Category Archives: In Alaska

Local Fungi to Dye For

Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow?  When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.

All of these colors and more can be produced by mushrooms and lichens. Colors vary on species and treatment of the fungi while boiling.

A Bit of History

Natural dyes extracted from plants, minerals, and even fungi and lichens have been used for more than 5,000 years. In Europe, Karen explained that classic tweed colors in Scotland were extracted from lichens (Parmelia saxatilis). In Southeast Alaska, the bright yellow colors for Tlingit Chilkat Robes were derived from a lichen now called wolf moss. Within the United States the formalization of the process  of dyeing with mushrooms and the resulting mushroom dyeing renaissance occurred when Miriam C. Rice began experimenting with and documenting the colors that each species of fungi and lichen created. Her resulting publications have inspired countless research studies since then and a wave of newborn mushroom dyeing enthusiasts.

The Fungi and Lichens of Dyeing

Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes.  Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska).  For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.

  • Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
  • Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
  • Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
  • Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
  • Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
  • Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
  • Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
  • Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
  • Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)

Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities,  individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.

Cortinarius, Dermocybe, Dye, Red, Orange
These two species of Dermocybe mushrooms (in the Cortinarius family) are found in Southeast Alaska. One provides vibrant reds and one provides a vibrant orange.
Cortinarius, Dermocybe, Dye, Red, Orange
These are both species of Dermocybe mushrooms found outside of Hoonah, Alaska. It’s pretty obvious which one produces red and which produces orange!

The Process of Dyeing With Fungi

Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber.  Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!

Fungi Dye, Mushroom, Red
Look at the intense reds that resulted from boiling red Dermocybe mushrooms! When dying with red Dermocybe, be sure to removed their stems or you will end up with an orange dye because the stems are yellow.

When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors.  If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.

Fungi Dye, mushroom, dye, yarn
Testing your mushroom for color is as simple as pouring some boiling water into it and waiting to see what colors emerge.

In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens.  You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!

Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!

The Results

We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths  was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors.  We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.

Fungi Dye, Yarn, Color, Red, Blue, Purple, Orange, Brown, Gray
All of these colors were made from mushrooms and lichens that we boiled during the workshop!
Fungi Dye, Yarn, Color, Red, Blue, Purple, Orange, Brown, Gray
Each of the colors were associated with the mushrooms that they came from on this sheet.
Chiton, Dye, Fungi, Musrhoom, Dermocybe
The red Dermocybe mushrooms were able to dye bone-hard chiton shells.

Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!

These books can provide a great resource for new and advanced dyers.

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

 

Birding on “Barrow-ed” Time

Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun.  We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.

Barrow, Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Sun, Composite
The sun arches of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. This image was captured from 12AM – 4AM on June 19th.

I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”.  It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.

Utqiaġvik, Tundra, Alaska
There are almost no hills or topography of any time in the tundra surrounding Barrow, Alaska.

The Snowy Owl

Barrow, Alaska was known as Ukpiaġvik before it was it was given its European name in 1826 . This tradtional name translates to “Place that we hunt for snowy owls“, and was given that because of the high densities of owls in the area. They are reliant on high densities of lemmings (small rodents) for food. Snowy Owl numbers wax-and-wane with the volatile population of lemmings, but when food is up, researchers have found as many as 72 lemmings at one time at a Snow Owl nest!

The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.

Utqiaġvik, Barrow, Alaska
A male snowy owl sits on the tundra outside of Utqiaġvik, Alaska

“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl

Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.

Stellar's Eider, Utqiaġvik, Alaska
A male Stellar’s Eider stands in stark contrast to the female behind him.
King Eider, Alaska
The King Eider has an incredible face and plumage!
Spectacled Eider, Alaska, Utqiaġvik
The Spectacled Eider is well named – you can see that monocle on this beautiful male’s face.

Shorebirds

Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.

There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet.  They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.

Point Barrow

North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq  people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.

Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth.  In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.

Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Alaska, Barrow
The baleen of a Bowhead Whale has hairy edges that works to capture food as the tongue is pushed up and water is pressed out.
Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Barrow, Alaska
Many plates of baleen lie together in this skull of this Bowhead Whale giving insight into the function of the baleen to capture food.

The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the  vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.

Barrow, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Vertebrae
The vertebrae of Bowhead Whales are huge!
Point Barrow, Sea Ice, Arctic Ocean
My wife, Kassie, and I on the edge of the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow.

Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region.  Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.

Barrow-ed Time

In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.

Barrow, Umiaq, umiak
The frame of a traditional boat, an umiaq, leans against a building outside of Barrow.
Barrow, Alaska
Jawbone arches offer tourists a place to take picture.
Barrow, Alaska, Midnight Sun, Composite
The midnight sun swings over the Chukchi sea on June 19th. In Barrow, there are 65 days that the sun never sets.
Muktuk, Barrow, Pickled
Muktuk is the traditional way to prepare Bowhead Whale. We had the incredible opportunity to try pickled muktuk pictured on the left. It was very delicious! The black rind is the skin of the whale, and the white part if the fat.

Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:

  1. Snow Bunting,
  2. Greater Scaup,
  3. Red-necked Phalarope,
  4. Glacous Gull,
  5. Pomeraine Jaeger,
  6. White-fronted Goose,
  7. Semipalmated Sandpiper,
  8. Long-tailed Duck,
  9. Red Phalarope,
  10. American Golden Plover,
  11. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  12. Short-billed Dowitcher,
  13. Cackling Goose,
  14. Dunlin,
  15. Arctic Tern,
  16. Pacific Loon,
  17. Semi-palmated Plover,
  18. Northern Pintail,
  19. Lesser Scaup,
  20. Lapland Longspur,
  21. Savannah Sparrow,
  22. Greather white-fronted Goose,
  23. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  24. Dowitcher,
  25. Raven,
  26. Western Sandpiper,
  27. King Eider,
  28. Stellar’s Eider,
  29. Spectacled Eider,
  30. Dunlin,
  31. Green-winged Teal,
  32. Northern Shovelor,
  33. Tundra Swan,
  34. Parasitic Jaeger,
  35. Red-throated Loon,
  36. Sabine’s Gull,
  37. Snow Goose,
  38. Black Scoter,
  39. Ruddty Turnstone,
  40. Baird’s Sandpiper,
  41. Common Eider.

 

Dayboat of Wonders in Glacier Bay National Park

A couple of weekends ago I had the opportunity to tour Glacier Bay National Park with Hoonah’s 5th and 6th grade class. The trip was the culmination of their “Plumes of Glacier Bay” curriculum where they had been studying the species of birds within the park. As an avid birder I was thrilled to bring these 16, rambunctious kids on an ecology trip into the park on the “Dayboat”. The boat travels into the park to pick up travelers and provides an 8.5 hour, 130+ mile cruise to tidewater glaciers with opportunities to view tons of wildlife.

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Calving
Marjorie Glacier at the head of Glacier Bay National Park calves into the ocean.
Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park
A Sea Otter mother floats with its ups in the cold water of Glacier Bay.

Its not always (one might say rarely) sunny in Glacier Bay. The cold waters and moist air cause rain and fog to form quickly within the park. However, we started out our day under high clouds with small patches of blue sky.  Just after launching, we encountered some choppy water in the passage out of Bartlett Cove. Our on-board park ranger, Jenny, explained that the bottom of the ocean had striations in the sediment from the receding glacier that pushed the water up, often making it choppier than the wind would merit. After 45 minutes of cruising at 20 knots, our first stop along the way was at South Marble Island. This small island offers refuge to nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, and other colonial sea birds looking to nest away from predators. It also has huge haul-outs of Stellars’s Sealions. The gigantic animals that I like to call “sea grizzlies” because of their immense size (up to 2,000 pounds), lay on the rocks in the sunshine like sausages.  The dominant males sat with back arched and head erect. Their enormous size compared to the others around them made it easy to see why they were the boss.

