Swimming with dolphins, lounging with apes, or otherwise integrating myself into another species’ social folds has never been on my bucket list. I don’t feel the need to be physically close to wildlife to appreciate the amazing facts of their lives. In fact, when I’m watching animals, I’m often wearing my scientist’s cap, attempting to answer particular questions about their behavior while trying to avoid assigning my own human values to what I observe. But several days ago, as Chaika sailed with a pod of orca whales, the nearness of a magic underwater world nearly bowled me over.
When we first spotted black fins silhouetted against the shore of Baranof Island, the whales were distant off our port and I was content simply knowing they were there. But as we traveled north up Chatham Strait, they paralleled us, moving closer and closer. Soon we had fifteen orcas swimming around our boat, their movements purposeful and smooth. This was obviously not a chance encounter, but an inquisitive visit. Two other groups stayed much farther offshore, their blows appearing each time we scanned the water. Among the whales surfacing nearby, cows and their calves drew my attention most as they moved through the water synchronously, typically within a body’s length of each other and sometimes touching. The calves were many times my size, and clearly more powerful, but the way they clung so closely to their mothers’ sides made them appear as small and vulnerable as my own children had been as infants. One large male made a dramatic appearance as he surfaced in slow motion, his shiny black dorsal fin rising grandly like he owned the sea. And, in that moment, he did. Soon after, he spy-hopped—raising his head vertically from the water—and looked right at us. What might he have thought about a boat roughly the same size as himself, with a flapping white sail and several two-legged creatures dangling above his water world? I’ll never know, but I swear I saw curiosity staring back at me.
Our boys—aged 2 and 4—sat on deck in their rain gear and exclaimed, jumping with each noisy blow. “Wooooow!” “Orca whales!” “Are they diving to the very bottom of the ocean?” “There’s a mommy!” “There’s a daddy!” “There’s a baby!” “Where do they sleep without a bed?” Even in the midst of their excitement, they didn’t experience this whale sighting as an event to catalog in their minds as “the time I saw orcas up close,” but instead as a day, like every other, when whales happened to visit us. For this fact, I am grateful. I want my kids to grow up in a world in which the existence of whales and other wild creatures is not rare or imagined—to be read about in a book describing faraway places or distant times—but real, and every bit as necessary as our own lives.
Orcas are incredibly social animals, a fact I knew but didn’t fully appreciate until this encounter. They live in matrilineal family groups that together make up pods, which can consist of 40 animals or more. The whales we watched were piled upon themselves, their bodies often touching, or nearly so, as they rose to the surface. I won’t pretend to know enough about whale behavior to understand why they were in such frequent physical contact—play, feeding strategy, communication, bonding? Or, dare I say it, a cetacean expression of love?
The boys watched the whales for thirty minutes, then went down below to play a game of “surfing,” by jumping from cushion to mat on our tiny galley floor. In brightly-colored swim hats and shorts, their game was both hilarious and adorable. And it kept them occupied long enough for Pat and I to continue watching the whales as they swam nearby, gracing us with their presence for another hour or more. Pat climbed the mast for an elevated vantage and I stood in the bowsprit, as close to an orca as I likely ever will be. Until this encounter, I hadn’t noticed the gradations of color on orcas’ backs and necks—from jet black to ochre to a nearly translucent gray. Each one looked not like a generic whale but an individual with every bit of the distinctiveness of a human form. As they circled around our boat, I was anointed by whale breath.
We spent the last four weeks on Chaika, once again reminding ourselves of the pleasures of boat life—time to observe, the company of wildlife, the intimacy of small spaces. Of course there are also the challenges—managing frustrations when there’s nowhere else to go; soggy, smelly gear that dangles from every available hook; inefficiencies of work in a tiny, chaotic “office.” We traveled through Glacier Bay, meeting with another boat family (Lindsay and Graham on Sika) with their smiley 5-month-old daughter (“baby Mira”) and getting in a few days of boat-based skiing. We felt the fury of the Gulf of Alaska as we ventured outside Yakobi Island. We visited hot springs in one of the most magical places on earth. We saw dozens of humpback whales, hundreds of sea lions, and thousands of migratory birds on their spring migration. We were, once again, so very blessed to share in these experiences of the wilder sort.
Our dear friends, Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, made the passage across the Gulf of Alaska to join us for our last days north up Lynn Canal. The boys were thrilled to once again have company besides their parents, particularly since it came with all-you-can-drink lemonade, tales from the sea, a sweet dog, and a collection of treasures that would inspire wonder in a kid of any age. The usually-fierce winds of Lynn Canal eased enough for us to anchor off the beach in front of our cabin, and we stayed here before returning Chaika to Haines. Until our next journey on the water, this will be her home. We will be at the cabin for several weeks, enjoying land-based adventures, catching up on projects, and stretching our sea legs.
Thanks to everyone for following along. I’ve been a bit behind in my posts, but please stay tuned for more photos, notes, and updates about cabin life and book events. I look forward to seeing many of you later this summer.