Archive for the whales Category

60 days in Antarctica

Posted in antarctica, Leopard seal, penguins, photography, Uncategorized, whales with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2014 by polarguide

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The last voyage of my Antarctic season just ended this morning and I am already sitting in the  airport.  After two months on the ship being completely absorbed in such a remote and beautiful landscape my head is swooning as I am forced back into the  world. The airport is a harsh re-enty to society.

One Ocean expeditions markets the last voyage of the season as a marine mammals special exploratory trip. In late March the penguin chicks have all fledged from the nest and the adults are heading out to sea and penguin viewing becomes less of a focus of our journey. The whales in Antarctica tend to congregate around the Antarctic peninsula this time of year. Krill, the main food source of all the marine critters, aggregate in deep water bays and swarm into a biomass that can exceed  two million tons.  We sail into these bays, launch zodiacs and cruise among the feasting whales hoping for close encounters.

The second day of our voyage we spotted two Blue whales charging forward of the ship.  Blue whales reach lengths of over 100 feet long and weigh over 170 tons. Not only are they the largest living creature on the planet today, they are also the largest animal to have ever lived, larger than any dinosaur that ever roamed the earth. It is estimated that there  are only a two thousand blue whales in the southern ocean. Given the size of the southern ocean a blue whale sighting is a near impossible occurrence.  The opportunity to see  not just one, but two so close to the ship was, well, words can’t describe it and the pictures don’t do it justice.

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Blue whale surging past the ship

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When we arrived in Antarctica we launched our zodiacs and kayaks and were immediately visited by Minkie and humpback whales.  The whales are so satiated from feasting on massive amounts of krill that they log on the surface napping in a food coma. As we cruise past them they ofter become curious and swim over to us to have a closer look. It’s quite exciting to be held in the gaze of such a and large mysterious sea creature.

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We spent six days cruising the peninsula and the South Shetland islands searching for whales and seals. The leopard seals begin to prey on penguins this time of year. As the fledging chicks enter the ocean for the first time they are easy pickings.  Leopard seals like to show off their kill by swimming close to our zodiac’s, forcing us to watch as they thrash the carcass to tear off bits of flesh.

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Along the Journey we get excellent opportunities to see and photograph Elephant seal, Crab eater seals, Wedell seals and Fur seals.

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There are still plenty of penguins around. We make at least two landings a day to wander among the remaining penguins. Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins are the most common penguins we see late in march. On this voyage we were lucky to see a rare pair of Macaroni penguins.

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Wildlife viewing is obviously a huge draw to travelers wanting to see this portion of the world, but the ice that covers and surrounds the entire continent is what gives this place life and creates a magical landscape unlike any other place on earth.

I look forward to getting back there next season.

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Almost amazing

Posted in antarctica, penguins, photography, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , on March 30, 2013 by polarguide

Still sifting through the thousands of Antarctic photos from this season.  I keep mulling over certain shots that should have been amazing but the forces of nature were not always working in my favor and although the subject matter might be impressive the quality of the images is not great.

Orca whale and Wandering Albatross

Orca whale and Wandering Albatross

Orca whales and Wandering Albatross are incredible animals in their own right.  To capture a great image of either is rare, but to capture an image of both at the same time while far out to sea is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  This was my opportunity and although I got the shot, no matter how hard I try, I have to admit its a not a great shot. You can barely recognize the Orca, the Albatross is out of focus and the colors are muted due to the fog.

Gentoo Penguin and whale Vertibrae

Gentoo Penguin and whale vertebrae

Several Vertebrae and ribs bones of large whales litter the beach’s in some parts of Antarctica.  I layed on the ground for an hour or more hoping a penguin would waddle over to this large whale vertebrae and stick his head through the hole, and one did. I had prepared my self and my camera but the composition is poor and the light is dull and the background is too busy and the penguin in the foreground with his back to camera ruins the whole shot for me.

