Close encounters with curious Juneau killer whale a reminder of city’s wild nature

a whale
An orca travels near Admiralty Cove on Saturday, March 23, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

On a recent sunny Friday in Juneau, Lindsey Bloom was eager to get outside and enjoy the spring weather. 

“I was like ‘Okay, I’m just going to go for a little paddleboard. I’m gonna just watch the sun sparkle on the water and that’s gonna like light me up from just a day of emails,” Bloom said.  “I mean it just seemed so … just so benign.”

At Bloom’s home on Lena Loop Road, the ocean is practically part of the backyard. She goes paddle boarding often, but this particular afternoon was far from routine.

a whale
A curious young orca brushed up on paddleboards and boats in Auke Bay on Friday, April 26, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Matt Musselewhite)

A few minutes into her paddle, she spotted a pod of orcas — four or five of them — out on the horizon. She took a video to send to her parents. But then she spotted something in the water.

“I looked down, and I saw this white color coming up from under. And I was like, ‘Huh, a dead halibut is floating belly up under my paddleboard,’” Bloom said. “And then her fin sliced up out of the water, and she exhaled.”

Before she knew what was happening, a large female killer whale lifted Bloom’s paddleboard up out of the water.

“And at that moment it was like terror,” Bloom said.

In Juneau, people share the land with bears, eagles, whales and more. It’s one of the reasons people love living here, but earlier this month, a handful of close encounters with a curious killer whale reminded people of the city’s wildness.

As her board was bobbing, Bloom stood frozen with fear as the whale circled her a half dozen times, diving down under her and then twisting around to look up at the surface. Bloom says she made eye contact with the young orca.

“And then I started talking to her, I was like ‘I have kids. Please go away.’”

Eventually, the whale did go away and Bloom was able to make it to shore safely, though she was shaken up.

Later that afternoon, the whale sidled up to Matt Musslewhite’s red skiff. He was sailing near Point Louisa, just a few hundred yards down the shoreline. When he saw the whale’s black fins glistening on the surface of the water, he cut the engine to let it safely pass.

“Instead she just turned and charged right up to me and ran her dorsal fin down the side of the boat, and circled round the boat a couple of times,” Musslewhite said. “Then (she) took off to join the rest of her pack.”

Musslewhite said the whale was gentle.

a man and a woman
Lindsey Bloom and her neighbor Richard Lee, who witnessed the whale encounter while walking his dog on the beach, at Lee’s home. (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

“I think she might have been a teenager, a curious teenager just coming to check out my boat,” he said.

Marine Mammal Specialist Suzie Teerlink with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there were at least three reports of close encounters with this orca, who was in fact a teenager, on April 26. But no one has been able to identify the specific whale or the pod it belongs to.

In a social media video taken by another paddler, the whale splashes around, making circles before poking her head out and spraying from her blowhole. 

Teerlink said that most of the time killer whales will keep their distance when they come across people.

“At the same time, they’re really smart, really curious animals,” she said. “They’re at home in their environment and if something strikes their curiosity they might push that envelope.”

There are no local reports of killer whales pursuing humans to hurt them. But there have been reports of pods attacking boats in other parts of the world. 

Teerlink says it’s best for both whales and people to keep our distance.

a whale
Juneau resident Matt Musslewhite was sailing his skiff when a young orca brushed up against it on Friday, April 26th, 2024 (Photo courtesy of Matt Musselewhite)

“We don’t want killer whales, you know, individuals to get too comfortable going up to people to get too comfortable going up to people,” she said.

So if you encounter a whale yourself, the best thing to do is move away as quickly as possible.

Orcas tend to migrate over large areas relatively fast. So while they’re pretty common in Juneau, the curious teenage whale and her pod have probably left the area by now.

Bloom said learning more about orca’s curious nature has calmed her fears a bit. She feels there’s an inherent stigma around the meat-eating marine mammals, which made her more afraid.

“We call them killer whales,” Bloom said. “Why do we have to call them that? Because it makes them scarier than they need to be.”

And in the week since the close encounter, she’s come to appreciate it, in a way.

“This is so Alaska,” Bloom said.  “All you gotta do is walk out your front door, and it’s like epic.”

But for now, she plans to paddleboard on Auke Lake instead.

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