Tag Archives: Tourism

A Whale Of A Tale

You never know what you will see when you leave Seward Harbor, but with blue skies and calm seas our hopes were high for a remarkable trip. Our trip last year on this same boat, and captained by the same crew had been truly memorable!

We reached the open ocean at the edge of Resurrection Bay about 20 miles outside of Seward harbor, and immediately recognized based on an enormous flock of gulls and sea-birds that something special was happening in front of us. Of course, the many tails of humpback whales emerging from the water was a good tip too! As we carefully approached the scene the captain explained that we were observing “bubble-net feeding” of a large group (~18) humpback whales. This behavior has only been recorded consistently around Seward for about five years, as apparently many of the whales had taught it to each other. Observing from the water surface, it is hard to imagine the underwater pandemonium of bubble-net feeding. In the deep waters under a large school of bait fish all 18 whales were blowing bubbles in synchrony to herd the bait ball into one group. Once corralled, all of the whales ascended to the surface with their huge mouths agape to scoop up as many fish as possible. From the surface we were able to predict the timing and location of each emergence, because the flock of hundreds of seabirds would lift up high into the sky, before diving on the susceptible fish just before the whales broke the surface!

Our boat drifted silently with the engines turned off, and as the whales came up for the fifth time under the baitfish the flock of tell-tale gulls began to fly straight towards our boat! It was going to be a close encounter!! Sure enough, enormous mouths attached to up to 80,000 pounds and 80 feet of whale broke through the surface near the boat in a show that left me shaking. Not from fear, but rather sheer awe-struck wonder. I simultaneously snapped imagery of the incredible scene and watched each wonder unfold. I was too busy taking imagery to record video of the whales breaking the surface, but have chained together a series of images in the video below that demonstrate the behavior of bubble-net feeding. Be sure to listen to the incredible sounds they make while on the surface!

Humpback Whale Breach
I was fortunate enough to have my camera point in the same spot, and set up for a quick burst of shots. It allow me to catch the graceful ark of this full breach! It is likely that this humpback whale was celebrating a successful day of feeding and hunting.

Mammals

The humpback whales were just the start of a remarkable series of wildlife sightings. A first of my life was the killer whales. A large pod of them traveled along and breached frequently for air exposing their fin and distinct white eyepatch. The dominant male of the group was evident thanks to an especially large dorsal fin. Baby orcas surfaced directly behind their mothers as they were still dependent them for protection, and to learn from. We spotted many sea otters throughout Ressurection Bay and along the coast. The story of their recovery is remarkable. Sea otters were extirpated from much of their traditional range by exploiting Russian and American hunters. Their loss led to the collapse of kelp beds as urchins populations, a diet item of the sea otter, expanded and ate of the kelp hold fasts (their roots). Once protected by federal law, the recolonization of sea otters helped reestablish the kelp communities and repair a crucial underwater ecosystem for small fish, and many invertebrates.

Birds

The Chiswell Islands provide important breeding habitat and refugia for many sea birds. Puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and dozens of other species are found throughout their rocky crags where they escape predation risk. Many of the species that nest in the rocky crags of the cliffs are classified  as “pelagic birds”. These birds only come to shore to breed, and spend the rest of their life at sea. It is remarkable to me that little of their ocean life is understood, although it is clearly an important part of their life history and hence conservation. One incredible fact from the trip’s crew : common murres may dive up 600 feet in search of food! The images below are just a small cross-section of the birds were observed along the way.

Scenery

The bluebird skies of the day blessed us for the nearly the entire trip. However, as we moved away from Northwestern Glacier, a thick bank of fog moved in from the ocean. The damp air made the day cooler, and provided a mystical backdrop to the Chiswell Islands which poked in and out of the fog like chandeliers in a smokey bar. The islands created a partial barrier to the fog which flowed through the lowest points of the islands like a sinewy serpent. Subsequently, the fog established the base of some of my favorite scenery images throughout the day, and featured below.

As whales-of-a-tales go, I’ve stuck to the facts of the day, although so much of was above average that even I feel that it’s a tale of whoppers. It was the type of trip that every subsequent trip to the ocean will be relative to. Perhaps I will tie it someday, but it would take a Moby Dick sized whale of a day to beat it!

Matanuska Glacier Peril

I arrived back at the car from after a couple of hours hiking around on Matanuska Glacier, and my clothes were still wet. Although the day on the glacier had been beauty-filled and grand, I had learned a steep lesson on glacier safety.

We reached Matanuska Glacier just as the sun was starting to come out again. During the drive up the Matanuska Valley the sun illuminated the mountains that rose high on each side, and the Matanuska river lay below us along the curvy, Glenn Highway. As we stood in the parking lot we could see a 4 mile-wide swath of ice at the front of the glacier called the terminal moraine. From there the glacier stretched back over 26 miles into the mountains! We walked down the safest path of firm glacial silt and ice, which was marked by orange cones. In a few more minutes we stepped onto the full glacier.

Hindsight is always 20/20, which is why I now realize that stepping away from the orange cones which marked the “safe trail” was more risky than I previously thought. In a quest for images I moved through the ice hills of the glacier looking for pools of water to shoot reflection shots from. I walked through ankle deep, sticky mud towards higher ground where the glacier had deposited a gravel pile. From there I stepped to the edge of some flowing water, stuck out my toe to test the depth of the water, and immediately slipped off the ice edge and into the water. I never hit bottom!! The flowing water had cut a deep, deep pool which I now found myself in up to my shoulders. During the fall I was fortunate to have turned myself around quickly, so I put my elbows up on the edge of the glacier and pulled myself back out. In the fall my camera and tripod fell into a pile of glacial silt, and fortunately not into water with me. The incident lasted only a few seconds before I was back on solid ground and moving quickly away from that deep pool. I stripped off my wet shirt for warmth, used it to begin cleaning my camera, and shook a bit as the adrenaline set in.

What is particularly annoying (to me) and perturbing about the situation, is that I was not doing any unnecessarily risky. In fact, when I slipped in I was testing the water before stepping in. So, I’m now asking you to learn from me – test unknown and murky pools with a long stick, rather than a short toe!

Aside from a scrape with death, our day at Matanuska Glacier was remarkable. The gallery and images below details the gigantic ice face as well as the tiny details of the glacier.

Striations in this piece of ice caught Kass' eye, and the lighting sealed the deal. I love this image of a glacial ice cube.
Striations in this piece of ice caught Kassie’s eye, and the lighting sealed the deal. I love this image of a glacial ice cube.
The face of the glacier was carved in interesting ways. This up-close shot looks at the melting ice on its surface.
The face of the glacier was carved in interesting ways. This up-close shot looks at the melting ice on its surface.
These large rocks melted rapidly, providing a brilliant blue window into the glacier.
These large rocks melted rapidly, providing a brilliant blue window into the glacier.
This panoramic image looks back at the glacier, and down the headwaters of the Matanuska River.
This panoramic image looks back at the glacier, and down the headwaters of the Matanuska River.
Semipalmated Plover
A semipalmated plover feeds in the glacial till and among the ice cubes of the Matanuska Glacier.
P7060191
The end of a happy day at Matanuska Glacier!