Our boat cut through the water past South Marble Island, and we moved up the fjord. As we did, the mountains became more jagged and covered in snow. At the mouth of Glacier Bay most the mountains had been covered ice during the last glacial advance which rounded them off over time, but the terrain became more jagged as we moved past mountain tops untouched by the glaciers.  An exception to the jagged mountains was the round, granite dome named “Gloomy Knob”.  On that granite dome were well manicured lawns of grass with sporadic cottonwoods growing in the crevices. The lawns were kept short by overwintering Mountain Goats who grazed the pastures. Just after the spring thaw is the best time to watch the goats, and I think we counted 20 of them on Gloomy Knob. Many of them were feeding their kids, and we got some insight into the bonding of goats with their mothers – one made a spectacle by climbing onto its mothers back.

Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay
A young kid stands on its mother’s back at Gloomy Knob in Glacier Bay

The goats were not the only four-legged mammals on Gloomy Knob. High up in the granite cliffs we spotted a family of four Coastal Brown Bears. They lounged on the rocks, sleeping, perhaps 1,000 feet above our heads. During our passing they roused and moved along the ridgeline. They even passed by a goat on the ledge below them. Although the grizzlies took a look at their potential meal, the Mountain Goat seemed to know it was safe from the predators above, as it never moved a muscle.

Gloom Knob, Coastal Brown Bear, Grizzly, Mountain Goat
A family of grizzlies looks at a goat below them.

Tidewater Glaciers

Sixty-five miles from where we started in Bartlett Cove we finally reached the end of the park. Marjorie Glacier stood in front of us like icy walls. The glacier face is about 350 feet tall and extends nearly a mile from left to right. In many of the pictures, you can see pin-sized Harbor Seals with their pups on the ice flows to lend the glacier some size perspective. Two times the glacier let go of new ice bergs by “calving”. The roar was like thunder of an approaching storm. The glacier, which is currently 21 miles long, has retracted 65 miles. In 1750, it was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit from their homeland.  Since the retreat has happened so quickly, there are many studies within the park boundaries to understand how recolonization of rock surfaces occurs. Also, the land around the glacier is springing back up from the weight of the ice in a process known as isostatic rebound. The land rises almost an inch a year which may cause river drainages to change and coast resources like clam beds to come out of the water.

Reid Glacier
The huge face of Reid Glacier near the head of Glacier Bay
Harbor Seals, Tidewater Glacier, Marjorie Glacier
Harbor Seals float in front of Marjorie Glacier.

The students gave the whole boat a treat by performing traditional Tlingit songs at the glacier. Their pounding drums mixed with the grandeur of the scenery for a truly memorable end to the day.  The trip into Glacier Bay was an incredible introduction to this vast and wild park. I look forward to the day when I return for a more detailed look at its beauty.

One of the students plays a drums and sings on the boat near Marjorie Glacier.
The students sing and dance on the boat to traditional Tlingit songs.
Our student group at the head of Glacier Bay National Park.
I was amazed by the lines carved in this rock by the glacier.
A pioneering tree starts to recolonize a the bare rock of this glaciated peninsula. Its possible that the land became available to the tree through isostatic rebound.
A halo from the sun burns through the clouds over the mountains of Glacier Bay.

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

The Hooligans of Haines

The Great Hooligan Run

Alaska is known for its runs of salmon, but each year in the spring an equally impressive and ecologically important run of fish ascend the streams of Southeast Alaska and as far north as Norton Sound. The small, silvery fish, provide bountiful food for birds, bears, and people and signify that spring is here. I had the opportunity to observe the abundance of life that greet the Hooligan in the Chilkoot River, just north of Haines, Alaska.

Thousands of gulls, dozens of eagles, and tens of Stellars Sealions gather at the mouth of the Chilkoot River to feed on Hooligan.