Then I though: Wouldn’t it be great if a whale swam past and I could get a portrait of a penguin with the whale bone and a whale in the back ground.  Guess what, about ten seconds later two whales swam by.

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I fumbled around to find the right angle. I changed lenses in a bit of a hurry and nabbed this shot. But again the light is grey and uninteresting. The color of the water, the whale bones and the rocks are too similar, they all blend together. There’s not enough contrast, nothing pops. If you look in the upper right portion of the picture, just below the horizon there is a black cycle shape on the surface of the water.  That’s a humpback whale, barely noticeable and out of focus. I thought the icebergs would add a nice element, but they don’t. Or maybe they do, but the composition is all wrong.

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This was one of the most beautiful pieces of ice that I saw this summer.  It was washed up on the beach and I wanted to show how the still ice was shaped by the motion of the waves.  I do like this shot but its a little boring.  I spent a-lot of time with this piece of ice and I thought the outcome would be better.  I should have changed my position and looked at it from different angles.

Photographing Birds in Flight

Posted in antarctica, Falkland Islands, guiding, photography, South Georgia Island, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2013 by polarguide
Giant Petrel

Giant Petrel
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I wrote previously about my mild obsession of photographing birds in flight.  Particularly sea birds flying over the ocean. Shooting Prions, Albatross and Petrels soaring over the southern ocean from the bow of a ship is exciting and challenging.  I have thousands of images of birds in flight but only a handful that are worthwhile.  Capturing pin sharp images of flying birds from the rail of a moving ship on a stormy sea is very difficult.

My goal is to get the sharpest image possible.  I want to photograph the bird in a banking turn to capture the entire upper or lower surface of the bird to show off detail and patterns in the feathers with the head turned slightly and at least one eye visible. If I am shooting with the ocean as my back ground I try to include a cresting wave to show the drama and motion of the life of a sea bird.  With the sky as background I slightly over expose the shot to pull the bird out of the background and open up the shadows on the bird created by the highlights in the sky.

There are probably lots of ways to increase you chances of success.  This is how I do it, or at least how I try to do it.  If anyone has suggestions on techniques I would love to hear about it:

First I watch.  I stand on the bow of the ship or on the shore and spend ten or fifteen minutes observing .  Each species has its own technique and generally fly in a patten that is somewhat dictated by the speed and direction of the wind and also the waves when at sea.

Once I have a general idea of what species I will be shooting and the direction of the wind and the birds flight pattern around my position I set a few camera functions that help maximize my ability to focus on the moving bird.

I shoot on aperture priority and I find in most cases a shutter speed of at least 1/1250 is necessary to freeze motion, which means I am almost always shooting at iso 400. I rarely go higher than iso 400, for me the pixel grain is too obvious. I try to have as small an aperture as possible.  My largest lens is 200mm and at f7 or less if your auto focus locks on the wing the eye of the bird will be soft and for me the eye has to be sharp.  I think f8 is best but I am often forced to shoot at  f5.6 or less to keep the shutter speed over 1/1250.

I lock my focal point in the center and have nine points active, I set my autofocus on continuous.  Then I choose one bird to focus on and observe. When I have an idea of its flight pattern I lock my autofocus on it and pan with it until it flies into position and I fire.  Sometimes I shoot on burst and sometimes I try and capture one image at just the right moment, it depends on my mood and what species I am shooting, the windspeed and the wave height.

On rare occasions the ocean is glassy calm and capturing the flight of the bird and its reflection mirrored on the sea surface is possible, these are some the most coveted images.

Here are some examples from the last two weeks and my most previous voyage to South Georgia Island and the Antarctic continent.

