What possesses someone to get up at 6:15 on a gray, cold, snowy Sunday morning? If you happen to be in King Salmon, Alaska in early May, along the banks of the Naknek River, you might do this with the hopes of possibly seeing or at least hearing the beluga whales at high tide as they move upriver to feed.
High tide was at 7:12 this morning. I had wanted to get out by 6:30 but just couldn’t seem to get my mojo working. But by 7:00 I was out the door, coffee cup sloshing in one hand and camera balanced in the other. Snowy air does not lend itself to optimal photography conditions – I should have just brought my binoculars. Oh well. As with many things so far this trip, I will live and learn.
I walked briskly in the gray dampness; it’s only a short walk down to the river but I was chilled within minutes. The tide was definitely in; water covered the banks where at a different time it had lapped shallowly at the icy shore. At the river I saw and heard scores of trumpeter swans. The flapping of their wings in flight sounded like a hundred sheets being shaken out in the wind.
It was not long before I knew I was really in the presence of the beluga whales. I recognized the whooshing sound of their breathing as I kept watch out over the foggy river; where I saw patches of broad riffles on the water, their white backs soon surfaced briefly as they passed upstream in the deeper channel.
But I also heard another distinctive sound. Whale song! It was different from the breath – because less air is involved ( I am supposing here), the song seemed to be a deeper wave of sound.
I took no pictures. Although seeming to be taking their time, I knew that the whales were moving swiftly up river, to feed on the salmon smolt before the tide changed and they were stranded at low tide. I never did get a shot, and finally put my camera out of the weather and just listened and watched.
The white backs of the belugas as they moved upriver, the sound of their breathing and song – this is what will remain in my mind’s eye as the image of my morning. I will bring my binoculars at the next high tide, of course. But I will also bring my camera. Because you just never know.
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