Small book pictures big animals well

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

Whale watching has become one of Alaska's favorite sightseeing opportunities. Nothing quite compares to the awed thrill of getting close to the planet's biggest animals. But few people have that experience. And even those who do have difficulty conveying it to others.

Now a team of photographers and writers from Southeast Alaska have created a compact book that strives to portray the essence of the whales' majesty.

"My goal was to publish a beautiful photo book with the most accurate and up-to-date whale information available," writes Mark Kelley, the Juneau photographer who published the book and took most of its pictures.

The photos and the text share top billing in the book, although the cover only credits the photographers Kelley and John Hyde. Both are top-notch professionals who have accumulated impressive portfolios of whale photos through years of work. The images they selected for this book include fabulous shots of whales leaping in the air, feeding and cruising picturesquely against backdrops of classic Alaska scenery.

The text, mostly written by Linda Daniel, provides an overview of whales' biology, history and unique appeal. It packs a lot of content into a few words and does so with grace and sparkle. For example, here's how she conveys the size of a humpback's mouthful:

"When the whale opens wide, the lower jaw drops more than 90 degrees and the chin balloons out. The result is a cavernous mouth that can hold 15,000 gallons of seawater teeming with prey. Imagine a mouthful of seven Volkswagen Beetles awash in 160,000 cans of soda pop."

Enhancing the book is the inclusion of anecdotes. These vivid first-hand recollections describe memorable recent encounters between people and whales in Alaska's waters. They include a near-collision between a float plane and a breaching humpback, a desperate seal hitching a ride in a biologist's boat to avoid a pod of hunting killer whales and an incident when Hyde found himself closer to a group of feeding humpbacks than he had planned.

"Wet, black shiny skin seemed to envelope me as water sloshed into the boat and herring fell from the sky," he recalls.

Another of the book's assets is a pair of tables neatly summarizing basic whale statistics such as size, lifespan and populations.

The book features two species: humpback whales and killer whales, also called orcas. The two are quite distinct. The larger humpbacks seem to fly through the water with their large, wing-like flippers and feed on tiny sea life such as krill and herring by gulping huge volumes of sea water and straining it through their baleen. The killer whales, which actually are large dolphins, are carnivores that seize diverse prey from salmon to other whales with their pointed teeth.

One disappointment is that the book only treats those two species. Although they may be the commonest and most photogenic, other fascinating cetaceans are seen often in Alaska waters. Perhaps the authors decided the narrow focus was necessary to keep the book a manageable size.

"Alaska's Watchable Wha-les" does an impressive job with the material it does include. The authors make a point of discussing modern research into whale behavior, noting that many questions remain unanswered about these creatures' complex, intelligent lives. They had whale biologists vet the manuscript for accuracy and, Kelley says in his

acknowledgements, they plan to donate part of the proceeds from the book's sale to whale research.

The only glitches are a couple comments in the killer whale section, specifically the translation of the current scientific name and the claim that they are "the most vocal of whales," which may not be specifically wrong but are debatable.

The attention to detail, plus the professional presentation, makes this an unusually handsome little book. It is not a definitive overview of whale biology nor a coffee-table photo collection, but something in between. It is a portable, reader-friendly supplement (or enticement) for whale watching.

"Alaska's Watchable Whales" would make the perfect gift for a whale lover or the ideal memento of a whale-watching cruise.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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