Archive for whales

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.

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.

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

A little about me..

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on June 15, 2012 by polarguide

You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.   -Frans Kafka

I am a wilderness expedition guide, massage therapist and photographer.  Mine is  a seasonal life marked by months of intense work followed by months of  waiting for the next thing to come along.   Between seasons while most people I know are toiling  tirelessly at their nine to five, I whittle away the hours sitting on the couch drinking coffee and thinking about things I should be doing. I spend days, even weeks in a state of apathy, unable to muster the motivation to do the dishes. Some days I don’t eat. I anxiously pace around the apartment jacked-up on caffeine, talking to myself, worrying about money and wondering what responsibilities I might be ignoring . Hours pass, days go by and I accomplish nothing.

Sitting in quiet solitude allows time for creative thought.  I turn over ideas in my mind like turning over pages in a magazine.  I pore over each idea as if it were a sexy underwear advertisement,  becoming excited every now and again by one idea or another, then I sip my coffee and think about it.  Weeks pass and roll into  months and I grow restless.  By this point my financial situation is becoming a cause for concern and I begin to seriously consider getting a regular job.

This is enough to get the karmic ball rolling.  Just as my money runs short and my tolerance of myself wears thin the season changes and I get an e-mail reminding me of my next job in some  remote corner of the world.  I relax, sit back and take a long satisfied pull from a thick cup of  espresso, calculating  how many more hours there are between now and when I need to begin packing my bags. Then I remember: my apathy has been so thorough I still haven’t unpacked from the last journey.  Laziness, anxiety and hefty doses of caffeine are, evidently, what fuels the fire of manifestation.

crouching over my computer, scrolling through thousands of photographs that I have created, I realize despite my propensity for procrastination I have accomplished some amazing things. This year I have had the good fortune to travel across the Antarctic and the Arctic circles, photographing  polar bears and penguins.  Weirdly weaving my random assortment of skills into one profession  as an expedition guide and massage therapist on a Russian ice breaker.  I didn’t plan it that way, the opportunities just fell into my lap. One day I am sitting quietly on the couch contemplating my toe-nails, the next thing I know I’m in Antarctica, with penguins and fur seals playing at my feet.

Photography is how I document and share my experiences. My family and friends don’t have the opportunity to join me on my adventures, with photographs I can bring the experience to them. The images I capture help tell my story and hopefully give insight into the nature of the wild places I visit and the creatures that live there.

The last few years my photography has been focused on wildlife. Being a wilderness expedition guide I have the opportunity to witness some of natures most spectacular creatures living in their natural environment. I try to create portraits, close ups that reveal details of an individual animal as a representative of its species. The color and texture of fur or feathers, the detail of the eyes. Secondly, I want to put the animal into context with its environment. I want the animal to be obvious in the composition, at the same time I want to give the viewer a broad sense of the landscape in which the animal exists. I always have the viewer in mind. I want the viewer to have a complete and intimate sense of the animals they are seeing in my work. I want them to be there. I want them to have  the experience that I had.

The two photos above are good representations of this idea.  The first shot of an Orca whale shows lots of detail.  You can see that she is just breaking the surface of the water and discern texture in the bubbles she is blowing from her blow hole. As she surfaces ripples of water stream over her rostrum giving the image a sense of movement. We can make out scarring along her body and the detail in the white ring around her eye.  This image gives the viewer a rare opportunity to study the intricate details of an animal that we are lucky to get a glimpse of in the wild.

The second photo shows two killer whales dwarfed by Immense blue glacier and jagged mountain peaks in a landscape seen nowhere else but in Antarctica.  I think Photos like this are inspirational but often overlooked because of their lack of intimacy with what people expect to be the main subject, the whales.  I feel that photos such as this create a realistic  sense of place.  A cold loneliness hints at the tactile existence of the Orca whale.  It reminds us that we are visitors, and gives us a voyeuristic glimpse into the the lives of one of the oceans most efficient marine mammal predators.

King Penguin, South Georgia Island

King penguin colony, South Georgia Island

And lookie here,  I just accomplished something else. I created a blog! I have been meaning to do this for years and just now, today, finally got up the nerve to do it.  Actually, I have created at least three other blogs ranging in content from 1,000 words to one incomplete sentence. I just haven’t had the motivation to complete a blog posting that was coherent and on topic or that I felt confident letting other people read..the season just changed.

I plan to keep this up.  I would like to post stories and photos to send out to the world hoping it brings something back. Something like money.