Category Archives: feature

A Night In the Aurora Photography Sandbox

Return of the Aurora

It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast  has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains
The aurora shines bright over Icy Strait. This is a very “typical” aurora shot and I’ll focus how creative photography can get you out of this envelope.

Foreground Composition & Light Painting

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Icicles
These icicles amplified the aurora and provided an excellent foreground for a unique image of the Northern Lights.

When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye.  On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore.  I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora.  Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.

Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack, Goonz
This maquette of the Goonz pole (Hoonah, Alaska) is lit using light painting. The bright light in the background is a crabbing boat that shined its light at me as I took the image.

On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.

Focus Stacking

You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking.  I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.

One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above).  To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack
This image was created with the maquette and a technique called focus stacking. Used multiple images taken in succession and and different focuses to create the final image with a sharp foreground a sharp background.
Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack
This image was created with the maquette and a technique called focus stacking. Used multiple images taken in succession and and different focuses to create the final image with a sharp foreground a sharp background.


Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Panorama
This panorama capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights. It was created by stitching 6 images in Photoshop.

Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful.  As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.

The Take Away

I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.

Petroglyph Beach : Tlingit Art From Before the Time of the Pyramids

In Wrangell, Alaska the Petroglyph Beach Historic Site is a rocky beach that stretches to the north of the Wrangell Island along the coast. Among the field of kelp, sand, shells and slate-gray rocks are carved the testaments of early Tlingit people from 8,000 years ago. In fact, with over 40 known petroglyphs, the beach contains the highest concentration of petroglyphs in all of Southeast Alaska! These carvings were undoubtedly significant to history Tlingit people, but their true meaning has been lost and shrouded by history.

I enjoyed carefully walking around the site to discover new designs in the rocks. It is hard not to be in awe of this location when thinking about its relation to early human events. Globally at 6,000 BC, the pyramids of Egypt had not started construction, and people were only just starting to practice agriculture. It wasn’t until about 5,000 BC that basic crop cultivation began, and in ~5,700 BC the eruption that formed Oregon’s crater lake began – certainly the Tlingit people felt that blast reverberate up the coast! The carvings are a testament to the long history of Native Alaskan occupation of Southeast Alaska, and their rich cultural history.  Even without fully understanding their meaning you can grasp at their significance.

Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
A twisted face and eyes.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Faces in the rocks.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
I am very intrigued by this design. It shaped like the cosmos, but I wonder what it actually represents?
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Several worn designs barely show through on the rock.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Its interesting that the eyes have preserved so much better than the mouth of this petroglyph.
This face is very worn and hard to distinguish.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Several faces carved into the rock.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
An unknown shape, perhaps a primitive mammal sketch?
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Swirling designs.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
A bird carved into the rocks.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
A petroglyphic face at Petroglyph Beach in Wrangell


Raven and Eagle Totem Raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít

Last year when  Xunaa Shuká Hít was built in Glacier Bay National Park  it was a joyous day. This incredible structure reconnected the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland, but it was still missing a key part of a tribal house : it’s totems to tell the stories of those within. On May 20th, 2017, the citizens of Hoonah returned again to their homeland to celebrate raising two totems in front of their tribal house.

Arriving at The Tribal House

It was a moody day with gray clouds and no wind as our catamaran pulled from the dock, sped through Port Frederick, and crossed into the expanse of Icy Strait. Each of the 130 passengers on board were familiar with the trip, and we passed all of the familiar landmarks along the way to mark our progress over the 25 miles : Hoonah Island, Flynn Cove, Eagle Point, and then Point Adolphus. Off the right side of the boat, in the distance a Humpback Whale began to breach near Pleasant Island. It rose from the water eight times in short succession before it stopped its gigantic splashing. The spectacle had the kids and adults on the boat watching out the window with exclamations of delight. The excitement of the return to Glacier Bay was growing with each mile closer and each new wonder.

