A Whale of a Time

Jul 18, 2013 | 0 comments

It started with a report on the local radio station: “Whales sighted just offshore, east beach.”
“Wanna go look for whales??” My supervisor asked, as she came out of her office, pulling on a jacket and grabbing the car keys. 
Half of Nome turned out to watch

Within minutes the majority of our staff members were packed into the vehicle and I found myself behind the wheel driving towards a huge line of cars pulled over on the side of the road just outside of town. “THERE IT IS!” someone said, and I pulled over behind the line.

The first sighting

After a few tense moments, I spotted them myself: long, thin dorsal fins dipping up out of the water and then back down again. “Are those…??” We held our breath before they came up a second time, afraid to believe our eyes.

Orcas offshore of Nome

“Oh my god those are orcas!” my coworker confirmed our suspicions as cameras clicked wildly away. Orcas, indeed, and a pod of about 10 of them!

Orca surfacing for air
They were pretty far, but through my 300mm lens, I was able to get some decent photos. I couldn’t believe it — just a year ago, I had never seen a whale in my life, and now here I was watching a species I had only dreamed of ever seeing in the wild. 
Orca spouting

As they moved further and further away, the crowd seemed to gather further down the beach. More whales? Yes! But not orcas. 

Grey whales stuck on a shallow sandbar
As it turned out, a wildlife biologist from UAF, and several others, had seen the real story unfold: The orcas were stalking a grey whale mother and calf. The calf was apparently injured (reportedly it had been attacked by the orcas), and the pair had swum to shore to escape the pod, where they proceeded to beach themselves on the sandbar about 30 feet from shore, and were thrashing about to get back to the deeper waters.
Grey whale fluke

It was an incredible sight to see something that large, so close, and to realize it was part of nature in action, the violent predator-prey relationship between separate cetacean species that few people ever witness. A total National Geographic moment unfolding before our eyes! The orcas circled the sound a couple times, but eventually gave up and moved back out to sea. By the time I left, the grey whales had also managed to move themselves back out into deeper water.

The stories on the street throughout the whole ordeal were pretty interesting. Some people were anticipating the grey whales would die so they could harvest the meat. A lot of miners had come in to watch from shore, reporting the orcas had swum by their dredges and scared them out of the water (I don’t blame them!). A ton of videographers were there as well, probably from Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, having heard the news while filming for other shows in the area. Word of the event even made it all the way to Anchorage and was reported on nightly news.

Although orca populations are known to exist in the Bering Sea, from what I can tell, it is extremely rare for them to show up in Norton Sound, especially this far north. And to see them actively hunting was absolutely unreal.

It’s one of those days that makes me feel so lucky to be here and alive and experiencing the wonders of the natural world firsthand.


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