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross
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Light Mantled Sooty Abatross

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross
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Blue Eyed Shag with nest material

Blue Eyed Shag with nest material

Antarctic Prion

Antarctic Prion
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Antarctica and then some

Posted in antarctica, Elephant seals, Falkland Islands, Fur seals, guiding, Leopard seal, penguins, photography, South Georgia Island, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by polarguide

Our ship, Russian owned and operated Ice class research vessel the Akademik Ioffee

For History buffs, photographers, adventurers and wildlife enthusiasts Antarctica is the ultimate vacation destination. This will be my third season working in Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions. One Ocean offers several Antarctic voyages ranging in length from ten to eighteen days.  The crown jewel of wildlife viewing polar expeditions is the eighteen day Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica adventure.

The Falklands float 250 nautical miles west of Argentina, it takes two full days at sea  to reach the Islands.  The archipelago is a self-governing off shore territory of the United Kingdom.  There are more than 200 Islands  with a population of  3,100 people, the vast majority being of British decent.  Argentina has always claimed the Falklands to be an Argentinian territory and in 1982 the Argentinian military invaded the islands and a two month-long war ensued resulting in the defeat and surrender of all Argentinian troops.  To this day Barbed wire fences barricade beaches and pastures laden with land mines.

The Islands are a windswept landscape of stony hills and sea cliffs  punctuated  with  emerald pompoms of  tussock grass. For three days we make landings at significant wildlife viewing areas. We visit nesting sites of the Black browed albatross, Rockhopper, Magellanic and Gentoo penguins.  Fur seals, Sea lions  and elephant seals rest and raise their young on wavy beaches.  We complete our time in the Falklands with a visit to the city of Stanley, the capital of the islands, Population 1,500.  From there we begin our two-day journey to South Georgia Island.

Windy hillside of Carcass Island, Falkland Islands.

Nesting colony of Black browed albatross

Nesting pair of Black browed albatross

Magellanic Penguin

Rockhopper penguin

Captain james cook was the first person to step ashore on South Georgia Island in 1775.  The first Sealing campaign began in 1788 and by 1828 1.2 million Fur seals were slaughtered for their pelts, driving the species to the edge of extinction.  Whalers arrived in the late 1890’s and by 1930 40,000 whales had been killed. By 1965 the whale populations had declined so severely the industry was no longer economical and the whaling stations were abandoned.   During our three days on South Georgia Island we visit the remains of these whaling stations.  The bones of long abandoned building and the rusty corpses of ships that once participated in the slaughter  now serve as shelter for the Fur seals and penguins they once exploited.

Abandoned ship near whaling station

Fur seal pups take shelter under propellers from abandoned whaling ships

South Georgia Island  is one of the most intense wildlife experience on the planet.  Its stormy shores teem with life and the  number of animals on one beach can be overwhelming.  We visit King penguin colonies where the penguins number in the hundreds of thousands.  They waddle down beaches along side fur seals.  The Elephant seals stack themselves side by side so numerous you could walk their backs for the entire length of the beach, although I wouldn’t recommend it, these behemoths weigh in at eight tons.

Typical South Georgia beach

250,000 king penguins

Don’t get too close to these guys

Before landing at south Georgia we issue bright red rain-gear and green rubber boots to every passenger. This wardrobe serves two functions: It keeps the penguin poo off the passengers clothes and  helps the staff differentiate people from penguins. We lecture every passenger about how to safely conduct themselves around so much wildlife.  We remind people that Elephant seals are wild animals,and although they have a placid demeanor they can be accidentally dangerous.  “You can avoid being crushed to death” I tell people, “by not napping on the beach.”  I also advise that if while photographing a fur seal it rises up on its flippers and runs at you open-mouthed as if it might bite you, it might.  And last but not least, please don’t stand on the penguins.

Pushing the limits

Passengers give their full attention to this lecture.  They nod in agreement as if it were all common sense, but when the first zodiac surfs to a landing grown men and women revert to children. I call it the “Willy Wonka effect”. Remember that scene in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory when Willy swings open the doors to his world of candy ?  All the children run wild stuffing their faces with exotic sweets and wreak havoc on willy’s wonderland of confection. Then the fat kid falls into the chocolate river.  landing on South Georgia Island  is a-lot like that.