There were many drums on the boat, and they started to pound and the students and travelers singing started as we approached Glacier Bay. Each drum was hand-crafted and the baton resulted in an echoing boom that filled the ship. Even in the top deck you could hear the drumming below. We reached the border of Glacier Bay National Park along with a second catamaran from Juneau. Tobacco offerings  were made to the ocean to welcome the ancestors of the Huna Tlingit, and a song that was sung expressing the sorrow of leaving the park 250 years ago as the glacier advanced was. It isn’t as often that songs of mourning are performed, and the slower drum was syncopated with a melody that easily conveyed the sorrow of departing their homeland even if I did not understand the words.

Glacier Bay, Totem Raising
The tobacco ceremony welcomes the Tlingit Ancestors back to the park.

Our catamarans crossed the park boundary, and in front of us, two, 42-foot, red dugout canoes came into view. Colorful, hand-carved paddles splashed in the water to propel the boats, and soon the canoes were between our catamarans. Each canoe’s speaker welcomed us to the homeland of the Huna Tlingit and then we were led to shore.

The hand-carved dugout canoes greet the arriving passengers from Hoonah and Juneau.

Raising A Totem

This might be an obvious statement, but totem poles are not light. Each of  poles (one of Eagle Clan and one for Raven Clan) weighed about 2,000 pounds and was carved from the trunk of a red cedar. Although some of the pole had been hollowed out, 12 feet of the pole maintained a solid core. The weight presented a couple of unique challenges – you have to be able to move it, and you have to be able to control the weight when standing it up. In order to move it, we slid poles under and 18 people stood on each side. It was truly an honor to be one of the members lined up on along the totem pole to deliver it to Xunaa Shuká Hít. We were reminded as we entered, that each one of was participating in history. We could all look back on the pictures of the day and tell our grandchildren that we were there the day the poles were raised. Thinking that to myself made my aching arms seem like much less of a burden.

With my place at the side of the totem, I was honored to be one of the bearers to the Tribal House.

Each of the poles told the story of the two primary clans (Eagle and Raven) and each clan married into them.  Many of the stories are passed down through the clans and cannot be told to the public. However, representatives from each clan briefly explained the significance of the totem’s art.  Before each of the poles were raised into place, their names were repeated three times by the entire crowd to breath life into them.

The intricate carvings of the totem tell the story of the clans of the Tribal House.

Traditional pole totem pole raising may last up to a week with many feasts, speeches, and longs nights of singing and drumming.  Large poles raised in the traditional method require a huge amount of engineering to leverage the pole into place. As it was explained to me, there are many ways to put up a totem pole, and the method you choose is dictated by your resources and experiences.  The totem pole raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít also used the resources available. To ease our backs and ensure safety, a large crane positioned the pole onto its metal backing where it was mounted into place by master carver Gordon Greenwald. Each went up and smoothly. With the poles in place in front of the tribal house there was only really one thing left to do – go inside to eat together, to sing, and to dance.

The tribal house smelled strongly of pine. I think the smell was exacerbated by the heavy rain that fell outside and the humid conditions inside. I love the smell of the tribal house! Every corner was packed with people, and and the red, blue, and black regalia worn by many offset the yellow, wood walls. As lunch finished, a group of traditional Tlingit drummers, singers, and dancers from Sitka performed for the audience. Their drum echoed through the house, and the mostly male chorus was very powerful to listen to. The music and the atmosphere caused my skin prickle and my hair to raise on my arms. Each performer was equally impressive to watch. Their colorful, yellow, white, and blue Chilkat robes twirled  with each step and movement. We ended the day with an hour (or more? I lost track of time) of dancing from the community. The joyous songs brought all members of the house to their feet to join in the festivities.

