The Inside Scoop on the Inside Passage
Chatham Strait, Alaska
Photos and video by Shaun MacGillivray
We’re sitting in a cove off Chatham Strait, a tributary of Alaska’s inside passage, surrounded by steep hills covered in dark green conifers. The water is oily-calm, the gray sky hangs like the thick lid of a monumental ice chest high above. Brad, Rob, DJ, and the whole crew are intently scanning the water for a sign. Fred has his hydrophone over the side and we’re all listening to a humpback vocalizer signal to his pack of hunters.
An eerily musical call followed by three more, then silence. They’re coming.
A huge ring of bubbles breaks the surface within 40 feet of our starboard side. Brad swings the camera around. Two agonizing seconds pass, then the water erupts into a maelstrom of black masses — six humpback whales with mouths wide enough to swallow our skiff, launching out of the depths, scooping 15,000 gallons each, as they tussle and gulp the school of herring, send shockwaves and spray our direction, and slip back below the surface.
Four Days Earlier
After a good meeting in Los Angeles with a major production studio, I caught a plane to Juneau. I had a stopover in Seattle where I met a man who was returning from guiding a 10-day salmon fishing trip in British Columbia. He said the fishing was great and all his clients brought home the maximum allowable fish count. I took this as a good sign.
In Juneau, I met up with cinematographers Brad Ohlund, Rob Walker, Jack Tankard, DJ Roller, and Vance Weiss. We would be embarking on the 65-foot vessel, Snow Goose, with humpback whale researchers Fred Sharpe, Andy Svalbo, and Pieter Folkiens. With Fred Sharpe’s research permit we would be allowed to approach and film whales up close, which would make for incredible IMAX shots.
We spent a day packing and paring down our camera gear, including 40 IMAX film rolls and 20 1.5 terabyte hard drives — 3,000 pounds of gear in all — so it would fit on the boat. We departed from Auke Bay in the evening and motored through the night to Chatham Strait, where we would spend the next 2 weeks, on Alaska’s inside passage.
What We’re Here For
We’re here to film bubble netting, the incredible cooperative behavior that humpback whales use to catch fish. One whale makes a ring of bubbles around a group of herring and another whale is the vocalizer, quarterbacking the operation for a group of up to 15 whales. Because Fred put a hydrophone in the water, we can hear the vocalizer saying something like, “OK, we’re getting ready, now let’s go!”
The calls make the herring swim away from the whale, toward the wall of bubbles. The whale does three calls in a row, and a fourth call, which is different. Then it goes silent, and that’s when you know they’re all going to launch into the air. They come up together, swimming with their mouths wide open, vertically through the bubble net where all the fish are. Their mouths can open to 90 degrees — it looks enormous. I got shots where I was thinking, “Oh my god, you could put a mini-van in that mouth!”
The whales are eating as much as they can in preparation for the long trip back to Hawaii or Mexico, where they spend winter months mating, giving birth and caring for their young — all resource-intense activities. So getting enough fish in the belly this time of year is critical. Every year 30 to 50 humpback whales come back to this same spot — one of the only places bubble netting happens.
Certain humpback whales like to bubble net together, so they form specific teams. They’ve obviously found out that they can catch more herring if they work together. Fred Sharpe has been working in Chatham Strait with these humpback whales for 30 years. He knows their tail flukes — the humpback equivalent of a fingerprint — and names every whale that comes here. Arpeggio is his one of favorites. He’s a vocalizer. Fred is so familiar with these whales, if he hears the call and hasn’t seen the tail fluke yet, he knows if it’s Arpeggio.
Challenges and Triumphs
It was tough to film because you didn’t know where the whales were going to surface, unless you could spot the bubbles in time. We had Rob Walker up top, spotting, but a lot of times you just can’t see them. Knowing it costs $1000 a minute for IMAX film, we couldn’t just do continuous rolling like the guys with HD cameras, so it was this constant decision-making game. A lot of times we were looking around going, “OK, we know they’re going to lunge, when should we roll, and where should we put the camera?”
Every morning we would go out in the 19-foot gray skiff called Vaquita, or our smaller red skiff to look for whales, hoping and praying for sun. We were there for almost two weeks, and we had sunny 2 days. We had a lot of rain, a lot of gray skies — that’s Alaska for you. When the sun did come out, with all the clouds and mist, the sunsets were amazing.
One of the difficulties besides getting rain on the lens was getting whale snot on the lens. When they spouted, the mass of exhaled water would drift in the air and hit the camera, especially the 3D Epic camera, because it has a huge mirror to create the 3D. The whale spouts make great images but, the snot would hit the lens and we would have to stop filming and wipe it down.
After we captured the bubble netting, we wanted to get some shots of whales breaching, a little-understood behavior where whales jump way out of the water and come down on their back with a huge splash. This is much harder to shoot than bubble netting because you don’t have the calls to warn you, or bubbles to look for. You’re just looking at calm seas and then bam, a 40,000 pound whale is flying out of the water. It was difficult but with the new 5K digital 3D camera and the ability to roll longer than IMAX we captured two great breaches.
This was our first time shooting with the new 5K digital 3D system. Every night we got to see the footage in 3D on our boat, via laptop with 3D glasses. It was exciting to see the footage right after it was shot, rather than waiting for the lab to process film.
This expedition was just incredible, being there with the researchers, standing on the deck of a boat in Chatham Strait, getting to hear these very musical whale calls, knowing you are about to be very close to this incredible scene of these whales working together, clearly on to something more intelligent than we think of them being. It’s just so cool to see. You can’t really believe you’re this close to these animals that are 40 to 50 feet long and weigh 80,000 pounds. You are on a little 15 foot dingy that could potentially be in their mouths. (A humpback whale couldn’t swallow you however — their throats are the size of grapefruits.)
It really feels like a privilege to get an inside glimpse at the cutting edge of humpback whale research, and see how scientists actually do their work in the field. There are still so many questions about these incredible mammals: why and how do they communicate? Why do the breach? How do they coordinate their bubble netting? How intelligent are they?
When you’re on location, every day counts. You’re always thinking about the time and funding put into it. But that’s how filming wildlife is. You spend a lot of days hoping the animals will do things they don’t do everyday. That’s why you go there for two weeks or sometimes two months — you have to spend the time. You’re hoping to be in the right place at the right time with good conditions, sunlight, and interesting skies. There are always a lot of variables there. When you get the shot you wanted, you feel really good. And we got it on this trip. We were able to get really great footage and I’m excited to show people what these whales do. They provide a powerful example to the world as they communicate and work together to find their livelihood.