A zodiac slides up the beach, red pants swing over pontoons, green boots trudge up the gravel slope and penguins scatter.  They knock into each other like concerned and confused umpa-lumpas. I stand back and watch the comedy unfold: People can’t control themselves, I watch them chase penguins with their point and shoots cameras. To my left I see someone topple over a penguin while walking backwards trying to take a photograph. A little old lady runs past me with an angry fur seal hot on her heels while to my right a man inches too close to a mountain of Elephant seals, daring one to crush him. And then the fat kid falls into the chocolate river, except the river isn’t chocolate its a hot puddle of penguin shit mixed with Elephant seal dung.

After snapping several thousand photographs everyone relaxes. The penguins catch their breath and with the guidance of experienced staff people learn that if they just stand still the wildlife becomes curious.  Slowly, animals assemble to gawk at the strange creatures with red legs and awkward green feet.  Penguins side up to inspect the new comers in a highbrow manner, as if comparing wardrobes. At the end of every excursion passengers return to the ship in a state of joy. cocktail hour and dinner are all a buzz with tales of the day.  Everyone has an exciting story to share of their intimate wildlife experience.

Close encounters with Fur seal pups

Communing with king penguins

Our last stop at south Georgia is at Grytviken whaling station to visit the grave of Antarctica’s most famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  We make a procession to his grave and toast the boss with a slug of whiskey then spend the afternoon walking among the relics of the whaling station.

Grytviken whaling station

Shackleton’s Grave

As we sail south I watch from  the aft deck as the island fades into the northern horizon.  Here I become washed by a wave of nostalgia.  Our ship surfs the wake of  histories great heroes. We are following a course set by men such as: Vasco DA Gamma, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, James cook and Thaddeus Von Bellinghausen. Our destination, a continent so secluded its existence remained a myth until it was first sighted in 1820. Antarctica.

The ice in Antarctica is immense and looms above everything like a great glinting mountain.   Black cliffs reach to the sun as if trying to escape the sinking weight of the blue blanket if ice .  The entire continent is entombed in a world of winter.

Enormous iceberg dwarfs a zodiac

The continent is frozen under seven thousand feet of glacial ice, the downward force drives its plastic mass seaward until its precipice shatters into the ocean creating icebergs the size of small countries.  The bergs glow a surprising shade of blue that seems to radiate from deep inside, as if an icy neon light burned at its core. The temperature of the thick ocean drifts around 32 degrees. There are no trees, the vegetation is limited to lichen and moss.  It is a stark world of contrast that shines like a jewel.

Breaking through sea ice below the Antarctic circle

Regardless of the harsh, barren environment Antarctica flourishes with life.  The extended summer sunlight and constant upwelling current create a marine soup that supports a complex and bountiful ecosystem.  Thousands of Penguins nest on rocky snow-covered hill sides.  Leopard seals, crab eater seals and Wedell seals nap on ice floes while orca whales hunt through a maze of icebergs.  humpback whales graze on krill in the frigid inky water.  Being there  feels like  you have traveled through time to a place before people.  A place where the earths forces conduct a symphony life.

Lonely penguin returning to the nest

Close encounter with a Humpback whale

Orca whales dwarfed by Antarctic landscape

My first voyage departs November 8th.

Weekend Harvest adventure part 1

Posted in alaska, bears, guiding, photography, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2012 by polarguide

Note: I like to keep my posts to 1000 words or less but it was a long adventure filled weekend. I decided to write about it in two or maybe three parts. The autumn weather and the practice of  harvesting wild food does not allow time for photos. I hope my writing is entertaining enough to keep you interested. Who ever you are.

We left Gustavus aboard the Taurus at ten in the morning on Saturday to spend the weekend fishing and hunting on northern Chichagof Island.  The morning was cool, the high grey clouds parted occasionally revealing patches of blue sky. Columns  of whale breath rose like smoke signals from the flat surface of the sea . I counted thirty whales while crossing Icy Strait.

