Humpback whales spend summers in the waters around Prince of Wales Island.
Humpback whales are migratory, and the whales seen in southeast Alaska migrate between the cold food-rich waters of the North Pacific and the warm tropical waters around Hawaii. The whales spend the summer in the north Pacific feeding on herring, krill, and other small schooling fish. In Alaskan waters they exhibit a number of feeding-related behaviors such as lunge-feeding and bubble-netting, both of which are very exciting to watch. Other behaviors seen regularly around POW include lob-tailing, flipper-slapping and breaching. The most common behaviors are of blowing, surfacing and sounding when they show their flukes upon beginning a dive to deeper depths to search for food.
Humpback whales are generally found singly or in small groups of up to 6 or 7. Groups may occasionally be larger when massive amounts of feed are present, but single animals and small groups are the norm. After the feeding frenzy of summer, many humpback whales depart for warmer waters. Those that stay are often sub-adults who do not go south to breed; instead they stay and feed and can often be found in larger groups at this time. The rest of the whales return to Hawaii to calve and breed. They perform courtship displays and sing complex songs. They do not, however, feed while they are in warmer waters. At the end of winter, they return to Alaskan waters, and their return is eagerly awaited by human residents, for it signals the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Their timing is not an accident; it coincides with the annual herring spawn.
As the herring move inshore from deeper waters, the whales follow them in, feeding heavily. In March, residents of Craig, begin seeing whale spouts 5 or 6 miles away across Bucarelli Bay. The herring return like clock-work to spawn on shallow reefs and kelp beds around Craig and Klawock and the whales take advantage of the opportunity. Over a period of several weeks, leading up to the actual few days of herring spawn, whales can be seen in the waters all around Craig and Klawock, exhibiting all the exciting behaviors that they are known for. Whales can often be seen from the Craig-Klawock highway, and from roads all around Craig including Beach Road, Hamilton Drive, and the graveyard island trail. Getting out on the water is the best way to see the whales and all the other exciting activity that takes place with the herring spawn including hundreds of sea lions, harbor seals, eagles, gulls and sea birds.
After the herring spawn, the whales disperse throughout the area and can be seen sporadically in the many inlets, bays, straits, channels, and sounds.
Humpback whale individuals can be identified by the patterns on the underside of their flukes. They vary from nearly all white to nearly all dark grey, with endless unique blotchy patterns in between.
Nearly any trip on the water from Prince of Wales Island will have sightings of whales. Some days are more exciting than others, but it is rare to spend time on the water without seeing the leviathans. The best months for seeing whales around POW are March-September, mostly because of better weather and longer days. They can be seen from October through February, but since the weather is often marginal and days get very short, they are not ideal times to visit for whale-watching. Late March and early April are the most predictable times to see the whales close to Craig. Coffman Cove is also a good location for some exciting whale-watching activity.