The Chilkoot River system where I stood watching schools of Hooligan is surrounded in spectacular scenery. The 70 yard-wide river valley is dotted with large boulders which were deposited there by retreating glaciers.  High mountains that rise along each shore are covered with snow and feed the cold-water system for several months, until mid-summer.  During April and May, its shallow, clear waters, house thousands of shimmering gray shapes. Hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus, also known as “eulachon” or “candle fish”) return by the hundreds of thousands to deposit their eggs.

The Ecology of Hooligan

Hooligan are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their adult life in the ocean, but return to freshwater to breed. The most well-known example of anadromous fish are salmon species, however Hooligan do not necessarily return to the same river like salmon do.  The timing of their spawning run is determined by water temperature and hence shifts later into the year as you move from Southeast Alaska up to the western coast. After breeding, a majority of Hooligan die, but there are some fish that return to the river. Why only some die after spawning is just one of the many things that are not known about this fish. For instance biologists are also unsure what effects the size of the run which has varied highly in recent years. In the Chilkoot River, the run was estimated at 300,000 in 2015 but >1.8 million in 2016. That is quite a difference! After talking to the locals, it sounds like this year’s run in the Chilkoot was strong and echoed the strong run of 2016.

Hooligan Run, Alaska, Haines, Chilkoot
Thousands of Hooligan swim in the shallow waters of the Chilkoot River.

The Effect of Hooligan

You do not really have to see the effect of Hooligan to understand their importance to the ecosystem – closing your eyes and listening will probably tell you the story that needs to be told. Envision the sound of the lapping surf at your feet and the hum of the wind past your ears. Now layer in the raucous sound of thousands of gulls from multiple species raising from the beaches in an excited chorus. Add the grunting, bold, bellow of an adult, bull, sealion. The chir and ki-ki-ki of many bald eagles. The whistle of a goldeneye’s wingbeats. This is the audio picture of the Hooligan run and I was astounded by its magnitude.

Hooligan, Chilkoot, Haines, Alaska
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines. Gulls, Eagles and Stellars Sealions feed on Hooligan at the mouth of the Chilkoot River.

It was obvious from watching the behavior of various animals that they had mastered the art of catching an easy meal and nutritious meal. Hooligan are an important food source because of their high energy value. Dried Hooligan are so oily they were traditionally burned by Tlingits as candles. One of the most impressive behaviors was how Stellar’s Sealions herded the fish against the shore. Working together the sealions breached from the water in a wall to spook the fish upstream. The breaches ocurred in synchronized sequences, with the whole body of the sealion coming out of the waters, followed shortly by another individual. If the maneuver was successful a large school of finned-dinners would be pinned against the shore and a feeding frenzy ensued. Swirling waters and flippers were all that was visible of the fast-moving sealions as they snatched up fish below the water’s surface. The gulls were equally effective at catching Hooligan and dove repeatedly into the water, coming up with a fish frequently. After successful dives, the fish protruded from the gull’s mouth and were consumed on the wing . It’s amazing to think they could swallow them at all! The bodies of the fish were not the only thing being consumed. Countless eggs (they lay up to 30,000 per female!) were strewn across the beach, stranded as the tide went out. I watched a tiny, Least Sandpiper scoop up mouth-fulls of the eggs, providing a high-calorie caviar snack.

Hooligan, Chilkoot River, Haines, Alaska
A Bonaparte’s gull consume a Hooligan on the wing moments after snatching it from the river.

I wish that my time at the Chilkoot River could have been longer. Two evenings observing it just did not seem like enough! What any one-person takes away from an experience can vary vastly. My viewpoint is one a naturalist and scientist looking to sponge knowledge and learn from what I observe. I hope that you, the reader, can see it some day to see what you learn. Alaska is known for its larger-than-life wildlife spectacles, and in my opinion the Hooligan run and the abundance of life it creates is an experience that should be seen, felt, and heard by anyone that appreciates the wild places of earth.

