During the afternoon of Day 5 we left Baranof Island and headed north through the Chatham Strait to Chicagof Island. On the way we sighted a trio of Orcas (Killer Whales) chugging north, alongside us within a few hundred yards of Chichagof Island’s eastern shoreline. They weren’t in any particular hurry, as they meandered mostly north, the M/V Sea Lion slowing to pace them. There was some good activity to watch as the adult female with the group repeatedly lobtailing/tail slapping the surface – a behavior seen a lot in the whales with social lives and structured cultures like the Orca.
It’s impossible to know exactly what is intended by the repeated lobtailing behavior – the meaning of signals like this can probably vary a great deal by context (were the other whales with this large female offspring? Or siblings? Was the large adult male we would encounter a mate? Or a stranger?) But the activity made for great watching. On the other side of the ship, a large male Orca (the one in the upper photo in this post) was seen. This whale seemed pretty comfortable around our ship, crossing under it a couple times so we got views of its right and left sides as we all puttered north, and even graced us with a breach. I did not, alas, manage to get a photo of the breach. That was a little bit of a downer, but only because I did not know what the evening of Day 5 would hold.
We arose on the fifth day of our Alaska trip to a beautifully clear sunrise, lucking out with an absence of the overcasts and mists that characterized other mornings during this Alaska trip.
We continued our passage off Baranof Island, moving north through the Chatham Strait between Baranof and Admiralty Islands, and soon pulled into Hanus Bay for a morning excursion on land. After we disembarked, we immediately found evidence that we weren’t the only ones who had been to the beach that morning.
A large bear had passed by, leaving its prints in the sand as shown above. Our greatest precaution against bears in Alaska was staying in groups – bears in general, brown and black, will not attack groups of people, and are much more likely to be alerted to the presence of a group than an individual. This awareness on the part of the bear eliminates a likely cause of bad bear/human interactions – surprise when a bear realizes there’s a person all up in its business too quickly. Baranof Island, where this photo was taken, is only inhabited by brown bears (Ursus arctos,) black bears (Ursus americanus) do not live on Baranof or a couple of the neighboring islands. The expedition naturalists all carried large bottles of bear spray, but I got the impression that using the spray would have been an extremely unusual situation. Encountering a bear (as one of the other hiking groups did) was safe, and done from a safe distance. Far enough away from a bear, and it probably won’t care too much if you’re there and watching it. It’s when people get too close (or if bears get too close) that problems arise.
This is another situation where I’m underwhelmed by a color version of the photograph above, but a black & white version brings out a lot of detail and texture in the photo that can be lost to color. I like this one, even though I didn’t much like the same photo in color.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the invertebrate contingent – represented here by a humble banana slug. They consume detritus – all the dead plant material, fallen leaves, animal droppings on the forest floor – and break it down so their own droppings become an essential part of the soil recycling in a natural forest. They’re also really interesting in that they’re simultaneous hermaphrodites (each individual is both male and female at the same time) that can’t reproduce with themselves, but still must find a mate. When they do find a mate, the exchange of gametes is a two-way street and both individuals provide sperm and get their eggs fertilized. They also breathe air through a pore called a pneumostome, which is closed in this picture, but should be on the side of the slug opposite the thumb. The pneumostome opens to a lung, which is a somewhat uncommon feature among invertebrates in general, which often breathe through gills, spiracles, book lungs, or even their integuments, but the lung found in terrestrial slugs and snails, and provides one of those rare pieces of common ground between ourselves and the mollusks.
As the morning ended, we re-embarked on the ship. I’ll have to save Day 5’s afternoon for another post, because that’s when we found Orcas!
After leaving the Bay of Pillars, we crossed the Chatham Strait and found a narrow fjord for exploration:
The protected waters of the fjord allowed for a glassy surface where marine mammals or fish would show up easily, and this particular fjord was an excellent place to find sea jellies at or just below the wavelets.
The Bay of Pillars is a gorgeous spot with some of the cutest wildlife we could possibly find on the whole trip, maybe even in the whole state of Alaska:
It doesn’t take very many otters to provide an overload in the cute department, and the Bay of Pillars provided them. The calm, flat waters of the bay gave us plenty of opportunity to view several pairs of otters, and the occasional lone animal. In fact, it was so glassy flat that I could even get photos of sea jellies from the ship’s deck:
As the ship anchored, the Sea Otters moved off into the small channels and coves off the edges of the bay. Probably the best for them even if it wasn’t the greatest for our views of them, the otters have no way of knowing this huge hulking ship with its rattling anchor wouldn’t mean them any harm. We did get to explore the Bay of Pillars by kayak, which is the best way I could imagine exploring the bay, with all of its shallow offshoots and branches.