The power of a day like this is hard to convey in writing and in pictures. If I were to think of an analogy that I hope makes you feel how I perceive the Huna Tlingit to feel, imagine going home for Christmas after being gone for 5 years in a foreign land. In your grandparents house, the Christmas tree reminds you of the last time you were there. Many of the sights an smells are familiar and memories of your childhood of opening presents and eating pie Christmas morning obligate you to tell stories to the young people around you of Christmases past. You realize, that although you are home for Christmas, the true joy is in knowing that you are passing on the tradition and stories to the next generation. Perhaps that’s true reason you are home for Christmas. Passing on stories and traditions were a big part of why the Huna Tlingit raised their poles. That ideal of creating a place for their children to return to in the future was the unifying theme of the day.  Although not all of our elders will be here in coming years, the totems at Tribal House will stand the test of time and tell the story of the Huna Tlingit for many generations to come.

The completed totems stand outside of Xunaa Shuká Hít

Ocean Biolumination and the Aurora Borealis

Although late April in Alaska typically spells the end of the “dark days” of winter and hence the aurora borealis, we were fortunate to have an active aurora forecast (KP6) and clear skies on April 23rd. Perhaps the fates were aligning without my knowing it as spring in Southeast Alaska is known for its clouds and rain, but as  I drove out to The Cannery at Icy Strait Point I was greeted by stars and a moonless night.  From the parking lot my feet crunched on the gravel of the rocky beach. I walked along with the water lapping near my feet and the sea-air filled my nostrils from the swelling waters of a high tide. I was not alone out there. My headlamp lit up only a small portion of the inky-dark night, but up ahead a mink’s eyes showed brightly like two opals in the dark. Another mustelid, a River Otter, swam in the waters just offshore. He got closer to me several times, obviously trying to figure out what I was up to. All of these wonders were the precursor to the amazing show that was only be beginning.

At 12:30 AM The aurora began to intensify over the waters of Port Frederick. Soon the pulsing green, pink, and white lights turned the ocean fluorescent green and my eyes wide. I had never seen a display this active in Southeast! I worked with my camera to tether together the sea and the Northern Lights. I was fortunate enough to have the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry add some scale at about 1AM.

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
Sea shells accent the Northern Lights from the Cannery in Hoonah.

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska

At 1:30 AM the adrenaline of the incredible show finally started to wear off. I set off down the shore to go home,  staring at my feet to avoid tripping. That’s when the first small blue light in the water caught my eye. I splashed a rock into the water and blue waves of biolumintation echoed out from its crater. I stepped into the water, and my footprints erupted with light. All around me in the waters of Port Frederick, small, bio-luminescent creatures swarmed and let off burst of cerulean blue light like underwater fireflies at the slightest disturbance. It was then that I knew what I had to do! My camera began clicking 6 inches from the water’s surface as I sought together bond together the lights of the sea and the lights of the sky as its unlikely I will ever have this unique experience ever again!

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska, Phytoplankton, Biolumination, Bioluminescence
A huge bloom of bio-luminescent creatures provides a blue glow to the foreground of this image. You can see their streaks in the water in this long exposure.
Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
Bio-luminescent creatures in the waters of Port Frederick and under the Northern Lights.


Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
The aurora borealis arches over all of Hoonah, Alaska.
The incredible dark skies of Hoonah are offset by the Aurora Borealis.

The Mendenhall Glacier Blues

The Blue Ice Caves

Every color has a pure form that boggles the mind and goes beyond the eyes ability to see and it and the brain’s ability to interpret it. I’m talking about hues of color that make your neurons tingle as they try to absorb its hues. You may think of the dark red of a fine ruby or the electric-green of a buggy-eyed tree frog in a rain forest. These pure colors attract us like flies to honey and are a primary reason that thousands of visitors take the risk of stepping into the Mendenhall Glacier to see its sculpted walls of cerulean blue ice. The ice of the cave walls and ceiling is shaped into waves by the wind and water. Immense pressure from hundreds of feet of ice above compress the ice into perfect clarity giving a view to the conditions within.Glaciers carry the earth in their walls and as they melt create new land. As I stepped into Mendenhall Glacier, the world trapped within was immediately evident. Far into the ice, large boulders and sheets of sediment could be seen within. The rocks were distorted by the curves of the ice face. At the base of the cave’s walls, ice flowed over rocks that were half in and half out of their century-old entrapment. The whole floor of the glacier was made from the boulders that melted from glacier. These boulders, it seems, are released at a rapid rate, as the glacier was much different than my last visit in 2015

