Southeast Alaska: Day 4, The Bay of Pillars

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:

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A Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) pup watches us from mom’s back, while she’s just busy swimming. I can imagine how tired she gets as the pup gets closer and closer to her in size.

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:

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An Egg Yolk Sea Jelly (Phacellophora camtschatica) floating placidly in the Bay of Pillars.

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.

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Kayaks lined up for exploring the Bay of Pillars, AK.

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:

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Momma Merganser’s going to be really mad when she realizes the kids have been sneaking out to play in kayak traffic.

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.

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A Google Maps map of the trip so far, with major stops or sightings marked.
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Southeast Alaska: Day 3, Frederick Sound NIGHT WHALES!

Wowee! Night whales! Whales, but at night! Like, in darkness.

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Two humpback whales at the surface at night (or sunset) in Frederick Sound, AK. The pectoral fin of the whale on the right is arching over to almost touch the dorsal fin of the whale on the left.

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.

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I can’t help but be excited even at just the mundane breathing and surfacing of the whales at sunset. I never get to see them with these colors.

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.

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A fluke of the humpback, waving goodbye to us.

Southeast Alaska: Day 3, Cascade Creek and muskeg near Petersburg, AK

Southeast Alaska doesn’t just look like ocean and mountains, it also looks like this:

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Cascade Creek, which runs through the Tongass National Forest near Thomas Bay

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.

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Fungi and lichens thrive in the damp Alaskan rainforest (Cascade Creek, Tongass National Forest, AK)

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.

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Entrance to a trail through the muskeg (although this shows forest rather than muskeg) in Petersburg, Alaska

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.

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Merlin perched on a stunted muskeg tree, Petersburg, AK

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.

Southeast Alaska: Day 2 (Part II) Dawes Glacier/Endicott Arm

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.

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A Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) in the Stevens Passage in Alaska

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.

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A black bear (Ursus americanus) with a mouthful of seaweed – Yum!

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.

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Dawes Glacier at the end of the Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, AK

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:

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Um, I don’t think that’s going to stay there very long if you leave it there…

A huge erratic boulder deposited on a literal slippery slope by Dawes Glacier.

Southeast Alaska: Day 2, Stevens Passage and 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.

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Early whale sighting aboard the Sea Lion, 7:30 AM, August 1, 2016

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.)

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A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangeliae) strongly arches its back as it goes for a deeper dive in the Stevens Passage, AK

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.

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A humpback tail slapping. If you look closely, you can see from the shape of the right hand side of this photo that it’s the belly (ventral surface) of the whale on that side. Underwater, this whale is belly-up to slap its flukes on the surface.

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.

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A little too off-center to be a good photo of a breach, and not enough resolution to crop just to the whale on the left. I had been intending to get another photo of the tail-slapping whale, whose splash can be seen in the upper right.

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.

Southeast Alaska, Day 1: Juneau, AK

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.

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A Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularis) on the riverbed downstream from Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, AK

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.

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A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leaucocephalus) overlooking the pier where the M/V National Geographic Sea Lion was docked on July 31, 2016, Juneau, AK.