Sources (also used in hyperlinks through the article):

  • http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=eulachon.main
  • http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/fish/searun-fish/page.aspx?id=6448
  • http://www.subsistence.adfg.state.ak.us/techpap/tp213.pdf
  • https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/ProcRpt/PR%202006-12.pdf
  • http://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/04/28/hooligan-make-strong-return-to-chilkoot-and-chilkat/

For The Past and For the Future : Xunaa Shuká Hít

When the citizens of Hoonah, Alaska and surrounding Southeast communities arrived at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park during the morning of August 25th, 2016, it was a homecoming over 250 years in the making. The powerful events of the day were the culmination of nearly two decades of collaboration between Hoonah Indian Association and the National Park Service which helped heal the past and prepare for the future.

Glacier Bay National Park is the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. In the early 1700’s, Sit’k’i T’ooch’ (“Little Black Glacier”) in Glacier Bay National Park surged forward and pushed the Huna Tlingit from their homeland by destroying their settlements, including L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan. This forced the Huna Tlingit out of their homeland and they eventually settled in Xunniyaa (“Sheltered from the North Wind”) which is today known as Hoonah.  Eventually the glacier receded and the Huna Tlingit began to hunt, fish and gather in Bartlett Cove where there had once been ice. However, in 1925 the establishment of Glacier Bay National Monument and regulations that followed ultimately led to a strained relationship between the people of Hoonah and the National Park Service. This was coupled with ongoing cultural loss due to integration into Western society.  Through a tragic portion of American and Tlingit history much of the language and culture was lots due to repression. Fortunately in recent years patience and collaboration with the NPS has led to development of many program that have helped to strengthen the relationship and served to bring back traditional activities in the park boundaries. In 1995 the concept of a tribal house in the Park was first suggested and the dedication of Xunaa Shuká Hít on August 25th brought that dream to reality.

Entering the Park

The ride over to Bartlett Cove was marked by a Fire Bowl Ceremony symbolizing “feeding the ancestors” and remembering those who were no longer with us. This somber entrance was a reminder to me that this day was not only about going forward for the future, but also to commemorate and embrace those not able to see the day  themselves. After the ceremony we continued to the shores of Barlett Cove and walked up to the Tribal House site.

To begin the ceremonies in Bartlett Cove the traditional donning of regalia commenced. Following tradition the opposite moeity members dressed each other while stating “this is not me placing this on you, but __________”, filling in the name of an ancestor. The regalia marked the clan that each was from with incredible artistry and color. The oldest robe was over 100 years old and its faded colors stood in stark contrast to the vibrant new shawls, but was no less incredible to see.

When entering the park we stopped to remember those who are no longer with us, but entering in spirit.
When entering the park we stopped to remember those who are no longer with us, but entering in spirit.

Canoe Landing Ceremony

After donning regalia hundreds of people walked down to the beach of Bartlett Cove and lit a welcome fire for the canoes.  As I mentioned in my previous article, these hand-carved dugouts were commissioned for the entrance into the park and their emergence from the far shore was remarkable to watch. The heavy fog of the morning shrouded Bartlett Cove in a thick haze, and  by squinting you could see the canoes appear through the curtain of fog. Custom-carved and painted paddles dipped seamlessly into the flat water and the three, vibrant-red boats glided closer to us. On the shore, many members of the community and kids from school were dressed in traditional colors, robes, tunics, and headbands. They stood on the shore waiting expectantly and with anticipation. The canoers approached with their paddle blades raised in the air to signify they came in peace. As the bow of the canoe slide onto shore and the first feet set onto the beach drums broke out, and with paddle blades raised the pullers danced while the throngs of people and brilliant color swayed to the music. As the songs receded the canoe was hoisted onto many shoulders and brought to the Tribal House. A beautiful, hand-woven Chilkat Robe was presented to Master Carver Wayne Price. He was the first of many to wear the robe to celebrate canoe journeys as the robe will travel to future events which include canoe journeys.

