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Humpback Whales and the
Wildlife of Southeast Alaska
Photo Tour
Trip Report


This was the fourth trip we’ve made for Humpback Whales and the Wildlife of Southeast Alaska with our captain, Dennis Rogers, on his luxurious boat, the Northern Song. Prior to every trip I think that this will be the last, that we’ll be finished with the whales, and every time, including this time, we immediately plan upon returning as soon as the trip begins. Being away and forgetting about the fun and the excitement it is easy to say that we’ve had enough, but being there one remembers!
There is always the worry that luck won’t be with us, that the weather will be bad or that the whales won’t cooperate. After all, coastal Alaska is coastal Alaska, and rain is frequent here, but even with rains, shooting digitally, the weather isn’t a problem. Fortunately for us, the weather was great, and our spats with rain were infrequent.
The whales, however, well that’s a different story … they were terrific! We had a great show of breaching on our first full day sailing, and on our last full day we lucked into the one thing we still needed to see: bubble-net feeding. On that day, with perfect sunny skies, we had nine hours of bubble-net feeding, an experience we’ll always remember. We had great orcas, incredible black bears, a neat salmon run experience, and beautiful scenic, making the trip perhaps the best of all we’ve done.
We are hoping to do another tour here in August of 2015 and space is limited to only six participants, so if you’re interested, please contact our office immediately! The trip report that follows details our day to day experiences and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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Interested in doing this trip? Most photographers would benefit from taking our Digital Complete Nature Photo Course first, where you'll learn accurate manual exposure, camera-handling, workflow, optimal RAW conversion, and far more!


August 1. As I write this, we’re heading out to Frederick Sound under clear and balmy skies. SE Alaska has had an unseasonably warm and atypical summer to date, and we hope that luck continues. As we left the harbor at Petersburg, Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls milled about in the air behind us, diving and flapping in dizzying patterns. Close to port, Black Guillemots, small seabirds resembling pigeons, zoomed by on rapidly beating wings, arching steeply to come to roost on weathered timbers supporting the piers and fish-handling warehouses. Just out of the harbor two buoys swayed under the combined weight of six to eight Steller’s Sea Lions, the threatened dominant seal species of these waters. Earlier, as we left the harbor, Harbor Seals had bobbed low and inconspicuously, with only their heads showing and resembling drift wood or gray buoys.
We had arrived two days earlier, late enough on the first day to do nothing but check in at our hotel. The two main restaurants in town were both closed, and the only viable option being either a Mexican take-out or Inga’s, offering seafood and burgers, both adjacent to the hotel on either side. We opted for Inga’s, and the food, cooked in a small trailer parked on an adjacent gravel lot, was delicious.
Yesterday, for our full day in Petersburg we rented two sedans and drove south along the only significant stretch of paved road which led though a section of the vast Tongas National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in the world. At Blind Rapids a quarter mile boardwalk spans a bog-like wetland where red mosses and carnivorous Lobe-leafed Sundews dotted the mudflats with color and leads to the river’s edge where, in the past, we’d seen black bear.

This year, King Salmon had spawned upstream and their carcasses floating into the rapids had attracted dozens of Bald Eagles. Stupidly, but not for the first time I’ve done this, we all decided to walk out to check before hauling out the cameras and in doing so, of course, we found that several eagles were feeding close to the trail. We raced back to the parking lot, just as another vehicle pulled in, unloading parents, two kids, and two dogs. By the time we returned to the river the kids and dogs had flushed off the birds, and we could only hope that the birds would soon return or fly close by as they patrolled the shoreline.

bearOver the next few hours eagles flew by several times, often close enough for more than frame-filling shots. The AF systems of everyone’s cameras were often tricked by background trees, causing real frustration as it inevitably seemed that the best, front-view poses were missed. A black bear fished along a distant river bank, which surprised me as hunting is allowed in the forest and, at the wrong time of year, that bear would have been doomed. Perhaps the fishing was just too enticing, for the bear’s effort was nothing more than wading out and grabbing one of the many fish carcasses floating by.
We broke for lunch, back at Inga’s, and returned in the late afternoon, by-passing Blind Rapids and traveling first to the end of the road, a 36 mile stretch, hoping for some landscapes. En route we had several  Sika Black-tail Deer and one Porcupine, but there were no shots, and we headed back to the rapids to resume our watch along the river. Two bears came within view, but unfortunately they fished directly to our west, and most of the lighting was problematic or just plain terrible. Eagles continued to soar by often enough to keep us interested, although in the final two hours of light the birds appeared to have gone to roost. In the tropics I’ve seen similar patterns, where by late afternoon birds were quiet or missing, while hours before sunrise, in the dimmest of pre-dawn light, birds sang raucously.
eagleThis morning, hoping for more action before returning our car rentals, we headed back out, leaving the hotel at 5:30 for the 25 minute drive to the rapids. We beat the sun, and it was not until nearly 7am before the light reached the river and was really shootable. Birds were surprisingly inactive in the earliest hours and the expected early morning activity simply didn’t happen. Most eagles remained perched, with a few with outstretched wings they dried in the morning sun.