Departing Gustavus aboard the Taurus

morning smoke signals

morning smoke signals

We arrived in Mud Bay some time around eleven a.m.  Shellie, the most experienced and prepared of our group of four had her waders on before the boat hit the beach.  She hopped off the bow, helped set the anchor, shouldered her pack and fishing pole and set off up stream.   the weather had begun to deteriorate. Zach and Adam fumbled with their fly rods and fishing line while I stuffed a few extra warm layers in my backpack, then jammed my camera and two lenses on top of that.  With out a word I hoisted the pack, snatched the fly rod in my left hand the rifle in my right and  lumbered along the bank of the river wondering how Shellie (now completely gone from sight) could be moving so quick.  One hundred meters up stream I freed my self from pack and pole and ducked  into the forest in search of a deer.

I slipped under a stand of  alder and into the dark understory of spruce trees.  Rifle in hand I waited, listened, then crept over the soggy pine needles.  Cold, humid air filled my head with the astringent scent of spruce pitch, but no sign of deer.  I hunted through the trees until they gave way to an open meadow of tall sedge.  I stood on the edge of the forest gazing over a golden sea of swaying grass, waiting for a grazing deer to betray its position and lift its head.  A Northern Harrier materialized above. I watched it’s effortless glide , rising slow, dipping quick like a kite, scouting the savanna  below, hunting,  just like me. Except for the flying part.

The rain gusted sideways in sheets.  I looped around the forest and back to the the river to retrieve my equiptment.  Far In the distance I spied Zach and Adam as they disappeared at a bend in the river, Shellie was, by now,  far ahead of them.  I was happy to be alone.

I plodded up stream realizing I had far too much gear.  My camera uselessly jammed in the top of my backpack  made it cumbersome to shoulder the rifle and it kept slipping down my right my arm.  My left hand was occupied with the fly rod.  My three friends were wearing proper waders, they could wade across the river through waist deep water making navigating up stream much faster. I was wearing an old borrowed pair of hip waders that leaked. The crotch  high rubber boots were two different sizes.  knee deep water was as deep as I could manage.

The cold wind seemed to drive the rain straight through my clothing.  The belief that modern technical rain gear (gortex and the like) is actually water proof is a load of bullshit!  Trust me. My spiffy new Patagonia jacket  hung on me like a wet bed sheet.  My socks, soaked with leaky river water  slid down below my ankles and bunched in the front of my boot. It felt like flopping around in wet clown shoes.  I forgot to mention: I am new to fly fishing,  my attempts to cast in the driving wind and rain were frustrating to say the least.  After two hours I managed to catch nothing but shrubs and dead wild flowers on the river bank behind me.

I began to miss my friends. I assumed they had successfully fished out every decent fishing hole I was now passing on my clumsy journey up river.  I abandoned  fishing and decided to march forward until I found them.  I crossed a shallow section of water and confronted a steep muddy bank on the other side.  My boots in the muck, I reached both hands over head and with my right hand I planted the butt of the rifle into the soggy earth, with my left hand I planted the butt of the fly rod.  I then attempted to pull my-self up the muddy river bank in my waterlogged clown shoes. I kicked one foot high and began to stand, it slipped through the mud and my other foot quickly tried to replace it and Suddenly I was running in place, feet frantically kicking and slipping through the mire until my arms grew tired, realizing the futility of the effort my feet quit and left me dangling.  My grip slowly failed and I oozed down the river bank, belly in the mud.  I felt so alone.

I hefted my self from the mud cursing. I hurled my rifle over the river bank, then the fishing pole, then my pack.  Grabbing fists full of mud and grass I clamored on hands and knees and came up panting, thankful there were no witnesses to this embarrassment.  I stood to brush the mud from my clothes, that’s when I noticed the bear.

