A whale of a time

Local shares knowledge of marine mammals in CMC course

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— People who experience a close encounter with a whale often come away feeling as if they've communicated with the giant mammals, Mike Braal said. "Imagine being on a boat and having six of them swim right underneath bow," Braal said. "After 18 years of doing it, it's still a thrill. They're an unbelievable presence and they're intelligent."

Braal will teach a six week course on the marine mammals of southeast Alaska at Colorado Mountain College beginning this week. He is not a marine biologist, but he has acquired immense knowledge about the natural history of the warm-blooded creatures that make a living in the cold waters near Glacier Bay. Braals' knowledge of the animals comes from leaving Steamboat springs each summer for Alaska, where he has spent almost two decades working as a fishing, river rafting and eco-tour guide.

"I've made the acquaintance of a number of biologists working near Glacier Bay," Braal said. "When they would show up at the dock after three or four days in the field, I would gravitate to them to ask questions. Many have become friends over the years."

In talking with the biologists, Braal says he's gained a deeper understanding of the interdependency among the different species, both warm- and cold-blooded.

"A part of the class will be devoted to looking at the whole environment," Braal said.

Rockfish are a prime example of how different marine creatures depend on each other, Braal said. Rockfish are favorite food of Steller sea lions. The population of these bottom-dwelling fish has been dramatically reduced by commercial fishing. Consequently, the sea lions have become less common.

"The lions are the prize food of the Orcas (killer whales)," Braal said. "When the lions took off, the Orcas started eating sea otters. Of course, compared to a big juicy sea lion, otters are just a little ball of fur," offering relatively less nutrition.

The sea otters themselves are an interesting story. After being over-hunted 150 years ago, the otters have been reintroduced only within the last 35 years, Braal said. Native Americans are allowed to harvest some otters for clothing, but their only natural predators are the Orcas and sharks. Today, they are thriving on a steady diet of crabs and clams, and they are prodigious eaters.

"I once anchored my boat in a bay to ride out a storm and watched an otter eat nine crabs in 45 minutes," Braal said with a chuckle. "They have a really high metabolism. They don't have any body fat, but they have exceptionally dense coats."

The water temperatures in Glacier Bay range from the high 30s close to the glaciers themselves, up to the mid-50s further out.

Despite the constant need to eat, otters are anything but slovenly.

"They are quite fastidious eaters," Braal said, "and they keep the table clean."

In the case of sea otters, the dining table is their own belly -- they feast on crabs while floating on their backs.

"They always eat the claws of the crab first, then they eat the insides. But between courses they hold the food against their stomachs with their paws and roll in the water to clean themselves off. The last thing they do is lick the inside of the shell perfectly clean."

Braal is equally knowledgeable about the gray and humpback whales that summer near Glacier Bay. He said he has observed them growing more accustomed to human presence in the last decade.

The humpbacks typically are not as eager to interact with humans off the coast of Alaska as they are when they are on the winter calving grounds near Maui, Braal said. That's because after a winter without food in the warm waters of the south Pacific, the humpbacks are intent on feeding while in Alaskan waters. Consequently, they haven't been as tolerant of humans in close proximity.

Some of that reserve the whales show in summer has been easing, Braal said.

Along with informal lectures, Braal will present videos on marine mammals during his course. Among the topics he will deal with during the course are: species evolution, historical and present day human impacts, migration, breeding habits, diet, life cycles and the overall health of the animals' environment.

Braal leads natural history trips to the coastal waters of Alaska on his own vessel. His company, Whale Bay Charters, can be reached at 879-6544.

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