Friday, August 18, 2017

Bears at the Waterfall

Like a painting
  I've been watching this family of bears for a couple years now. The cubs are just about that age where they are ready to move on from their mother's side. They are rambunctious and even a little bratty towards other bears. I saw more than once the mom swat at them after she caught a salmon and they charged in to share the spoils. Tough love I guess.

Climbing the old salmon ladder
Mom and cubs
   This latest encounter was at the waterfall on Pavlof stream, on Chichagof Island. Being one of the ABC islands, Chichagof has a dense population of brown bears. This time of year they all congregate around salmon streams to feast on the returning fish. They need all the calories they can get to make it through their winter dormancy.

Eyes on me
   It is always amazing to be out in the wild, with no one else around, witnessing a wildlife spectacle. Running tours on a boat in Southeast Alaska allows me the flexibility to do things like this. This encounter came from a spontaneous after dinner skiff tour that turned into a half hour bear watching extravaganza. Someone once told me, 'if you do what you love for long enough someone will eventually start to pay you for it.'  Now I try to pass that advice along.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Escaping from a Hungry Killer Whale

Capable teeth of a Steller's Sea Lion

 Often when we see Steller's Sea Lions they are acting as the top dog. However, there is always something bigger out the old saying goes. And we found that something today. I could see it from far off, a large black fin cutting through the surface. This could mean only one thing...orca!

Spy Hop
  When we got nearer to the orca I noticed some weird behavior from our starboard side. It looked like something was coming up to the surface but not breaking the surface enough to show itself. It seemed to be sea lion sized in the amount of water that it was moving but not how a sea lion would normally come up for a breath.

 Finally we confirmed that there was a sea lion in the vicinity when it darted right under our ship. The orca didn't seem to mind or want to follow it. They were getting very playful by grouping up together, spyhopping, and even breaching a few times.

Playful Orca near the boat

 The orca continued to play not too far away from the boat before slowly moving off the way they had originally been swimming. That is when one of my coworkers rushed up to the bow saying that the sea lion was all the way up on our swim step poking its  head through the back gate.

Guests and crew with the sea lion
  We walked to the back and sure enough there it was. The stellar sea lion was breathing hard but I couldn't see any cuts or injuries on it. It jumped on and off the back deck many times over the next twenty minutes. Finally it jumped off one last time and we motored off. By then the orca were still in sight but had moved pretty far off from our location. We all hoped that we had helped the sea lion escape from the clutches of the orca this time.

Sea Lion on the back deck

 My best theory was the orca were either playing with the sea lion, holding it under water, which would explain the weird splashing and the heavy breathing of the animal. But another theory would be that there were two sea lions. I can't imagine the orca would have let this one get away that easily if it was the only one.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bushwhacking with Bears in Alaska

Discoveries along the way
Through a patch of devils club
  One part of my job this season up in Alaska is taking guests out in the bush where there is no dock, no trail except those left by game, and no real destination or goal other than to immerse ourselves in the temperate rain forest and explore. We call this bushwhacking, and it is a favorite past time for people who live in and around the forest. You can blaze you own trails and find new discoveries on every trip. I don't carry a machete because I don't want to leave a trail of destruction behind us, but I do carry bear spray.

   One big aspect of bushwhacking or hiking in Alaska is that you are walking through bear country. Luckily humans are not on the normal menu so it's not like bears are stalking you as you walk. If anything they want to get out of your path or just hunker down and hide until you are gone. I make plenty of noise so as not to startle any bears, and to make sure that moms with cubs are able to regroup as I do not want to come between them.

First Sighting
Black Bear stand off
  I took a group of six with me yesterday to an area I really like near Cape Fanshaw. It is part of the mainland so we could come across black bears or brown bears, although up until today I never had. I was seeing quite a bit of new bear scat, trails, and day beds. We were playing it safe by going slowly, making plenty of noise, and listening in between shouts of, 'hey bear!'

Racing Across the River
  We made it to a beautiful little stream crossing when I first caught sight of a bear down the river looking our direction. I could see from where we stood that it was a big black bear. It turned away from us and looked intently across the stream. That is when an even bigger black bear emerged. The first bear scampered across the river only to slowly come back and cross again. That is when I noticed that the salmon had finally started to run in this river. The deeper part of the stream in the shadows were chocked full of pink salmon. Leave it to the salmon to bring out the bears. After watching for a while we turned around and headed back to our drop off point, all feeling jazzed up for a true Alaskan experience.

Walking away from the bears
Pumped to Make It 
 You can read about an earlier surprise black bear encounter I had while checking out the sockeye salmon run near Mendenhall Glacier.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Northern Lights in August!