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

Change at Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is receding up to 150 feet per year. The rapid rate of change was in full display.  I was astounded to see former site of the ice caves that I visited in 2015 was ice free. In its place, was a valley of rocks and a frozen river. Rock walls extended up to the ice face high above us. Although I cannot be sure how far the ice receded, it may have receded as much as 300 feet. This is not the first time I have seen such change in an Alaskan glacier – I was reminded of the demise of the ices caves of Castner Glacier over the course of a couple years.  Glacial change can happen at a rapid pace! The images below capture the glacier as it is now – I look forward to documenting its inevitable change in the future.

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

Top Shots 2016

Another year come and gone! This year has been nothing short of life-changing. I graduated with my masters in Wildlife from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, moved from the Interior to the incredible Southeast Alaska, married the love of my life, and have a job I love! Life is great, and life has left me less time to blog recently (lack of time compounded by no internet at my house). However, that doesn’t mean that my camera has been sitting picking up dust in the corner. On the contrary I’ve been out photographing the wild beauty of Hoonah and Alaska all year. Some of these images from 2016 have made their way onto Facebook. You can “like ” my page for daily photo updates at For other images this is the first time they’ve been shown off! Previous year-end recaps have been in different formats such as dividing by month in 2014 and dividing by topic in 2015. This year I’m just going to scrap the text and the give you the top shots 2016 from around Alaska. I hope you enjoy!

Did You Just See A Proton Arc?

A proton arc is oftentimes described as a broad band of diffuse aurora. If you do a Google Image search for “Proton Arc” a plethora of beautiful images depicting a purple, red, green, or pale band of aurora will greet your eyes. Go ahead, really, search it, I can wait. Or, you can visit this website at

I had the pleasure of seeing this pale phenomenon in Juneau on September 20th, 2016 for the first time ever. In the scene, the aurora swirled to the north in front of me over mountains.  However, a  pale, confined, band of aurora ran perpendicular to the northern display, and stretched far to the south past a large, brilliant moon. In my camera it was cool blue/white in color and was in stark contrast to the green aurora that played on the northern horizon over the mountains of Juneau.  I posted the image to an aurora group on Facebook and labeled it a “proton arc” as so many before me had done. However, I received an interesting response from renowned aurora researcher Neal Brown – a true “proton aurora” is nearly undetectable by the human eye and the concept of a “proton arc” is a widespread misconception. The disagreement between the science and the public perception set my wheels turning, and even though I am not an aurora scientist, I would like to dissect why proton arcs are not truly visible.

Proton Arc, Hoonah, Alaska, Aurora Borealis
On September 20th, 2016 I thought I saw a “proton arc” in Juneau, however, it seems my misunderstanding of this auroral phenomenon is the same of many non-scientists.

There are two ways that auroras may be formed. Most auroras are formed when excited electrons collide with oxygen or nitrogen or if protons collide with nitrogen or oxygen. Electrons which are lighter and have a lot of energy result in the traditional, dancing auroras. Electron auroras emit light at many wavelengths including 630nm (red) and 427.9nm (blue). The second way that auroras can form is when protons collide with nitrogen and oxygen. The proton collisions result in emissions of 656.3nm (red) and 486.1nm (blue) (Lummerzheim et al. 2001).  Separation of these light bands are difficult because at 656.3 the emissions require a precise instrument to differentiate them from the electron aurora. The same can be said of the emissions at 486.1 which are nearly indiscernible from the electron emissions.  To quote Neal Brown’s response in the aurora group, “To prove it is a true proton arc one would have to use some sort of spectral discrimination to see if it contained only 656.3 and 486.1 nm emissions”. Aurora researcher Jason Ahrms had this to say in a detailed Facebook post – “We don’t use color, location in the sky, how long it’s been there, or anything like that to identify a proton aurora.”. This means that simply looking at an aurora with your eyes is not enough to determine if it is a proton arc – so why is it so commonly mislabeled. The mistake is likely an innocent use of scientific jargon; those posting the images (like me) simply did a brief search to confirm what they saw before spreading the lie themselves.