He was standing on the opposite side of the river watching me with a vacant glare. We contemplated  each other for a  moment from a safe distance.  “What are you looking at” I hollered over the gurgling river “this kinda shit is easy for you, you’ve got four wheel drive.  But  I’ve got something  you don’t… thumbs sucka!”  I jutted both thumps out in front of me and wiggled them at the bear.  He appeared unimpressed. He began swaying left to right  with an listless stare that made me uncomfortable.  I flung my pack on to my back, lifted my rifle and rod and staggered forward, glancing over my shoulder to be sure I wasn’t being followed.

About fifty meets up river I began to hear strange sounds, like an ancient foreign  language broken up by the rush of the river.  Was it laughter?  My friends having fun with out me?  Maybe it was the wind, I thought.  I came to a fork in the river. A channel flowed in from my right and in that channel were three large brown bears in the midst of a fierce fight over a prime fishing spot.  They were in the middle of the river thrashing at each other with gnashing teeth and claws, fur and spit flying everywhere. The sound of the battle was barbaric and evoked a fright in me that rose from deep in my guts.

“shit!”  I thought out loud  “I’m going to have cross the river again to avoid the clash of the titans”. I slid down the muddy bank trying not to draw attention to myself.  slipped into the river and waded to the other shore, all in plain view of the sparring monsters.  I found Zach,  Shellie and Adam fishing a hole not to far up river from the bear fight.

Hours  passed since I had seen my three friends. All day I had imagined  them having a grand ole time together, catching fish, laughing and eating cheese and crackers in the sun.  Turns out they had adventures and mishaps all along the way. Zach caught a Coho salmon and left it on the beach next to Adam.  While Adam was distracted by a fish on his own line a bear crept from the bushes and stole the salmon right out from under him.  While trying to wade across the river, Zach fell in and drifted down stream. He climbed out on the opposite shore and continued fishing.   The relentless rain and constant wind zapped our enthusiasm to fish any longer.  We were all soaked to the core and on the verge of  hypothermia.  We decided to make our way back to the Taurus.

Zach pulled an inflatable paddle board up river with him and he and Adam began to flat downstream.  Shellie and I trudged along the edge of the river and once again bear appeared on the shoreline to our right.  Zach and Adam floated on the paddle board to the opposite shore to avoid the beast.  As the bear approached it became clear he had no intention of changing his coarse to avoid a close encounter. Shellie waded through the deep part of the river to join the others, leaving me to face the bear on my own.  “Seriously” I said sarcastically. “you’re going to leave me over here alone with this guy”.

I backed into the current  as far as I could with out going over my boots.  The bear passed thirty feet to my right. I spoke softly to it mostly to reassure myself .  When he ambled a comfortable distance past me I paced slowly to the shore. Then a surprising thing happened:  He turned and began to walk straight at me. He sauntered at a relaxed pace, head slightly lowered his eyes fixed on me.  “Hey bear!” I shouted, but he kept coming.  I took a large step toward the bear and kicked up some water “Hey Bear!”.   He closed the distance to less than twenty feet. I dropped my fishing pole, slapped a .300 caliber rifle round into the chamber and flicked off the safety.

I have had countless close encounters with brown bears, black bears, even polar bears. Focusing a bear into my two hundred millimeter Nikon lens is a common experience.  Raising my rifle and narrowing the cross-hairs  between the eyes of a brown bear was a whole new sensation.

Seasons end

Posted in alaska, bears, guiding, photography, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , on September 5, 2012 by polarguide

Another summer season has ended.  Tonight I am sitting with the snap and crackle of the wood stove, half through a bottle of Irish whiskey. I have had the yurt to my self for the last week.  The sun has set and the pale evening light strains my eyes.  Soon I will have to light the gas lantern that hangs from a nail over the kitchen counter. I am contemplating the seasons end and feeling nostalgic about the arrival of fall.  I know it sounds strange to speak of fall when August has barely completed her departure, but that’s how it is here. In late August the leaves of the cottonwood trees turn yellow and brown and begin to litter the ground.  The rain falls a little harder, the wind blows a little colder and the twitter and chirp of Sandhill cranes flocking through the grey sky on their long migration south mark the beginning of fall in Gustavus, Alaska.

