Brian Herbst had a memorable vacation in Alaska. He caught rockfish and halibut, saw moose and bears, stayed in a yurt – and in a perfect moment, managed to snap a shot of a mid-breach minke whale, hanging over the waters of Kachemak Bay.
The snapshot shows the parallel whale above the water almost as if participating in a flop contest, doing a plank in the air or floating across the bay like a hovercraft.
On July 12, Herbst was on the Danny J ferry en route to lunch at The Saltry restaurant in Halibut Cove when the captain announced that a whale was in the distance. Using his daughter’s high school camera and a borrowed lens, he began taking pictures.
As the boat turned, the whale began to swim towards it.
“I was like front row about it, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna get this thing, shah shah shah shah,'” Herbst said, reenacting the moment during a video interview from his home in North Carolina. North Thursday morning.
He knew he had gotten the perfect shot.
[A killer whale was headed toward a sea otter in Kachemak Bay. Then the otter hopped on a boat — and stayed there.]
Then Herbst sent the photo to The Saltry, who posted the image on their social media page. From there, the photo started circulating online, garnering thousands of likes with captions like “LEVITATE” and “the minke whale goes vroom.”
A minke whale breach is rarely filmed, said marine mammal researcher and instructor Marc Webber at the Kachemak Bay campus of the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
He said it was a “remarkable photo”.
In the photo, the whale’s pointed dorsal fin can be seen on top of its body along with a white stripe across its fin – a defining characteristic of minke whales, according to Webber. While the whale is parallel to the water, it is actually tilted slightly, showing off its light underbelly.
It’s unclear why the whales breach, emerging from the water and flying through the air, Webber said. It could be a way of signaling other whales by making a noisy re-entry into the water, or “a state of excitement or a display of heightened exuberance”, he said – but that’s just speculation .
Webber even received reports of minke whales in which people reported seeing a bottlenose dolphin, not knowing it was a minke whale and unable to assess its size. Herbst initially thought the whale he saw was a dolphin, based on what he had seen in North Carolina.
Minke whales are shy most of the time, ignoring and avoiding boats, so they are not often seen by people.
[A creeping mass of insect larvae near a Denali lodge raises the question: ‘Am I hallucinating?’]
The minke whale is the smallest baleen whale in Alaskan waters. They weigh up to 20,000 pounds and are typically 25 to 30 feet long when fully grown, far smaller than their gargantuan counterparts like humpback, blue, and gray whales.
And they’re fast, Webber said. Minke whales feed by rushing at high speed towards groups of small fish such as herring and anchovies, swallowing large mouthfuls. They then filter the water through their baleen, a fingernail-like structure that hangs in pieces and acts like a sieve, he said.
Back in Kachemak Bay, the minke whale breach was followed by a halibut taco lunch for Herbst and his family, who were in Alaska for his mother’s 85th birthday. They arrived in Homer just as the weather was starting to get windy and cold.
“We hit it so perfectly,” he said. “It was just made to happen.”
• • •