I usually try for photos of wildlife, but the snaking line of kayaks stretched out behind the Sea Lion was too much for me to miss. I thought it made a pretty shot.
From the kayaks, we found more Bald Eagles, Spotted Sanpipers, sea otters, and even a little family of Common Mergansers:
Even though the kayaking ended in a little sprinkling rain, you don’t go kayaking without expecting to get a bit damp. The Bay of Pillars really left an impression on me as a gorgeous and pristine bit of wilderness, the perfect place to get away from it all… except the birds. There’s no getting away from the birds there.
Wowee! Night whales! Whales, but at night! Like, in darkness.
Most whale watching happens during the day, when you can see them. I was pretty happy that after dinner, near sunset (the above photo was taken at 9:30 PM,) we found more whales. Two humpbacks, doing some leisurely feeding at the surface, ignored the ship as we idled to watch them.
The water was calm enough that as the whales came to the surface to breathe, we could hear each breath clearly. Alaska has these great passages between islands that are deep and wide enough to hold significant amounts of food for whales, and are protected from the open ocean enough that they provide an excellently flat surface for viewing.
Southeast Alaska doesn’t just look like ocean and mountains, it also looks like this:
Alaska is a place with rainforest – more than 100 inches (about 109 in/277 cm) of rain a year for Petersburg, AK. Most of the Earth’s rainforests are tropical: the Amazon, along the Congo River, Southeast Asia. But temperate rainforests are vital to the Pacific northwest, and Alaska’s are beautiful to walk through. The glacially-carved valleys trails in Alaska wind through can be challenging, but they are worth the effort.
After a few miles hiking in the rainforest in the morning, we got back on board the Sea Lion for a move to Petersburg, Alaska. Petersburg is, surprising, no relation of Saint Petersburg in Russia, even though this part of the continent was occupied by the Russian Empire for almost hundred years between the mid/late-1700s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. Petersburg is actually named after Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian who established a cannery and docks in the early 20th century.
We disembarked in Petersburg first for a hike through the muskeg, and later for wandering through the town.
The muskeg was fantastic – an extremely acidic soil bog with twisted, stunted trees, wide vistas, and even carnivorous plants. The openness made it an easy place to watch birds, and we saw a Bald Eagle and three Merlins (it’s a common joke among California birders that if you’ve seen a Merlin, you haven’t; because Merlins are so relatively rare in coastal California.) I didn’t get a photo of the exciting Merlin mating contest. I’m not 100% sure that the three Merlins swooping down from the sky in a group, with one chasing off a another Merlin, and the remaining two flying off together, was actually mating behavior, but it is consistent with what I’ve seen of raptor mating before.
The merlin stopped once for a good view – just long enough for me to switch lenses to get a shot of him/her before zooming off.
More happened on that third day, but it will have to wait for the next post.
The early sighting of humpback whales in the Stevens Passage didn’t detract from the rest of the day, as the whales moved on, it allowed the Sea Lion to press eastward into the Endicott Arm, a fjord that dead-ends into the Dawes Glacier. On our way, we were treated to an animal that seems common in Alaska, judging from the number we saw, but that I’ve never seen in the lower 48, and are very rare in California. In twelve years of running whale watches off the coast of California, I’ve never seen one.
It’s the Marbled Murrelet. I’ve seen other murrelets – small diving birds more at home in the sea than in the air. The Marbled is something special though. Long after birds in North America were well-characterized, the breeding and nesting locations of the Marbled Murrelet were unknown up until the 1990s, when work in the high canopies of Redwood forests revealed that Marbled Murrelet preferred tall trees for their nests, even to the point of flying 40 miles inland from the coast to find the calming heights of an appropriate grove.
Coastal Alaska lacks Redwood trees, but the spruce and hemlock forests grow tall enough and are far enough from human disturbance to allow the Murrelets, vulnerable when their homes lack sufficient height to protect them from many predators, to take root. We saw a large number of Murrelets through the trip.
Soon into the Endicott Arm, we also found a large bear foraging for seaweed at the seashore.
The Dawes Glacier itself hove into view at about 3 in the afternoon. By then the sun had cleared the sky, and we got some great views of the glacier in sunlight.
