when you think you have lined up with them, paced to their incredible speed and agility, they change directions and disappear completely. Gone. I would circle the boat wide looking to see where they went, minutes would go by and then you would see them in a completely different spot far away. It was a rodeo, a whale rodeo. Being a rookie with killer whales I was flopping my head from left to right trying to keep track of where all the individuals were. One minute you would see them there and the next they were gone just to pop up in a completely different spot with a different pod member.

To capture pictures it's best to target an individual or group and pursue them. They are powerful in the water, move quickly and numerous times they bolted right in front of our boat. There were nine individuals in this pod and two babies, one of which was very young. We spent about an hour and a half documenting the group. I will never forget the moment when we had three whales on the port side and two on starboard. They both darted and crossed in front of the bow, circled us, and then dove; swimming under the boat and wrapping us in a black and white whale hug. As if saying goodbye, the baby leapt from the surface in a full breech showing us just how little and powerful she was.

The wind had been gradually picking up since the whales arrived. A storm was predicted for the evening and it was showing up. Olga, called it a day. We had captured photos of each individual. Our mission was complete. Water started dropping from the sky, we switched into heavy rain gear and began motoring back to Homer. Waves crashing over the side, drenching us in cold salty water, the wind beating us in the face, and the dance of the killer whale in our hearts.

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