A group of predominantly German tourists got a better than hoped for Alaska wildlife sightseeing cruise on Wednesday when they found themselves up close and personal with a humpback whale.
“It was like a Moby Dick experience,” said Tom Tougas, owner of Major Marine Tours in Seward. “They were all out on the deck watching birds when a whale came right up under the boat.”
The collision between beast and boat lifted the 58-foot M/V Viewfinder part way out of the water and knocked passengers to the deck. The Viewfinder is the ship on which President Barack Obama toured Kenai Fiords National Park last September.
The craft suffered significant damage. One propeller was bent and possibly its driveshaft, Tougas said, but the twin-drive Viewfinder was able to limp back to port with just one propeller turning.
The whale did not appear to have been seriously injured.
“It surfaced four times as it left (the scene),” Tougas said, “and then it took a tail dive.”
The National Oceanic an Atmospheric Administration is investigating the collision as is standard practice. Once endangered, both humpback and gray whales are now plentiful along the Alaska coast.
Their bountiful numbers, however, have raised the risks of dangerous run-ins. Humpbacks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. This one was big enough and strong enough that the force of the impact seriously rocked the Viewfinder , Tougas said.
The boat was in Granite Pass, a narrow passageway between Twin Islands and Granite Island about 30 miles southwest of Seward when the accident happened. Major Marine runs a daily, 8.5-hour cruise from Seward out Resurrection Bay, around Aialak Cape and through the pass into Northwestern Fjord, then back to port.
The cruise promises “the perfect way to experience Dall’s porpoises playing alongside the bow of the boat or listen to the exhale of whales as they spout nearby. Photographers and birders will have excellent opportunities to snap that perfect photo for their collections.”
Up-close encounters with whales are not unusual on the cruise, but actual contact with a whale is rare. In 26 years, Tougas said, there have only been three other times a whale has run into a boat or vice-versa.
“It’s one of those things happen,” he said, adding that luckily no one was seriously injured. Two women were taken to the Seward clinic. Tougas said he’d talked to both by Thursday and x-rays had come back negative. One woman had what appeared to be a sprained ankle; the other suffered badly swollen knees after landing on them when she hit the deck.
The worst damage might have been to the Viewfinder, which could be out of operation for a week or more as repairs are made. But Tougas said, he got lucky there, too. He has another boat available.
That’s a good thing because it’s a cruise season to die for in Seward. It was 81 degrees there on Thursday beneath sunny, blue skies.
“It’s Hawaii weather,” Tougas said.