N

o sailor can fail to have at least some sense of excitement whenever marine mammals appear. Whether you sight the characteristic spout of a sperm whale far off on the horizon or watch a pod of dolphins ride your bow wave, it’s always an occasion for wonder, appreciation and, of course, a scramble for the camera! After four summers sailing Alaska, I still reach for the binoculars every time I see a humpback, numerous though they are. I still rush to the bow to watch Dall’s porpoises dart around the boat, and I always smile to see sea otters lazing on their backs. If my husband, Seth, or I spy the tall dorsal fin of an orca, it’s time to luff the sails or — if we’re motoring — throttle back to neutral and watch them till they grow small in the distance. This summer, upon leaving Kodiak for our slow-paced return to Washington state, Seth and I were debating making an overnight passage across Shelikof Strait or breaking the trip into two days. A perfect 15-knot northeasterly had beckoned us on the overnight, but the tiring days in town, doing chores, working and socializing rather more than was good for our livers, meant that in the end we opted to put into an anchorage. We slept soundly, but regretted our decision when morning dawned without a breath of wind and with thick, damp fog. We weighed anchor around 0700 and puttered out of the cove and then west to cross Shelikof Strait, feeling a bit glum. Very slowly, though, the fog began to lift and we could see the hills of Kodiak Island on the beam. Astern, we caught a glimpse of the Canadian yacht that shared our anchorage. She seemed to be coming along on our course.

Then we saw the orcas. The first ones we spotted were spouting to the south of us but coming our way, so we throttled back and waited, zoom lens at the ready. One of the whales in particular had a huge fin, the patriarch of the pod. Dall's porpoises were cavorting around them, their quick splashes and rushing speed a contrast to the more stately orcas. While that group approached, we sighted another to the northeast, apparently on a converging course. In all, there must have been more than a dozen, probably more like 15 whales!

Soon, the Canadian yacht had caught up to us and was also watching the show, drifting along in the calm. The orca pod swam between our two boats, unperturbed by our presence. From a photography point of view, it was one of the best coincidences of our time in Alaska: a pod of one of the most iconic cetacean species, surfacing right in front of a yacht built to sail the kind of waters where such animals live.

The wind piped up an hour later, and we were off across the strait on a tearing beam reach. It turned out that we were all bound for the same anchorage, so Seth and I were able to meet Ken and Carol on board Voyageur. They had left their Ontario home some years ago and sailed a big Atlantic loop before transiting the Panama Canal and sailing north to Alaska via Hawaii and British Columbia. Seth and I have sailed some of the same waters on our circumnavigation and subsequent Alaskan voyages, but none of us had ever seen a better show of whales.