Suddenly, I'm paddling among porpoises

Pffff. Pause. Pffff.

I am paddling in a kayak across the pristine Berger Bay in Alaska, when I hear this sound. I slowly paddle toward the noise and spot what looks like a wake. Then, 100 yards away, maybe less, I see a curved back and dorsal fin gently break the water and disappear. And another. I count two, three creatures. Not large. Not whales. They're harbor porpoises, also known as common porpoises.

Shivers running through me, I paddle closer. How close should I go? I don't want to scare them off. The sea otters and harbor seals I'd seen along the nearby Nuka Island had all been wary, easily spooked, for good reasons. The region's otters are hunted by natives for their pelts, and seals are sometimes illegally shot or otherwise harassed by commercial fishermen.

But the porpoises are different. They circle me, their dark bluish-gray backs and fins rhythmically rolling in and out of the water. They seem to be everywhere. To my left, then my right. Behind. In front. Sometimes a quarter-mile away, sometimes 30 feet. Or 20. Occasionally they snort and splash, in preparation for deeper dives. But mostly they cut the water with no perceptible sound, except their breathing. Pffff... Pffff... Pffff.

Smallest of the cetaceans (which include dolphins, porpoises, and whales), Phocoena phocoena is widely distributed throughout the Pacific and one of only two kinds of porpoise to frequent Alaska's coastal waters. Its loud breaths have prompted some less-than-charming nicknames - "puffing pig," "herring hog," and "sea pig" - but in my time with them, I fail to understand the porcine connection.

The porpoises swim alone, or in small groups of two or three, often following each other in line. They're hard to count because they're constantly changing direction, diving, and reappearing where I don't expect them. My best guess is six to eight animals. That fits with what's known about them; they usually travel in small, matriarchal pods of two to 10 animals. More rarely, they congregate in herds of 100 or more, to feed on schools of herring, cod, shrimp, or squid.

Once it's clear they're not intimidated, I wonder how close they'll approach. Will they bump the kayak, somehow upset it, knock it over, even in play? But these are small animals that only rarely reach 4 feet long or weigh more than 130 pounds. And they're not aggressive toward humans. Any initial anxieties dissipate, giving way to joy and curiosity.

How do they perceive me and the kayak? As some sort of floating debris? Or do they connect me with other humans they've met? Harbor porpoises are known to approach boats and sometimes follow them for hours, though unlike other species, they seldom jump clear of water or surface long enough for photographs. Scientists aren't sure whether the boats provide shelter for fish that the porpoises feed on, or if they're simply curious. But they seem to enjoy interacting with vessels.

Their leisurely rolling and diving also suggest that they are playing, rather than actively feeding. Perhaps I am a pleasant diversion. The pleasure is mine, as well, on this August evening. It's an unexpected treat to be paddling among porpoises. None of them nudges the boat, or comes close enough to touch, but there is one encounter that will stay with me always.

After 30 minutes, two of the porpoises roll directly in front of me. One surfaces 30 feet away. Then 15. "Ohmygosh," I whisper aloud in amazement. It's coming right at me. What's it going to do?

What it does is swim under the kayak, five or six feet below. For my first time, I see its entire form - the round head, squat body, triangular dorsal fin, dark flippers and tail - as it spurts past. My heart is pounding. Feeling blessed, I smile.

The porpoises come and go, sometimes disappearing for five or 10 minutes. Their first prolonged departure is accompanied by a large splash, and my imagination again takes flight. Perhaps the black waters below me now hide a killer whale, or shark, both of which prey on harbor porpoises. How would a shark perceive my black-bottomed kayak?

My fears subside when the porpoises return, backs rolling as before. I stay with them until almost 9:30 p.m., when fading light prompts my return to camp.

I'll see porpoises twice more during my trip. But we're headed in opposite directions; and though I stop, hoping for renewed play, they continue on their way.

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