After 7AM a few birds flew about, and two offered fairly good shooting as they fed on salmon along the river’s edge. Northwestern Crows, recognized as a separate species but closely resembling the common crow, scavenged along the rocks, often chased by their huge cousin, the Common Raven. The forest often rang with the calls of the latter, not just the typical raven croak but other calls as well, bell-like gongs, hoots, and croaks, some sounding more like frogs than birds.
At 4 we boarded the boat, stowed our gear, and had a safety briefing from Dennis.   Almost everyone had either a Kiboko or Bataflae bag and I felt like we were a walking commercial for that gear!  We were using our new  Bataflae camera backpacks from Gura Gear for the first time. These bags are deeper than the Kiboko bags we’ve been using, and Mary could quite comfortably keep her 500mm, with lens hood reversed, mounted to her camera inside the bag. My 800 was too long to keep the camera attached, but the lens fit in perfectly, with room to spare for when we flew, when I’d place a smaller lens or external hard drives in the available space. I took a risk this year, taking an 800mm along instead of the 500mm I usually use. Mary still used her 500, so we were covered, but I thought I’d go for a new look and risk having too much lens. Sometimes I did have too much, but for the most part I enjoyed using the long lens, especially as it was supported by a Really Right Stuff Long Lens Support system, that really braced what I think is an otherwise rather light lens for the focal length.

From a distance Devil's Thumb looks like a solid, rather featureless granite monolith,
but from the air it is quite different and beautiful.


Shortly after the briefing, we headed out, passing through the harbor and the docked crab boats, including one of the boats, the Time Bandit,  from the Discovery Channel TV series, The Dangerous Catch, as well as the gulls, and the guillemots. Because conditions were perfect, we had a flight-seeing option to book a seaplane for a circumnavigation of Devil’s Thumb, a granite, imposing monolith that straddles the Canadian border. Sherry, Johann, and Romaine planeimmediately said they’d go and we booked the flight. I didn’t know it at the time but Rafael also wanted to do the flight-seeing, but the plane only takes three and we’d need another two or three people for another run. As it turned out, the plane could do another run but only with two because of the fuel allotment. Having the chance,  I joined Rafael (Mary had made a flight-seeing trip at Denali years ago) for my first excursion over the ice.
It was wonderful, and in the late afternoon light, around 5:30PM, the shadows were long enough to be interesting while not obstructing the key features of the landscape. Devil’s Thumb, which looks like a solid, continuous sheer bolt of rock from our waterfront view, is actually composed of a series of sheer peaks, with one narrow ridge forming a peculiar fork that, close-up, could be seen as a hand. The shadows playing over the glaciers and ice fields in the late light created intriguing forms and dimples and depressions .  As Rafael and I soared over the peaks, making tight circles that in the hands of an inexperienced pilot may have led us into fatal smash ups, the vista and the perspective changed magically.
mtStupidly (the second stupid move in two days) I forgot to reload my 64 gb Hoodman card, and it was only after we had taken off that I confirmed that I had a card in my camera, a 16 gb Hoodman. I didn’t know that I had failed to reformat that card from my last shoot, and when I looked at the counter, I discovered I only had 300 images left on the card. Since I’ve been shooting 64 gb, I honestly couldn’t remember how many shots I’d get with a 16 gb. Had I checked the images, I’d have seen that fully half the card was previously downloaded, but I wasn’t thinking, too excited about the flight. Instead, and probably for the better, I shot conservatively, with my camera set on single shot, and budgeted my images. When we landed, an hour later, I still had 95 images available on my card.
The three original shooters went up next, and while they were flying distant humpbacks performed an incredible display of breaching, while we stayed at anchor, anxiously awaiting their return. Dinner was served when Johann, Romaine, and Sherry landed, and Dennis, our captain, sailed toward the whales immediately, but by the time we arrived the show was over. In the last minutes of the day we followed the whales as they blew orange-tinted mist into the air and trickled gold from their flukes as they raised their great tails from the sea.