Oh, let’s not forget the berries. The blue berries are almost ready, but late august brings a bounty of wild strawberries and nagoon berries, plump and red and ready for jamming.  Liz and I picked, jammed and canned a gallon of berries completing our sweet winter cache in just two days.

Nagoon Berries

Liz making Nagoon berry jam

Jam!

It was an unusual summer in many ways.  It never seemed to stop raining and the temperatures rarely rose above fifty five degrees. My first guided trip began with high winds and heavy rain that blew away our tents and saturated our sleeping bags.  Then, sometime in early July a bear broke into the yurt and ate all of our food.

There were three plane crashes this summer. The local air taxi company that we hire to move guides and clients between Juneau and Gustavus had two planes malfunction, resulting in emergency crash landings.  One stormy morning in July two pilots, Kevin and Gale, left Juneau for their sixty mile morning commute to Gustavus. Each in his own plane, they flew side by side. Only one arrived at his destination.

On a clear day pilots heading for Gustavus will fly west passing over Auke bay and the northern tip of Admiralty Island. They will cross a five mile wide expanse of ocean called Chatham Strait.  Flying at an elevation of three thousand feet they dip and glide between six thousand foot peaks that are the southern end of the Chilkat mountain range. On a stormy day the Chilkat range becomes shrouded in a dense curtain of  grey clouds forcing pilots to bank south.  Soaring below cloud cover they fly around the southern tip of the mountain range before navigating north toward Gustavus. This day was a stormy day.

Two days after the incident I spoke with Gale.  He told me that after crossing Chatham Strait he steered his own plane south to avoid the low lying clouds that veiled the Chilkat mountain range, Kevin did not. Gale watched Kevin’s airplane disappear into the clouds then moments later Kevin’s signal disappeared from Gales radar screen. Kevin hit the top of a ridge doing one hundred and sixty miles an hour.  His air machine was shredded by the trees. The stretch of debris littered the mountainside for hundreds of yards. His body was found still belted to his seat fifty feet forward of the torn and scattered aircraft.

The feeling of fall has sparked a bustle of harvest activity. August began with berry picking and jamming, fishing and rooting over the forest floor in search of edible mushrooms.  On a recent fishing trip Zach and Shellie dropped a halibut skate and we hauled a two hundred pound halibut  from the cold depths of Icy Strait.  On a rare sunny day shelli and I went fly fishing with her father Doug and we caught countless Dolly Varden in Mud Bay, on northern Chichagof Island.  We had a glorious after noon watching brown bears fish for salmon while we cast our lines with less proficiency.

Zach with a giant halibut

shellie with a dolly

Doug paddling with brown bear

Fishing with brown bear

beautiful bear

sneaky bear

The hustle of guiding now done, their are no planes to catch, no boats waiting.  I am enjoying quiet time at the yurt.  Getting small project done, splitting fire wood, reading books and helping Zach build his cabin.

Tonight I will stumble  into bed with good whiskey in my head.  Drizzle tapping on the vinyl roof, fire warming the wood stove, I will dream of the coming days.  Dark brooding days swollen with rain and fog and wind.  Soon we will obtain our seasons quota of fish and hunting season will commence.   We will Slip briskly through the waterlogged forest searching for sign of elusive deer.  After a successful hunt we will pass evenings butchering and processing venison flesh, feasting with friends and  hoarding our bounty for the  approaching months of winter. In this way the fall will pass and winter will bring new adventures.

