Sunday, August 27, 2017

Heading South: New Species

   During our final trip of the 2017 Alaska season we set a course all the way from Juneau to Seattle. After we left Alaskan waters south of Ketchikan and entered the British Columbia section of the inside passage I didn't expect to get any mind blowing wildlife sightings, maybe a few whales or porpoise here or there. Then, just as I am finishing up a presentation I get the word that there is some kind of wildlife up ahead, small but numerous. I figured it was porpoise but in the back of my mind I was hoping it was a species of dolphins that we don't see at all in Alaska, and that is exactly what it was!

  For some reason pacific white sided dolphins have always been one of my favorites. Their beautiful markings and contrasting coloration make them stand above other dolphins. Their tall falcated dorsal fin with its telltale patch of off white is like a beacon to identify them with. But despite their outside beauty trying to steal the show, it is quite often their acrobatic ability and fun loving nature that quickly wins over the crowd. This pod was no exception.

  To start out with the pod was huge. They had found an even bigger school of bait fish that was congregating where two currents met, creating ripples on the surface of the otherwise smooth water. Some took minutes out of their busy eating schedule to come bow ride our boat, periodically turning in the water to look up at all of us. Others showed off by racing along side the boat and catching fish at the same time. Another performed a head over tails front flip while bowriding which I had never witnessed before.

  The pod was probably 200 dolphins strong. It coincided with the first good weather we have seen yet this trip. The passengers seemed born again with revitalized energy and excitement. We have had a lot of good encounters this season. I didn't expect B.C. to provide another top pick but here you go, check out this pictures and see for yourself.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Le Conte Ice Garden Revisited

A little too close
Ice berg sculptures
  Twice a year I am able to take my boat into the fabled Le Conte Ice Garden. You can read about my other visits to this ice garden and another here: Ice Garden Posts and Pictures. 

   Le Conte Ice Garden is located about 12 miles away from the calving face of the southernmost tidewater glacier in Alaska. Just outside of Petersburg, AK ice floating away from this glacier chokes up the mouth of the fjord as it gets grounded around the shallow bar created by the terminal moraine of where the glacier once was.

My intrepid group of explorers
'Looking thru the ice'
  Our goal for today was to skiff around some of the big grounded ice bergs, marveling at the shapes and deep hues of blue, before checking out some of the ice left high and dry by the extreme low tide. This was to coincide with the eclipse although the rainy cloudy conditions made the eclipse unseeable. Fortunately overcast conditions brings out the glacial blue color in the ice better than sunny conditions.

Never one to miss an ice encounter
   The formations were amazing as usual. And after narrowly escaping from a capsizing ice berg we got into some wonderful photo opportunities with grounded ice. This is truly a remarkable place. As Le Conte glacier continues to recede I feel like I need to continue to document this amazing phenomenon of the ice garden while it still exist. Soon enough the glacier will recede back onto land and cease to calve into the ocean.

   You can check out some of my high resolution ice garden and glacier pictures on my photo website here:

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.