A snow-covered, glacial landscape from the air
near Devil's Thumb.

breachAugust 2. Sherry was up early, and watched more distant whales breaching. Most everyone else was on deck by 7AM and soon after a closer Humpback began to perform, executing breaches in a series of either two or three. We set sail in that direction. The first breaches were some distance away and almost all of us shot conservativeky with 70-300mm lenses, but after getting those shots those that could switched to larger lenses for near frame-filling images. I was using an 800mm and through sheer luck twice the humpback materialized right in the middle of my frame, rising in great breaches from the sea. It was exciting, and very gratifying to be lucky enough to have a whale tight within the frame at the moment it broke the surface, and I was thrilled. In all, we had at least 10 chances as the whale did his two and three series breaches, and everyone shot great images.


wWe followed several other groups of whales through the morning, getting nice near-water level shots as some whales swam behind the boat, where the swim deck provided the perfect vantage for low angled, water-level shots. While we were having lunch a very distant whale breached 12 times in succession, each breach created a thunderclap that took two or three seconds to reach us. Often, during the trip while we were watching whales we’d hear the thunder-like boom of a whale’s breach, sometimes so far away we never saw any sign of the whale. Our captain, Dennis, knew that chasing breaches was almost always unproductive and we continued motoring. He was right, as the whale stopped all activity after the twelfth breach.
After lunch we did two runs with a salmon fishing boat that was purse seining. Our captain knew the salmon boat’s captain who didn’t mind our circling and approaching his boat quite close, sometimes with our skiff actually abutting the larger boat. The captain laid two purse lines while we watched, catching several hundred fish at each attempt. It looked like hard, wet work, with water cascading off the nets that were carefully coiled as they were reeled back in, the coils providing for a smooth deployment when the next net would be cast. At the end of the first run I watched as the crew hosed each other off, and although they were wearing waterproof gear, the smell and mess must be sufficient to require a wash down.

We spent a wonderful couple of hours photographing and observing a salmon
purse-seining operation. This was an incredibly good year for salmon fishermen,
in an industry filled with uncertainty, hardwork, and danger.

Alaskan fishing can be hazardous along with being a hard job. An acquaintance of one fisherman told us about his friend who almost lost his arm when his jacket caught on the racket of the wheel pulling in the net, breaking his arm before another crew member could come to his aid. Later on in the trip we learned about a terrible crab-fishing tragedy several years ago when, in extremely rough seas, twenty-three boats went down with all hands aboard in twenty-four hours.
Late in the afternoon we headed towards Kake, a small, isolated fishing village on the western side of Kupreanof island, where sea otters, black bears, and plenty of whales are common. We arrived just before our 7PM dinner, and afterwards, as the light grew low and increasing warm, with a cast of golden orange glazing the sea, we photographed the Humpbacks as they lunge fed upon krill. Single whales would blow a small circle of bubbles, making their progress easy to follow as the string of bubbles broke the surface, then pop up, mouth wide open, and catch the krill they trapped inside. We had stopped our engines and floated quietly while one whale repeatedly fed nearby, although never with a very dramatic lunge. We photographed past 9PM in still, quiet waters where the only sounds were the blasting hiss of exhalations as whales surfaced all around us and continued feeding through the night.


kAugust 3. We anchored outside of Kake overnight and after breakfast cruised the adjacent waters where, last week, humpback whales were abundant. Dawn broke today foggy and whale-less, and with the soft light we decided to head into Kake to visit the salmon hatchery where black bears are often seen.
The walk from the southern pier into town to the hatchery is less than a mile and covers fairly easy terrain, with the sole highway in Kake crossing two streams along the route. At the first small stream we were aghast at the number of dead salmon lying in the water and upon the banks, the victim of low water levels and high temperatures. I didn’t pay the streams too much attention after snapping an overhead view of the dead salmon, but Rafael noticed the butt of a black bear sticking out from behind the long grasses flanking the tidal meadow. That bear, with a missing right eye, eventually rose from its resting position and walked towards us, catching a live salmon en route and marching directly to us with its catch. These bears, we were soon to learn, are sated bwith salmon and often eat only the brains or the eggs, and the fresh fish this bear caught was a male, and quickly discarded, mortally injured but left intact to die upon the shoreline. Our bear continued towards us, eventually passing beneath us through a culvert and to the other side where it disappeared into the thick brush. It was a great start and we felt our visit to Kake had already been successful, but there was more to come.

We moved on to the next creek where another bear foraged for salmon in the open. While we filmed it, several other bears appeared upstream, in view of the salmon hatchery viewing platform about three hundred yards away. We photographed these bears for nearly an hour as they chased salmon up and down the stream before we moved on, continuing to the hatchery.
Although we wondered if that extra hike would be worth it we found it certainly was, as multiple bears appeared over the next two hours. At least two mother bears with cubs appeared, including one mother with a cub of the year that Mary spotted in the forest, and another bear with two first year cubs and still another with one spring cub. We’ve been to this hatchery several times but we’d never seen cubs, so to have three mothers and a total of four cubs was a real treat. The mothers fished, and the cubs stayed close, and we had multiple opportunities for some spectacular shooting as bears caught and carried fresh salmon in their jaws. Most salmon were barely touched, and where often left flopping on the beach, injured by a bear bite to die on the rocky shoreline.
Frequently here at Kake we’ll have Bald Eagles perched along the tall evergreens but today we saw only two. I did get lucky with a Belted Kingfisher that perched close by before rattling off as they’re most often wont to do.