A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright :
A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright :


The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a "Proton Arc"
The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a “Proton Arc”

Although it is impossible to detect a proton aurora with your eyes, they have been successfully photographed once identified with instrumentation. Tony Phillips of discussed the phenomena with University of Alaska Fairbanks Researcher Jason Arhns.  His image below shows how difficult true differentiation between electron and proton aurora is. Where the proton arc has been identified is barely discernible from the aurora.

This proton arc was captured by Jason Ahrns of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The region fo the proton arc was determined from spectral instruments, but as you can see it is very similiar in form to electron auroras. Image copy right to

It was interesting to realize that my perception of what a proton arc was had been so wrongfully influenced by what I saw online. However, if the pale auroras being captured by photographers (like the photos below) are not truly proton arcs, what are they? Incredibly, as Jason Ahrns explains, to date there are is no known explanation for these pale, elusive aurora displays! They are a new opportunity for scientific exploration in the aurora research arena. I hope they keep us posted.



Lummerzheim, D., M. Galand, and M. Kubota. “Optical emissions from proton aurora.” Proc. of Atmospheric Studies by Optical Methods 1 (2001): 6.


Sightseeing Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska is known for its mountains which sprout from the ocean and provide a stunning backdrop to the fishing boats which constantly traverse its water. However, Sitka averages 87 inches (7.25 feet) of rain per year which means it is constantly cloudy. It was pretty lucky that our first visit to this scenic city coincided with 3 days of sunshine! We were blown away by the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean. A series of fortunate events allowed us to explore enjoy the region and my camera was constantly clicking.

Mountains and Sunsets

We stepped off our short, 40-minute, flight from Hoonah to Sitka and received an invite. My pilot was an avid hiker and wanted to bring my wife, Kassie, and I out hiking at Mosquito cove. After an instant “yes” on our part  we were on our way. The coastal drive brought us to the edge of town (Sitka only has about 17 miles of road), and in short order we were on the trail to Mosquito Cove. Tall spruces provided a high canopy and the loamy smell of the undergrowth mixed with the salty-fresh air of the ocean. The rocky coast reminded me of the shores of Maine, except the tall mountains made it distinctly Alaskan. A colorful sunset met us at the end of the hike and graced us as we returned to the trail head. An amazing way to start our time in Sitka!

The next day we ventured to the top of Harbor Mountain. Winding switchbacks made me a bit car-sick, but the big payout was the views from the top. The many islands of the Sitka region lay below us and the blue skies allowed for miles and miles of views.

Blues skies reflect off a pool on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
The sprawling bays and Islands surround Sitka, Alaska as seen from Harbor Mountain.
I was struck by the character of this dead tree in the alpine on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
A colorful sunset puts Mount Edgecumbe in shadows in Sitka, Alaska

The Aurora Borealis and Night Skies

The clear conditions in Sitka happened to align with a level 5 aurora forecast. I knew the only place that I wanted to go was to the dark skies and huge vistas of Harbor Mountain. The Northern Lights began almost as the sun went down and stretched far to the south over Mount Edgecumbe.  By 10:30 PM the aurora was far overhead and dancing in incredible sheets of green and pink. I was blown away by its presence over the oceans and landscape.

The moonless night in Sitka, Alaska made the Milky Way shine. I caught this shooting-star, whose tail stretched long in the sky.
The Milky Way over Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

On the Wing

The flight from Sitka to Hoonah was the capstone to a remarkable trip. The sunny conditions persisted and showcased tall mountains, alpine lakes, colorful bays, and long fjords.

Why Do Whales Try To Fly?