For perspective, the two black dots in the photograph are Demaree Inflatable Boats, about 15-20 feet long. Our DIBs were not allowed closer than a 1/4 mile from the glacier, and the height of the glacier’s face was estimated by our naturalists at about 250 ft. high. We saw some minor calving events. The second group of DIBs saw a much larger calving that actually rocked the 150-ft, 600+ ton ship. The glacier was a much more dynamic place to visit than I would have expected – creaking and cracking with sound, and you’d only see a few of the larger chunks of ice that came off into the sea.
There was also some pretty good evidence of the glacier’s past action:
A huge erratic boulder deposited on a literal slippery slope by Dawes Glacier.
Once aboard the Sea Lion and away from Juneau, we could cover a lot of territory on the ship. We moved south along the Stevens Passage, headed for the Tracy and Endicott Arms (fjords in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.) The crew likely got some sort of tip about whales, because we continued south until we found a group of humpback whales near Gambier Bay.
These whales put on a great show, repeatedly diving and swimming by the ship, unconcerned (the officers had stopped the ship; we were essentially just drifting along, which is a pretty common safety measure among whale watching boats, although this was the largest ship I’ve been on to do this.)
The group of whales (pod) was relatively large, at least seven whales and possibly as many as ten. Humpbacks owe their name to one of two things, depending on who you believe. Either the name comes from the hump just ahead and under the dorsal fin, which can be seen in the photo above; or the name comes from their tendency to deeply arch their backs as they dive, giving them the appearance of a hunch, which can also be seen in the photo above. Wikipedia’s article on humpbacks mentions the arching of the back as the origin of the name, but does not provide a source.
The whales showed off a couple of great behaviors – tail slapping, also called lobtailing, which is bringing the fluke of the whale high out of the water and slapping it down on the surface to create a large splash and sound. It is not understood why the whales do this, but chances are that it’s a signal to other whales, the loud sounds created would carry well in the ocean and be a great way to signal whales that are far away from the slapper.
Last but not least, the humpbacks did breach at least twice, but I didn’t get a good photo. Caught by surprise (breaches can be over in just two seconds or so) I didn’t have the camera focused on the right place, and I wasn’t even trying to get a shot of the right whale.
All the photos above were captured before 8:30 in the morning, so there was even more to see that day, which may have to wait for another post.
The greatest and strangest things to see in the world all have to start somewhere, and my most recent trip to Alaska had some of the best wildlife viewing I’ve had in my life.
For this trip that start was Juneau. Although it’s a small town (only about 30,000 people,) Juneau gets a lot of visitors in the summertime. That made our stop in Juneau as we prepared to cruise on the Motor Vessel National Geographic Sea Lion through Southeast Alaska feel a lot more crowded than the rest of the trip. I shouldn’t knock Juneau for its crowds during the summer – people come there for a reason, and it’s not just Juneau’s convenient location (not entirely serious there – I don’t really think of Juneau as being particularly convenient.)
Juneau does have the Mendenhall Glacier nearby, and a variety of eagles and other critters worth watching, both those that are easy to find in the lower 48, and those that are hard to find. I had a lot of trouble getting good shots of Mendenhall Glacier and its associated waterfalls and icebergs because of the crowds; after all, Juneau is a major cruise ship port, and in addition to our 60-passenger ship there were two of the 1,000+ passenger ships dwarfing ours in the port. Instead, just off the beaten path to the glacier there was a smaller, quieter, and almost empty path that ran closer to the water and was well worth taking.
There we found some quiet, and the good views of a Spotted Sandpiper shown. Not an unusual or rare bird, especially for Alaska, but it was nice to find some nature in amongst the mass of people making their pilgrimage to Mendenhall.
Also, even the cruise ship dock itself gave up some natural beauty. The bald eagle pictured was no more than 50 yards from the Sea Lion tied up just down the dock. Cities don’t give up their natural beauty easily, but Juneau has more than most, and it didn’t take a long time or much travel to find it.
The whales have been systematically moving in closer to shore (at least some of them, there are still plenty of whales offshore.) So close, that sighting humpbacks in San Francisco Bay is becoming a regular thing this summer, and people have seen feeding and breaching in the Bay, very uncommon behaviors for the Bay itself.
There were at least two, probably three or four, humpbacks close to the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday – this photo was taken around 6:30 PM on July 11th.
Here’s a fluke shot of one of the whales. Sadly, I didn’t have time to get to a better viewing position than Hawk Hill up on the northern side of the Golden Gate Strait, but I keep being reminded of the natural wonders that visit us in the Bay.