Having lived in Alaska for nearly 15 years, I have had some pretty amazing experiences. But once in a while, one of those experiences finds you when you are least expecting it, and it blows you away. Wednesday was one of those days, and it was incredible.
We awoke to a pastel sunrise over glassy calm water, pulled anchor and continued south towards the geoduck grounds. The fishery wasnt until the next day so we had the whole day to get there and only a few more hours left of travel time. Brad mentioned that there were porpoises or something up ahead in the distance. I glanced towards the far shore and indeed, there was some commotion at the surface of the water. The playful black and white Dall's porpoises are one of my favorite animals to watch and photograph so I got my camera equipment ready.
They were still at least a mile away when we saw some more to the west. But these looked maybe more like killer whales, as we could see rigid triangular dorsal fins, which were too big to be the short blunt porpoise fins. I not so subtly suggested that we veer west since we had all day. Brad grumbled and indicated no...and then he turned towards the whales. I climbed up onto the flying bridge and watched as we got closer. I peered through my long lens for a better look as we were still too far for any photos. Something wasn't right. They weren't killer whales. They weren't porpoises.
Both of those have distinct black and white markings, but these animals were different-they had a blunt face ranging from nearly white to yellowish to grey. They were bigger than the tiny Dall's porpoise but significantly smaller than a killer whale. They made a small quick blow if at all, and showed their dorsal fin upon surfacing but almost never showed their flukes. I stomped on the roof to get Brad to open the side door so we could talk.
"What the hell are those?!?" He shouted up in confusion.
"I don't know! But they are beautiful!" I replied and we went back to watching the mystery whales.
They headed in the direction of the other group of animals which was also the same direction of travel for us. They came up alongside us, in front of us, and further away. There were dozens of them. No, make that at least a hundred if not two hundred!
I was desperate to know what they were but now was picture taking time-the field guides would have to wait for later. I utilized all of the skills I had learned from taking photos of the quick and agile Dall's porpoises-try to focus on where one will surface and ignore the others! But it was hard-they were everywhere! Every breath from every surfacing animal could be heard across the water. They moved quickly and never went very deep. My brain continued to scan through all of the cetaceans I had seen in my books-I know I've seen this one in one of my books-what are they?
Their bodies were covered with scars-lined scars on nearly every surface. They created unique patterns on every animal. Light colored scars over grey skin made them appear somewhat mottled and almost like a chum salmon in a way. And then it hit me. Risso's Dolphins! They are a blunt faced dolphin! Yes! No time to think about that now though, so I kept taking pictures. Without any effort on our part, they stayed nearby and traveled with us heading south. They did not appear to be feeding so it is unclear what they were doing. I finally came down and moved to a new location on the bow. There were juvenile dolphins leaping out of the water and splashing back into the water on their backs! It was difficult to anticipate when and where they would burst out of the water but lots of fun to watch! The two groups merged together for a while and then appeared to separate and head in different directions. My memory card ran out just before they departed and I only got a few more shots after I installed a new one. We watched the low splashes fade towards the distant shore and then it was time to recover. We had been with them for nearly one whole incredible hour.
I checked my whale books and sure enough, it looked like Risso's dolphin was the correct ID. They are generally seen in warmer waters and probably more offshore, but the field guides had sparse Information on them.
We continued ahead and eventually I departed in the zodiac to go find a beach to explore. As I was circumnavigating a small island, another geoduck boat was out in the channel but was stopped-and surrounded by dolphins! They had continued down this direction! I watched from shore and could see that the guys in the boat were excitedly watching the dolphins and I swear I could hear them trying to figure out what they were.
I headed back to the boat from where I spied a small boat across the way. I mentioned that it looked like a friend, which Brad verified. I called on the radio to make sure they saw the dolphins(she is a whale watcher and photographer too), and she changed course and headed our way. I hopped in the zodiac and headed out towards her. We met in the middle and we both gleefully photographed the dolphins. She was delighted and had never seen them either, nor had any of the other 4 people on the boat-all long time residents and fishermen in the area. So she headed south and I returned to the boat after spending just a bit more time with the dolphins. We were in the middle of talking about how amazing it was to see so many of a new marine mammal when we looked outside and there they were!
They came all around us where we were anchored, and then they headed out into the channel again. This time Brad joined me in the zodiac, and we motored out towards the dolphins where we shut the motor off and drifted. They would head off in one direction only to turn around and go back the other way; towards us. Several times they came all around the zodiac and even underneath, where the light color of their bodies looked blue-green in the water as they swam below. They didn't seem to be bothered by or concerned with our presence at all.
The little ones continued to breach and play, usually several breaches in short succession. They moved quickly, first showing their blunt, scarred faces, and then showing their stout dorsal fin next as their face quickly submerged underwater again. They were often very close together, surfacing and submerging in quick succession. The sun shone through the clouds intermittently, shining brightly on their metallic silver and gold skin. Once in a while a few of them would quickly show their flukes as they submerged, but it was very different from the long slow sinking flukes of a humpback whale. We watched into the afternoon where they finally roamed off into the distance. We watched them go and thanked them for their visit, knowing that it may be the last and only time we ever see 200 Risso's dolphins.
I have never come across such a large number of megafauna and not known what they were. Although I knew we would figure it out, it was Incredibly exciting to have an experience of discovery-of seeing something so out of the ordinary that I had never even heard of anyone seeing these animals here before. And what made is so special too, was that it wasn't just a fleeting sighting of them-it was being with them. We got to watch them for hours, get to know their behavior, and really watch them. I have to assume that this was a very rare occurrence and I may never see them again, but if I only have one day in my life to have watched and been surrounded by Risso's dolphins-I am so grateful for the opportunity-it was amazing. Thank you dolphins.