   In my Alaska experience I've only ever seen the Aurora Borealis in late April or September. Those months are the very beginning and the very ending of our Alaska cruising season. My boat this year is running British Columbia trips in those months and Alaska only from late May to late August. So I had accepted the fact that I wouldn't see the northern lights this year. But here you go, northern lights in early August!

     This was at 12:30 in the morning when the sky is at its darkest. During the peak of the summer season it is still too light to see the northern lights even at this hour. But each day gets a little shorter so if everything works out...a solar storm, no clouds, a dark night....and Aurora that reaches this far south...then the impossible suddenly become possible. Thankfully we have someone up 24hrs a day on the boat to keep everyone safe...and to make sure we don't miss anything like this!

 Check out all my other encounters with the famous Aurora Borealis, aka. Northern Lights, on my past Alaska trips.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Breaching Whales in the Sunset

Breaching whale in sunset colors
whale pictures
  As I finished up my evening presentation aboard the Safari Quest a crew member hurried in to tell me there is whale activity ahead. I let the guests know and hustled to get my camera and headed to the bow. It turned out to be a repetitive breaching humpback whale.

   It has been unusually sunny and clear these last few days and we have been lucky with some pretty amazing sunsets. This night combined breaching whales with that magical sunset hour light. Usually once a season I get a whale here in Alaska that breaches over and over and over. This was that whale. All around the boat it breached as it made its way off into the golden setting sun.

Alaska Sunset
Alaska Moonrise
 When we finally turned the boat to continue heading east I was greeted with another unusual sight for Alaska, a full moon rise. At first it was just a silver sliver behind the mountain tops. I was lucky to still have my camera so I was able to get sunset and moon rise within a few minutes of each other. You just never know what Alaska will send your way next.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Close Encounters of the Humpback Kind
  This summer I have switched up boats in the UnCruise fleet from a 74 person vessel to a 21 passenger vessel. The smaller group size means a lot more personal encounters and even more flexibility. Take this week's whale extravaganza for example. While cruising through Chatham Strait we saw six or seven whale blows right next to each other before all diving down in unison. Shortly after the humpback whales simultaneously bursts up through the surface with mouths wide open through a ring of bubbles that they blew to trap all of their prey. This is called bubble net feeding and is amazing to witness. But with only 17 passengers this week we could take things to a whole new level.

Feeding Humpback Whale
  I made the announcement for people to head to the back, grab their lifejackets, and prepare to board the small boats. We have two rigid inflatable boats that can take 12 passengers each. We loaded these, along with everyone's camera, binoculars, and an underwater hydrophone to capture all the action above and below. We ended up staying out with the whales for over an hour, watching them feed over and over again on what must have been a huge school of herring.  Every once in a while the pod would change directions and zoom by the small boats putting their true size into perspective. They dwarfed the small boat and the tiny people in them. In one of the pictures below it looks like the whale is actually splashing the boat with its tail but it is only a trick of the eye and a long lens.

  From this close the tails can be seen in intricate detail. At one point I had to wipe my lens after whale breath wafted over the group. The sounds of the feeding calls through the hydrophone added a different sense to the already overloaded intake. And the real beauty of Alaska is that it was just us out there, on two tiny skiffs, experiencing one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brown Bear Antics at Pavlov, Alaska

  After four hours of waiting in front of the salmon river at Pavlov our patience was rewarded with the emergence of four brown bears all at once. A mother with two very big cubs came out near the river mouth at just about the same time that a lone female appeared from behind the falls. They all made their way to the shallow area of the stream just below the falls to look for their favorite snack, salmon.

   Pink salmon were on the menu today, although there didn't seem to be quite as many as I remembered from years past. But there were still enough and quickly both the family and the lone bear were chowing down on fresh salmon sushi. It looked like the cubs were very well fed and probably just about that age where they head off on their own, although they certainly enjoyed being together for the time being. They would rush in and grab parts of the salmon whenever the mom would catch one. A few times she swatted them away but they held their own pretty well.
Metallic Bear Photos for Sale
  In the interim the cubs would wrestle and play-fight with each other, much to the amusement of myself. The tumbling waterfall provided a magical background to capture some of the cubs' antics. We stayed with them for about an hour, after which the solo bear was still chomping away just under the falls and the family slowly wondered off into the forest. It is always a magical experience being in the same area as they powerful animals, but to see them from a kayak was a treat indeed. The picture below is of the only two guests that stuck it out till the end with me and they were rewarded with this close encounter as the cubs walked by them towards the falls.

  Here the mom puts on a fish catching demonstration for the cubs. It kind of makes me hungry for some wild caught salmon.

Check out more great posts about my bear encounters in Alaska here: Bear Posts and Photography