Last week I was floating under gray skies and windless conditions on a whale-watching boat outside of Hoonah, Alaska.  We drifted with engines off while Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) fed around a rocky reef a hundred yards that was exposed by a shrinking tide. The distinct kee-kee-kee of hundreds of marbled murrelets, (Brachyramphus marmoratus, small pelagic birds) rang out around us and the bellow of sea lions droned from a distance green channel buoy. Towards that buoy an enormous nose broke through the surface and in a fraction of a second a mature Humpback Whale hung in the air with only the tips of its tail in the water. Its re-entry sent water far into the air with a crash. On its second breach I was ready and captured a series of shots as it arched into the water. My heart was racing as I soaked in what had just happened! Ultimately its leap from the water set my mind turning on why a whale would try to fly at all.

Mature Humpback Whales are gigantic creatures weighing between 45-50 tons (NOAA) and reaching up to 45 feet. I think Whitehead (1985) has it right when he states, “A Whale’s leap from the water is almost certainly the most powerful single action performed by any animal.” He found that a 12-m long adult humpback must travel at about 17 knots (3 times their normal cruising speed) to break the surface and expose at least 70% of their body. The energy required to thrust their entire body comes at an expense of energy, and begs to question about what they gain from it.  It is possible whales breach to communicate with others, to act aggressively towards another whale, to show strength, or to “play” (Whitehead 1985).

Humpback Whale Splash
A huge splash results from the breach of a humpback whale.

A lot of research on aerial behavior has tried to associate breaching with group dynamics. These studies have yielded interesting correlations. Whales breach more often in groups (Whitehead 1985). They were more likely to breach within 10km of another whale. Humpback whales surface activity (including multiple behaviors above surface) increases with group size and also occurred more with underwater vocalizations (Silber 1986). There also seems to behaviors which foreshadow breaching. For instance, breaching often comes after a tail lob. A tail lob is another visual and audio spectacle where the whale slaps its tail against the water.  Since breaching occurs more often in groups, these lends to the notion that it is a form of communication.

For some researchers, time spent on water results in findings that have little explanation. For instance, whales may breach more as wind speed rises (Whitehead 1985). Although support for why that would be is nearly impossible to determine, it has been shown that surface slaps can carry for several kilometers and the amount of sound created changes depending on what angle the whale strikes the water (Payne and McVay 1971, Deakos 2002 citing Watkins 1981). The distance that a breach can be heard is unknown, but it certainly surpasses the visual extent lending to the hypothesis that it is a form of communication, however, what message it conveys is unknown.


By listening to whale vocalizations (for which humbacks are famous) that occur leading up to breaches, researchers found there is a relationship between the amount of vocalizations and breaches. Male to male interaction and above water behavior were often correlated with increased vocalization between males (Silber 1986). It is likely these vocalizations are aggressive and that males are plying for position or to mate with a female. The subsequent breach is probably an “exclamation” (Whitehead 1985) on the underwater vocalization rather than an attempt to harm the other whale during the breach.  Certainly it would demonstrate to a female the prowess and strength of the male (Whitehead 1985).

Insight into breaching behavior may be gained from researching other percussive behaviors. Deakos (2002) found that pectoral slapping varies with age class, sex, and social position. Females were likely to slap pectoral fins on the surface to indicate readiness to mate, while males often did it to compete with other males without full-on combat. Pectoral slapping was shown to be frequent in young whales and is likely an important piece of their development (I was fortunate to see a calf breaching last year).   However, pectoral slapping and frequent breaches from young and feisty individuals taper off as the whales mature and get older (Whitehead 1985). This likely means it not a form of play for older animals. From these findings in pectoral displays we likely assume that a breach from male, female or young calf means separate things.

Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The same humpback whale that breached also showed off pectoral slapping. The behavior went on for 5 or 10 minutes after the breach.
Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The resulting splash of a pec-slap from a humpback whale.

