What a summer in Alaska.
Everyone is hoping the latest incident in Resurrection Bay, which destroyed a 22-foot Tiderunner fishing boat and pitched an Anchorage man into the 59-degree water near the port of Seward, was a freak accident because nobody wants to think the opposite.
Twenty-five to 40-ton humpback whales targeting watercraft might not cause the carnage of Jaws. Humpback whales don’t eat humans. But they can clearly sink boats and put people in the cold waters of Alaska where survival quickly becomes tenuous.
Just ask Louis Ulrich, the owner of the “Salt Shaker,” the aforementioned Tiderunner.
“It will never float again,” he said on Saturday. “The whale put like a five-foot hole in the bottom. It was definitely a scary moment.”
Ulrich and four friends with him out for a Thursday evening on the water are today thankful they survived what could easily have been a deadly encounter only a few miles from the small, port town 130 miles south of Alaska’s largest city.
Ulirich’s boat was floating silently on the waters of the bay with Guy Burk, an Anchorage dentist, jigging for fish off the stern when the whale struck.
“All of a sudden, there was this massive impact from below the boat,” Burk said. “It was like a cruise ship hit us. It was like the boat exploded.”
The impact was such that, in Ulrich’s words, it “trampolined” Burk 8-feet in the air. Burk, an avid whale watcher, remembers being airborne, looking down at the boat below, and thinking, “we must have been hit by a whale.”
They had earlier seen a humpback feeding in the area, but it had never come particularly close. Still, Burk recognized there weren’t a lot of other options to explain a boat being hit so hard from below.
He came down to a soft landing in the water of the bay a distance he estimated to be 8 feet from the boat. Surprisingly, he said, the water didn’t feel all that cold, and the events were so bizarre he came up from his surprise swim laughing.
“It just seemed so surreal,” he said.
“My wife thought I’d hit my head,” he added.
Things would only get stranger. Burk swam back to the side of the boat, put his arms up so others could help him aboard, and at that point realized his feet were hitting something on which he could stand.
“I was standing on (the whale),” Burk said. “He was like there for four or five seconds.”
Burk was quickly pulled aboard the boat, and the drag on a fishing reel started screeching. The rod had hooked a whale of an Alaska catch.
“Someone started screaming, ‘cut the line!” Burk said. “Cut the line!”
The line, which was quickly cut, seemed the least of the problems. Ulrich had done a quick check on the boat and discovered things weren’t looking so good.
“He looked in the back, and we were taking on water,” Burk said.
They yelled across to a nearby boat that they were sinking. The nearby boaters offered a suggestion.
“They said, ‘Get it up on step. We’ll follow you in,” Burk said.
It was a good idea, but the damage to the Salt Shaker was so great it didn’t work. Within a minute or so, the boat had water running over the deck.
“My wife was crying,” Burk said.
Ulrich got on the radio and put out a mayday. Boats started streaming out of the Seward Harbor to come to the rescue. A charter boat from J-Dock Sportfishing was first on the scene.
“We just stepped off the back onto their boat,” Burk said.
Then the Seaquest, a 46-foot catamaran from Alaska Northern Outfitters, arrived on the scene. It got some lines on the Tiderunner and pulled it into the harbor. There’s video at The Tattooed Dad, which includes an interview with a somewhat distraught looking Burk.
“They dragged it (Salt Shaker) up to the ramp, and it sank on the ramp,” Burk said. Ulrich managed to get it onto a trailer and pull it out only to discover four-foot cracks where the whale had smashed the fiberglass hull.
Burk thinks the whale must have been planning to breach and just didn’t see the boat.
“I know a little bit about whales,” he said, “and I remember looking down into the water, and I couldn’t see down a foot. I started looking into this, and it appears this happens more than you think.”
A Canadian tourist died in Mexico in March of last year after a breaching gray whale landed on the boat in which she was a passenger. A couple of kayakers miraculously survived a breaking humpback landing on their boat off California last fall.
It does make one think, said Burk, who was not wearing a PFD (personal flotation device) when he went in the water. Why would he be?
“The water was so flat,” he said. “It was just such a nice night.”
Ulrich had taken everyone out mainly to calm the fears of Burk’s sister, who was visiting from Oregon with her husband. They planned on fishing the edge of the Gulf of Alaska the next day, and “my sister was really nervous about getting seasick,” Burk said.
He and Ulrich figured a putt-putt around a quiet bay would put her mind at ease.
“It was flat water,” Burk said. “Gorgeous. The sun was sort of peeking out of the clouds.”
Off Tonsina Point, about five miles out of the Seward harbor, Ulrich spotted a lot of fish on the Salt Shaker’s fathometer. He shut the boat down to let it drift while Burk jigged to see what he might catch.
Of in the distance a few hundred yards, a whale was working over the same bait fish Ulrich had found.
“We thought that was kind of cool,” Burk said. “He was feeding. He’d come and go.”
And then boom! All thought of fishing the next day were put to rest.
“We decided to go to Exit Glacier instead,” Burk said. The only thing to worry about there is getting crushed by falling ice, but Kenai Fiords National Park has moved tourists well back from the face of the glacier since a tourist was crushed beneath falling ice in 1987.
Welcome to Alaska where all kinds of natural phenomenon are trying to kill you in ways of which you never thought.