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Each paddle was hand carved and painted and tells something about its paddler.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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An ornate and vibrant paddle leaning against the tribal house at Bartlett Cove.

Tree Ceremony

Without the correct process the dedication of the tribal house would not be complete. Per tradition, the tree ceremony acknowledged the resources that were required to make the tribal house and canoes. Without the yellow cedar and spruce nothing would have been possible.

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Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.
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Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.

Screen Ceremony/Naming Ceremony

All of the artwork in the Tribal Households symbolize stories that are just waiting to be told to be told. During the screen ceremony the clan leaders described the exterior screen of the Tribal House to let the people know what the design symbolized. Finally the name of the Tribal House was announced and breathed life into the Tribal House. Xunaa Shuká Hít. The crowd repeated it three times and it gave me goosebumps. The name approximately translates to “Huna Ancestors House’”. It could not be a more fitting name for a building made to tell the story of the past and prepare for new generations.

It was a privilege to walk into Xunaa Shuká Hít with the Tlingit People. The inside smelled of fresh cedar and spruce, and throngs of people packed around the edges to leave room in the middle for the elders. Each clan leader began to tell the story of their clan as expressed on the interior house screen and house poles. Their stories mingled with the low murmur of the crowd. As they concluded the drums started to pound and the dancing began. The sound made the walls of the tribal house throb and pound. It was a joyous end to a dramatic and memorable day.

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The screen ceremony and naming ceremony was led by the clan elders.
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The pounding, thumping, joyful dance of the Huna Tlingit in their tribal house.

Regalia

For me one of the most incredible pieces of the dedication was the art and colors of traditional Tlingit ceremonial clothing. Many of these pieces of regalia are only exhibited during special events. The blankets and robes depict clan crests which are images that document a significant event in a clan’s history and stake claim to a particular bit of territory. An example of this may be seen in the Chookaneidi regalia. In it, the octopus design is meant to memorialize an event in which two Chookaneidi men gave their lives to defend the community against a giant octopus. The crest then stakes the Chookaneidi claim to the Inian Islands where the event occurred.

The Future of Xunaa Shuká Hít

The tribal house dedication is only the beginning of a greater and better relationship between Glacier Bay National Park and the people of Hoonah. This photograph of Tribal President Frank Wright shaking hands with NPS Superintendent Philip Hooge says a lot about a relationship that is starting to bud and provides hope that future trips to Xunaa Shuká Hít will continue to remember the past while preparing for the future.

 

Phil Hodges and Frank Wright shake hands after receiving the NPS Directors award for collaboration.
Philip Hooge and Frank Wright shake hands after receiving the NPS Directors award for collaboration.

Special thanks to Mary Beth Moss of the National Park Service for her review of this article.

The Tlingit Cultural Heritage of Hoonah, Alaska

Since I arrived in Hoonah, Alaska in March I have been thrilled and privileged to  experience the beauty of Tlingit culture and the dedication of those creating traditional art. The constant, thudding-pulse of adzes sticking into wood have resonated outside of my office. Each swing by the carver has pulled a woodchip from a 45 foot long, 3 – foot diameter spruce log. Two of these logs are being carved into traditional dugout canoes. In a separate area, two 45-foot long facades, and four totem polls telling the oral history of the Tlingit were being painstakingly carves by hand. Each bead of sweat, aching muscle, and hour of lost sleep were in preparation of the re-entrance of the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland in Glacier Bay National Park which occurred on August 25th, 2016.

Canoe

The commissioning of two, 40+ foot dugout canoes resulted in the largest, traditional dugout canoes in Southeast Alaska. The effort was lead by Master Carver Wayne Price, and after nearly a year of carving by a slew of volunteers, the final boats are incredible to behold. The process starts by flattening the top of the spruce log. From there the wood is pulled out of the center resulting in a hollow, log with curved edges. The log is steamed  by heating volcanic pumice found near Hoonah and placing it in the canoe which is filled with water. Like a rib-spreader, the cavity of the canoe is opened up little by little by wedging in longer boards. Incredibly, the first canoe started with beams at 39 inches and expanded to 69 inches! The tree was able to accommodate 30 inches of new space. Once spread the canoes were given a modern touch with fiberglass and paint. The painting style follows the traditions of the Tlingit people. Each canoe was outfitted with a sail that in the right conditions can push the large vessel up to 8 miles per hour.