National Geographic and the Whales of Point Adolphus

Posted in alaska, photography, whales with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2012 by polarguide

Point Adolphus is the northern most point of Chichagof Island.  It’s  jagged coastline protrudes north into Icy Straight, a forty mile long ten mile wide body of water that separates Chichagof Island from the Alaska mainland. The gulf of Alaska lies thirty miles  west of Point Adolphus, it fills and drains Icy Strait as the tide rises and falls creating strong currents and upwelling that combined with our extended summer sunlight produce a biological soup that makes point Adolphus one of Alaska’s most amazing humpback whale feeding areas.  National Geographic Adventures contracted us to guide a nine day kayaking adventure that visited Point Adolphus and the upper west arm of Glacier Bay National Park.

From the beach at Point Adolphus you can watch humpback whales feeding  twenty yards off shore.  They like to graze along the rips and eddy lines that are created when the tidal currents curl around the rocky point.  While in our kayaks we are sometimes surprised by an exhilarating close encounter with one of these forty foot long,  forty ton mammals when they unexpectedly break the surface and exhale a plume of water ten feet in the air just meters from our kayaks.

Whale tail at sunset at point Adolphus

Point Adolphus

Evening sky over Point Adolphus

Many whale feeding behaviors can be observed while sitting on the beach at Point Adolphus.  Including Flukeing, tail slapping, pectoral fin slapping, lunge feeding, breaching and occasionally bubble net feeding .  On this trip we where fortunate enough to see all of these behaviors.

The rich sea life in this area attracts more than just humpback whales.  We counted one hundred bald eagles on our three day visit. Harbor seals are common and packs of curious stellar sea lions entertain and sometimes unnerve us by swimming close and porpoising along side our kayaks, belching and growling in what I hope are playful social displays.

Curious sea lions

Curious sea lions

Chichagof island is seventy five miles long, fifty miles wide and has a land area of about 2,000 square miles,  making it the fifth largest island in the United States.  The island has the highest population of  brown bears per square mile than any place else on earth.  Brown bears often walk the beaches of Point Adolphus in search of food.  The sedge grasses that grow on the beach are a common meal choice for bears after hibernation. When the tide is low, the intertidal zone is a great place to forage for small fish, clams and other protein rich intertidal animals.

After a delightful  morning of kayaking with playful sea lions and close encounters with whales we stopped for lunch on a long, arching pebble beach.  As I removed the smoked salmon, bagels and cream cheese from my kayak, I looked up and saw a beautiful brown bear slowly walking down the beach about fifty yard from us.  We packed up lunch, got back in our kayaks and drifted off shore. We watched quietly from the water as the bear grazed his way down the beach, carefully choosing the most tender grass and beach lovage,  giving us an amazing photographic opportunity.

Brown Bear near Point Adolphus

Bear eating beach lovage

On the last morning as we finished our breakfast a group of  seven whales where gathered off shore eating their breakfast. Four of them decided to breach. Four whales simultaneously launched their entire bodies from sea, pirouetted and crashed down on the surface creating a sound like rifle fire. Amazing!

We where transported back to Gustavus that after noon and spent the night at the Annie Mae lodge.  We had a wonderful dinner of fresh local caught king salmon and dungeness crab.  Everyone had a shower and prepared for our morning departure and three nights of camping in the upper west arm of Glacier Bay.

The next three nights where spent base camping at the foot of the unpredictable Reid glacier.  The glacier can turn a warm sunny day into a world of cold wind and crashing waves in a matter of moments.  The glacier was kind to us on this journey and the mild katabatic wind it created helped to keep the mosquitoes away.

We spent our time  in Glacier Bay exploring its rugged recently de-glaciated landscape and water ways.  We luxuriated on warm sunny beaches and on calm seas that created spectacular mountain reflections.  We paddled through pack ice and below blue tide water glaciers and towering granite cliffs. We even got a glimpse of the Johns Hopkins glacier, one of the few glaciers that is still advancing.

Ibach point reflection

View from Jaw Point, Glacier Bay

John Hopkins Glacier