My review of the science and literature surrounding whale behavior is stumped by the same issue that plagues the field : the true question of “why” a whale breaches is illusive because “what” they are trying to convey is likely different for each whale.  Much like the way that we clap our hands different at sporting events, golf tournaments, at a wedding, or after a concert, whales likely use the clap of the water to communicate different feelings.  Answers are relegated to vaguery due to the inherent difficulty of researching an underwater animal. I can only conclude that whales breach to communicate.  It seems most plausible that humpback whales and other species breach to add emphasis to a message or to get a point across.


Deakos. (2002). Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaengliae) Commication : The context and possible functions of pec-slapping behavior on the Hawai’ian wintering grounds. Thesis.

Payne, R. S., & McVay, S. (1971). Songs of humpback whales. Science, 173, 585-597

Silber, G. 1986. “The relationship of social vocalizations to surface behavior and aggression in the Hawaiian humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)”. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(10): 2075-2080

Watkins, William A. (1981). “Activities and underwater sounds of fin whales [Balaenoptera physalus].” Scientific Reports of the Whales Research Institute (Japan).

Whitehead, H. 1985. “Why Whales Leap”. Scientific American.



A Stroll Through the Kelp Forest

The fresh morning air and sea breeze were refreshing to my senses. As I walked along the beach of Hoonah, Alaska the smell of the spray made my taste-buds tingle and buzz;  the ocean air is tantalizingly tasty. The smell of the ocean was particularly strong on this morning because as the tide poured out of Port Frederick it was leaving shallow kelp forests high and dry on the rocky beach. Newly exposed vegetation was increasing the olfactory pleasure.  Stranded kelp on the beach is not a daily occurrence, but the large size of this tide exposed a world in the kelp forests that would normally only be accessible by diving into the frigid water.  From high tide to low this tide would raise and lower the waters in Port Frederick by over 22 feet!

Sunflower Seastars

I was amazed by the abundance and diversity of sea creatures that I had never seen up close before. The first was an enormous, fire-red and purple sunflower sea star. Stretching about 30 inches across, it is actually a top predator of the sea floor. It was evident to see how fast they are as it slid across the rocks by using its long and plentiful tentacles to propel itself. On the bottom they prey on nearly anything that they can get like abalone, starfish, cucumbers and others. The vibrancy of their colors was really amazing. Some were purple and red, some just purple, and some just red. I am not sure if these are different species or not. The video below shows off a bit of the sunflower seastar and the next creature to be found, the Sea Cucumber.

Sea Cucumbers

There are many examples of bizarre creatures in a kelp forest, but the sea cumber is certainly a good example! These creatures, although ugly and dangerous looking, are actually detritivores. They feed on the bottom sucking up soil and convert them into nutrients that are used further up the marine food web. They were too interesting looking to not at least poke one with a finger. When I did I was very surprised to find that they did not have a hard shell, but instead were gelatinous and rippled like a water-balloon dropped on the pavement. As I looked around I found many of the sea cucumbers had molded into the cracks of the rocks at the tideline – once they are out of the water there is not enough support in their body to maintain its shape. In Alaska, this species, the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), are commerically harvested. They are marketed locally and in Asia.

The Humpback Whale

As summer warms up the waters of Port Frederick, large blooms of phytoplankton feed the base of a food chain that ultimately brings many whales into the sound. As I stood on the edge of the kelp forest at low tide deep water stretched out in front of me. A humpback whale surfaced a mile out, and then a half mile out. It seemed to be headed my way. I grabbed my camera with my 200-500 telephoto lens waiting for it to get closer and surface again. I saw shocked to see the water boil in front of me much, much closer than I could have ever imagined. With a WOOSH! the spout of a fully grown humpback broke the surface in front of me just 20 yards away! With my adrenaline rushing through my veins I captured what I could of the huge animal. It is amazing to consider that even if the water was 50 feet in that location that he could have spanned it from the bottom to the surface!

This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!

My morning along the edge of Port Frederick was wonderful because it was everything I saw was new and foreign. It is truly magnificent to consider what is out there to just be experienced. The information I learned on my stroll through the kelp forest gave me an even further appreciation of this beautiful region of Southeast, Alaska.