Like a dramatic scene from a Hollywood thriller, a humpback whale suddenly emerged from the water just feet from boats, docks, and onlookers in southeastern Alaska, its giant mouth gaping.
Fisherman Cy Williams recorded the scene at Knudson Cove Marina in Ketchikan, Alaska, on May 2. He tried to follow the path of the big animal under his boat, noting the bubbles rising to the surface.
“It was breathtaking," Williams told video licensing service Caters TV. "I genuinely thought it was going to hit the boat or the dock as it was so big."
The whale can be seen so clearly that barnacles are visible on its massive chin.
"It's surprising to see the animal so close to the docks," says Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist and National Geographic explorer who is also a professor at Oregon State University.
"But humpback whale populations are really expanding, so maybe they are looking for new areas to find prey, or trying to avoid competition from other whales," Torres says.
Although such crowded marinas can pose hazards to large animals, they also can attract small fish to all the activity and hiding spots.
Despite the close quarters, the whale in the video appears to be feeding through a common bubblenet technique, says Torres.
The whales primarily eat krill and small fish, which they often catch by blowing a ring of bubbles around a school of prey, to hem them in. Working alone or in groups, the whales may also vocalize to further confuse their quarry. Next, they herd the prey toward the surface. At the last minute, they lunge upward, catching as many as they can.
Humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) are large baleen whales that range in length from 39 to 52 feet (12 to 16 meters) and weigh up to 79,000 pounds (36,000 kilograms). With their distinctive, curved body shape and habit of frequently breaching above the water, they are among the whales best known by the public and are frequently the target of watching tours.
Humpbacks are also known for their complex songs—sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises that often continue for hours on end. The purpose of the songs is not well understood.
The whales can be found around the world and often feed in polar areas in the summer. In winter, they migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed.
Before commercial whaling was curtailed in the 1960s and '70s, humpbacks were hunted almost to extinction. They have recovered to an estimated 80,000 individuals, a portion of their historic numbers, but they are expanding well, particularly in the North Pacific, Torres says. Worldwide, they continue to be threatened by entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and disturbances from noise and water pollution.
“Every time I see a whale I’m in awe, but being this close was something special," Williams says.
Torres agrees, and adds that people should be sure to avoid getting too close to the animals.
"Stay out of their way, let them continue feeding, and just enjoy it," she says.