The first time the canoe went into the water was a very powerful moment. Flat conditions greeted the paddlers, and as they moved out near a couple of miles near Cannery Point two sea otters fed in the kelp bed. The 42-foot dugout was accompanied by two smaller dugouts and the paddlers inside worked in unison to make the canoe glide through the water with surprising speed. As they rounded Cannery Point, it is likely they were the first to do so in a dugout in several decades or more. The first journey was a landmark moment for the carvers and the community and set the determination for the second canoe to be finished in time for the Tribal House dedication. I was fortunate enough to witness the canoe on the waters several more times during training sessions; its red sail was striking against the often gray conditions of Port Frederick! The legacy of these canoes will live on for decades to come.

Tribal House Screens

The Tribal House being built in Glacier Bay National Park at Bartlett Cove will be built in the traditions of Huna Tlingit Clan Houses, but is different as each of the four clans will be represented in the structure. Historically, Clan’s each had their own house. This presented a unique challenge for Master Carver Gordon Greenwald. It was necessary for him to design the “screens” of the front building facade and inside to tell the history of the four clans (T’akdeintaan, Wooshkeetan, Chookanedi, Kaagwaantaan). By listening to the elders a couple of days he drew the design for the screens and house-post totem poles. As he told me the story of the meaning of one of the screens, I was astounded by the information the artistry held. The intricacies of the hand carves wood brought the stories to life and were part of the reason it took five years for the work to be completed.

The story in the screen is complex, and represented by small and intricate details in the carving. My account here should in no way considered to be complete. Rather, I hope it gives you insight into the deep meaning of these powerful works.  There were originally 4 clans that settled in Glacier Bay. They came from Lituya Bay (on the left side of the panel) where their was a glacier. In the panel, you can see the spirt of the glacier. However, in Lituya Bay, there was a large tsunami (scientists now know it reached 1,400 ft) that washed a large and very dangerous rock out the mouth of the bay. It allowed for safer travel in and out of the bay. The people of of Lituya bay are still anchored in Lituya Bay even though they now live in Mount Fairweather. In the panel you can see the canoe anchored in Lituya Bay and the spirit of Fairweather Mountain symbolizing that. The people of Glacier Bay were very used to icebergs in Icy Straits, and around the panel the spirits of the icebergs are predominant – however each carved spirit is different as no iceberg is the same as the next. In the center of the panel is the spirit of the Glacier. It is that glacier that pushed the Tlingit people from Glacier Bay 200+ years ago when a girl called the glacier towards them by throwing out fish bones – she called it to them as you would call a dog. In the panel, you can see the glacier reflected in the girl’s eyes. Even though they were pushed out by the glacier, there are others still anchored in Glacier Bay. Both Porpoise and Octopus are still anchored in Glacier Bay.  Wolf and brown bear are still anchored in their homeland. The panels also indicates the importance of the marbled murrelets when the Tlingit lived in the mountains during the great floods. Finally, at the top of the panel is a canoe with no crest or design. It represents every else who are welcome to join the Huna Tlingit in Glacier Bay – the paddles are raised to signify friendship. It shows they have nothing to hide.

The enormous size of these panels is hard to represent in a photograph. Each facade is constructed from a single (!!!) yellow cedar planks. They stretch 18×45 feet.

The time that I’ve spent with the carvers and learning about these incredible projects has helped provide a connection to a community and a culture. I hope in the years to come that I continue to understand more fully the meaning hidden in their incredible artwork.

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.

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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.

Cited:

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.