By Patrice Kohl
Anglers taking halibut and king salmon charter trips out of Deep Creek this spring got extra bang out of their buck as fishing trips turned into inadvertent whale watching trips. The word on the saltwater among sportfishermen off the lower peninsula has been whales, whales and more whales this spring.
Charter boat fishermen who have fished in the area 20-plus years say they have never seen anything like it. Fishermen have been spotting whales in shallow and deep water in an area roughly as far south as Anchor Point and as far north as Deep Creek, and particularly in shallow waters near Happy Valley and Twin Falls.
It’s not uncommon to see a few whales passing through the area in late May and the first few days of June. But this spring, area fishermen regularly spotted whales, some of which stuck around for long periods of time and swam much closer to shore than they had in the past. As of Friday, Walt Barton, owner of Kenai Alaska Fish On, said he had seen whales on every saltwater trip he’s done this year, other than his first two trips he took in early May.
“They’ve been very, very consistent. Since the 15th of May I’ve seen them every day I’ve been out and that’s not normal,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen it like this. There’s some kind of a phenomena out there and I couldn’t tell you what.”
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries Service Cook Inlet aerial survey completed last week spotted a few humpbacks, lots of harbor porpoises and a lone gray whale in the lower Cook Inlet region, but did not detect any unusual whale activity off the coast between Anchor Point and Deep Creek. But that doesn’t mean more whales weren’t there, since viewing conditions were poor when the survey flew over the area, said Kim Shelden, an NOAA fisheries marine biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, who helped conduct the survey.
What the surveyors did not see, but fishermen’s observations and pictures indicate, is that the lower peninsula attracted some unusual visitors this spring. Pictures of splotchy, barnacle-encrusted whales, multiple sightings of whales hanging out in shallow water and an observation of a whale stirring up mud, for example, suggest the area attracted a group of gray whales.
Gray whales are among the most primitive of whales and feed primarily on crustaceous amphipods they filter out of the mud with their short, course baleen.
Although gray whales travel past the peninsula every spring on their 10,000-mile migratory route from calving grounds in Baja California, in Mexico, to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, they typically do not stop along their way to feed or rest. But this year something along the lower peninsula attracted a group of gray whales close to shore, and instead of just whizzing by, they stayed for an extended visit, remaining for days and days. Seeing whales so close to shore and for such a long period of time was an unusual sight for local fishermen.
“You don’t see them that close in and you don’t see them for that long,” said Larry Cobb, who has been fishing the area for 22 years and owns King’s Run Charters. “I mean, they come through. You always see them traveling, but they’re always going somewhere. They’re heading north, they’re heading south and they don’t hang around.”
Mike Chihuly, who has fished the area for 26 years and owns Chihuly Charters, was so intrigued by the sudden increased appearance of whales in the area that he ordered guidebooks to help him identify them. In addition to the gray whales hanging out close to shore, Chihuly says he also saw an increased number of other whales in the area, some of which he thinks may have included fin, minkie and humpback whales.
Whales rarely expose more than a blowhole, dorsal fin or tail fluke. At least one whale visiting the lower peninsula, however, put on a spectacular show for a boatload of fishermen when it breached right next to their boat.
“When it came down it splashed the water 150 feet,” Barton said. “And then about three minutes later it breached again. It breached twice. It wasn’t 100 yards from the boat. I mean people were just flabbergasted. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.”
Barton said he couldn’t identify the whale that breached beside his boat. However, breaching is common among both gray and humpback whales.
Biologists don’t know for sure why there has been an increase in whale activity in the area, but fishermen and biologists speculate that an increase in a food source, such as forage fishes, may be responsible.
Chihuly said halibut caught by his boat have been spitting up a type of smelt known as the capeline and he suspects there are a lot of them in the area this year. No one regularly monitors forage fish in the area so there is no way of knowing for sure if an increase in forage fish has anything to do with the increase in whale activity.
With respect to gray whales spotted in the area, biologists say that, although it’s unusual for the whales to stop for long periods of time as they migrate to feeding grounds, there seems to have been an increase in reports of grays making extended stops in recent years. A large group of gray whales, for example, stopped to hang out and feed in waters surrounding Kodiak Island in 2000 and, more recently, a group of gray whales were spotted lingering around Vancouver Island.
Gray whales may be making more stops because their population has increased in recent years, forcing them to re-occupy some marginal habitats, said Brad Smith, a NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service biologist in Anchorage.
A great deal remains mysterious about the migratory patterns of gray and other whales and porpoises that pass through lower Cook Inlet. In addition to the fishermen’s reports of increased whale activity around the lower peninsula, Shelden said the sighting of lots of harbor porpoises this year was also a surprise. She said they seem to migrate into the area in large numbers about every five years and haven’t been seen in the inlet for a while.
“Sometimes it seems like we are just scratching the surface, trying to figure all of this out,” she said.