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.

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, 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.

Marine Mammals of San Francisco, Part III

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.

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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.

2016.7.11HUWHTail.GGBridgeEDTHere’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.

Here’s some video shot by kayakers on the Bay that gives a much closer impression and some great shots of feeding, if you can stand the swell’s effect on the camera.

Marine Mammals of San Francisco, Part II

Saturday, June 4th, was a good day out on the water despite some persistent fog that seeped the color out of the photos below (I’ve increased the contrast and color on most of these, because posting photos in grey and black doesn’t really appeal to me.)

After we found a couple grey whales northbound near Point Bonita, we visited the Farallon Islands, and on our return we were treated to breaching humpbacks right where the shipping lanes diverge, about 12 miles or so offshore from San Francisco:

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Unfortunately, they only breached a couple times while in view, and the fog took a lot of the drama out of these photos. Still, it’s always a treat when whales decide to show a little more of their bodies off than we can usually see.

Breaching wasn’t enough, though. Soon one of the whales transitioned into pectoral slapping – taking its 15-foot long pectoral fin up out of the water to slap down on the surface:

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Here the whale is on its side, back facing the camera, and it slapped its fin down repeatedly, making a great splash each time. The most likely reason for this behavior is the big splash and associated noise – sounds that carry long-distance are the most efficient ways for whales to signal each other. We can’t know what information the signals convey, because even the same signal can have different meanings due to context. Since the whales are most likely feeding in this area, it may have to do with finding food. Another possibility is that it may have to do with our boat driving up, since the change in signaling behavior happened just as we arrived.

 

Our day wasn’t over yet, though! In addition to humpback whale behavior, we also got treated to dolphins, which were very hard to photograph.

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These are part of a pod of common dolphins that numbered between 100-150 animals, so it was impossible to get the whole pod in one frame. With only a few on the surface at a time, it was a little difficult to guess where to look, but they were a great treat to see.

American Bittern

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This is a shot I enjoyed getting; it’s an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) in San Rafael, CA on January 30, 2016. Bitterns are well-camouflaged to hide in the reeds and tall grasses of marshes, so finding one and getting a clear photo are a little difficult. This might be a guy or a girl: the males and females in this species are very similar, with the males often being slightly larger, and supposedly the male’s crown and back are more black while the female’s are more brown. I certainly can’t tell. In any case, s/he didn’t look too happy that I had noticed him/her. They did this great pose, even though I was 30 or 40 meters away on the trail, and then slowly slinked away into invisibility in the reeds.

Marine Mammals of San Francisco, September 2015

San Francisco is not just the destination for tech workers, hipsters, and cable car enthusiasts. This year a host of wild ocean animals have moved in to San Francisco’s lesser-known western suburbs, following swarms of baitfish, particularly anchovies, who remain surprisingly indifferent to real estate prices and commute times in the city.

To find whales in the Pacific west of San Francisco, usually we have to get miles offshore to find the equivalent of a whale watcher’s gold rush: pods of feeding humpbacks, reveling in the bounty of the California Current. On September 26th, 2015 we had left the dock less than an hour before the spouts of humpbacks announced their presence.

A humpback whale near Mile Rock Lighthouse (visible on the left) in the Golden Gate straits. Sept. 26, 2015
A humpback whale near Mile Rock Lighthouse (visible on the left) in the Golden Gate straits. Sept. 26, 2015

One of San Francisco’s other most famous residents, the summer fog, is evident in the photo. I posted this photo in black & white because the color version is essentially all grey, and filtering it in black & white improved the contrast a little. Despite the fog, finding feeding humpbacks within a mile of a major city is pretty exciting, and this whale was part of a group of at least four humpbacks feeding right at the surface at the entrance to the Golden Gate.

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Members of a pod of short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) found about 25 miles offshore of San Francisco, just east of Southeast Farallon Island. September 26, 2015.

The real star of the show, a large (somewhere around 50-100 animals) pod of short-beaked common dolphins, showed up just as we broke clear of the fog and overcast a few miles east of Southeast Farallon Island near San Francisco. They undoubtedly stole the show, playing in the boat’s bow wave, and showing off their high-speed porpoising (leaping clear of the water as seen in the photo… it’s called that regardless of whether the animal doing it is a porpoise or not) skills. We don’t often get to spend that much time with dolphins, and it always makes a trip worthwhile.

Trip species list for September 26, 2015.
Trip species list for September 26, 2015.

Missing from the species list, but also present, were Parasitic Jaegers, and we may or may not have also seen a Long-tailed Jaeger!