Whale watching with our friend, Sasha the Whale.

Photo by Allison Yeager

The culture at Gastineau Guiding has always been shaped around family. A family unit that includes our guides, staff, our management team and most of all, the whales we get to get to see on every whale watching excursion.

As is true with most families, the more we’re together, the better we get to know each other. This familiarity is the exact reason we reached out to our long time guide and teacher, Scott Ranger as he shares his passions for Juneau’s wildlife and his unique experience with our dear friend, Sasha the Whale.

Our questions for Scott:

When did you first see Sasha and what was it like?

“As a kid I would often see whales on the California coast, so it wasn’t something new. But those sightings were a long way off. It was with Gastineau Guiding that I got “up close and personal”. I was out on the Voyager with Captain Jim in April of 2009 when he pointed out this special whale. I was able to see her fluke, compare her unique marking with the catalog, and identified my first whale. I was elated! It is now a highlight of my day when I’m able to help people do the same thing.

How many times have you seen Sasha? And how do you know it’s for sure Sasha?

‘I’ve seen Sasha on 97 different days in eleven years on the water. All whale flukes are unique, but Sasha has a very recognizable tail that almost everyone can quickly learn as she has the letters “AK” prominently in black on the white part of her left fluke. All black flukes are difficult to learn, but the arrangement of black and white can create some dramatic patterns. One can learn these patterns with experience and I now can identify some three dozen humpbacks on sight.”

Is it true you track every sighting? Why do that?

Yes! I’m a science nerd. I’ve been doing that with my own observations since the beginning and upon becoming the Lead Science Guide for Gastineau Guiding, I spend a lot of time each October processing our whale observations from our science tour, Discover Alaska’s Whales.

Keeping track of what I see, and all our science tours, allows for an amazingly detailed view into the summering population of humpbacks. For example, I now know that Sasha usually arrives the last week of April or the first week of May and that she sticks around until at least late September. She has a very preferred “home territory” here in Saginaw Channel from the Sand Spit to the tip of the Barlows. Fully three quarters of my sightings of her have been in this location. She also tends to leave our Juneau waters for three to four weeks each summer, especially during periods of bubble net feeding, which she has never been observed with.

Has Sasha ever had a calf and how many?

“I first saw Sasha with a calf in May of 2011. Her next calf was in 2015. There are no records of her having a calf earlier than 2011.

Female humpback whale (Sasha) known for her “A K” fluke with her calf lung feed at the south end of Shelter Island – Image by Kenneth Moriarty
What is your most memorable moment with Sasha?
Not a moment, but moments.

September 2, 2010 was a miserable weather day, even by Juneau standards. The rain was horizontal with the wind and the chop was heavy. But Captain Nat Kugler didn’t have to take us far to “get” a whale. In front of the Ted Stevens Marine Science Laboratory, there she was. And what a show she put on for us. Forty-two breaches! But it gets more interesting. She alternated the “normal” back breach with a belly breach. In my eleven years watching whales, I’ve only seen three whales do this and the other two did only one. From this I consider belly breaches rare. Nat and I looked at each other incredulously, neither being able to explain what we were seeing.

Fast forward to a glorious sunny day on May 14, 2011. We were headed north in Stephens Passage on the back side of Douglas Island and came upon a cow and calf headed our way. We slowed and followed them as they porpoised together, up, out of the water to breath, back down to swim, up to breathe, down to swim for a good twenty minutes. Finally, the mom made a dive and I started jumping up and down in the boat screaming “Sasha had a baby! Sasha had a baby!”

Almost immediately, an idea came into my head. In September we did not know she was pregnant. Watching my wife go through two pregnancies doesn’t make me an expert on pregnancy, but I can tell anyone that she was very uncomfortable the last month before delivery. That’s about where Sasha was in September. I think she was uncomfortable with this large, nearly two-ton, hulk taking up space in her belly. I think she was doing all the breaching to move the kid around into a more comfortable position.

Fast forward to 2014. In mid-July I noted some odd—at least to me—behavior. Nearly every time I saw her, she was doing a lot of tail thrashing. Not tail lobs, or tail slaps, but slashing her tail back and forth just under the surface of the water. As August passed, these thrashes were more frequent and intense.

I began to think she was pregnant and by mid-August I was telling everyone who would listen (both of them!) that Sasha would come back with a baby in 2015.

On the first day of trips in 2015 I was driving. In the afternoon I picked up a group at Statter Harbor that just came back from their whale watch and every one of them upon seeing me at the bus said, “Sasha had a baby!” I was right and felt satisfactorily vindicated as I don’t think anyone believed me in 2014.

Suzie Teerlink, our humpback whale science partner, made a presentation in 2016 that I was at. She talked about being able to get hormones from whales that could give lots of information on the status of the whale. She commented on how much the grant was and all the procedures followed to get the hormones, and she found, indeed, that Sasha was pregnant. After explaining all this, she looked at me and said, “Scott Ranger, in the third row, just had to look at her to tell she was pregnant!” YESSSSSSS!

Now well-armed with data that Sasha had calves four years apart, here comes 2018 and I’m carefully observing all of Sasha’s moves. Not a one of them is odd, unusual or anything like I’d seen in 2010 or 2014. Folks all over the place said she was pregnant and would come back with a baby in 2019. I said, nope, she’s not and she won’t.

2019 has Sasha arriving right on time in late April, all by herself.

There is, as always, “more to the story.” This late winter in Hawaii, Sasha was seen with a calf! Records of Sasha in Hawaii have been very hard to come by, but an Alaskan working there on a whale watch saw her and got a very brief video of her and a baby. So, I’m expecting to see Sasha and a new baby this spring.

If you want to learn more about Juneau’s humpback whales check out Gastineau Guidings #AskyourNaturalist series on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube!

While we wait for visitors to return for Juneau’s boutique whale watching and hiking experiences, we’re excited to share questions and answers from past and future guests. Check it out!

Scott Ranger is a Lead Science Guide for Gastineau Guiding and has been sharing his passion and experience with guests for over 10 years. When he’s not guiding on the water or interpreting on the trails, you can find Scott enjoying his time with his wife, Annette and their two beautiful grand children.

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