Dog Salmon pile into the small stream at Kake, where Black Bears gather to feed.

Today was the Salmon Festival in Kake and earlier we’d seen a Native American with a fancy head dress pass by, yelling ‘Come to the festival’ as he raced by, sitting in the back of a pickup truck. Finally having enough bears we headed into town where the festival was in full swing, with vendors selling food and trinkets and where two teen-age girls sang, American Idol-like, on stage to a disinterested crowd. The costumed dancers we hoped to see and photograph were nowhere to be seen, and the Master of Ceremony of the affair could provide no insight, and so, under the ringing blare of an off-key girl, we headed back to the boat.

You must look closely to see the well-camouflaged shapes of Surfbirds and Black Turnstones.

Before and after lunch Dennis took groups of us out in the skiff to photograph Surf Birds and Black Turnstones that had amassed on barnacle-encrusted rocks before their migration south. I went out twice, using a 500mm on the first leg, and my 800mm on the second, and captured some nice images on both occasions. Sitting quietly on the yellow-orange colored rocks, the shorebirds blended in perfectly, and except for those perched high and seen with a clear outline the birds could easily be overlooked. When groups would flush, as happened when a Merlin flew by, their true numbers were visible, hundreds of birds scattered through the rocks.
We headed out to sea soon after, pausing to do skiff rides in the kelp where we hoped to photograph Sea Otters. Mary did the first run and reported such poor success that I passed on going out on the second, and instead remained inside to write and edit, while Johann, Rafael, and Romaine filled the skiff for what we hoped would be a more successful venture. They did little better, although Romaine did get a very sharp, if distant, image of an otter facing her, a pretty successful shot under the circumstances. The highlight for the three was a landfall on a small island which Johann enjoyed so much he said he could spend a week there, with the unusual vegetation, sandy beaches, and life-littered beach rocks.
oWe headed north after dinner, which was cut short when Dennis ran down from the bridge to report four Orcas, or Killer Whales, ahead of us. A female and calf or smaller whale kept close to shore and ahead of us but the two males, one later identified as being 32 years, kept pace with our boat, sometimes ahead, behind, or along the side. Although we never had a breach the whales often rose high, showing their complete head before curving gracefully back into the sea, their dorsal fin sluicing through the water like the conning tower of a nuclear sub. I ran to the swim deck when the whales lagged behind us and twice whales swam directly toward the boat, and from the low angle of that deck watching the vertical fin cutting through the water and the rounded gray-black dome of the whale’s back pushing water away in a curving U-shaped bow wave, and hoping that any second a whale might breach made for exhilarating minutes. We photographed until the light literally disappeared, and I pushed my ISO to 8000 for the last series of images until, in the gloom of dusk, the whales vanished.

An Orca raises its head clear, as another's dorsal fin slices the water like a knife blade.

August 4. We awoke to rain, and for me the end of a miserable night of debilitating leg pain that had me writhing on the floor of our cabin for several minutes. The sea was dead calm under the low canopy of clouds and the rain spackled the flat surface in distinctive marks that reminded me of a hatch of mayflies along a quiet stretch of river. The dark silhouettes of whale backs or tails rose silently from the quiet sea, a silver gray expanse that merged into the distant sky as one seamless background. We motored on to a small chain of islands adjacent to the Brothers Islands where we hoped to find a large haul out of Steller’s sea lions. The light rain ceased and under cloudy bright conditions we approached the sea lions, a huge expanse of red-brown sbodies that, from a distance, was mistaken for rocks by some.
We spent an hour or more with the sea lions as they basked, complained, or fought along the beach or shallow waters. Sexual dimorphism is expressed most dramatically with the Pinnipeds, the seal family, with some species, like the elephant seal, having males three or four times larger than the female. This difference was not as pronounced with these sea lions, although the mature males were at least 2.5X the size of the females lying thickly upon the cobble beach. Immature males sparred constantly, mouthing one another or grabbing each other by the throat, and splashing and bporposing through the water. A few full adults sparred as well, but none did so seriously, and I had to wonder if these matches were for fun or a gentle testing of strength that might be determinate for assessing rank later on. Oddly, no sea lion swam out to meet us as we’ve had happen on some other occasions, where we lay upon the swim deck for near water-level shots. Instead, the sea lions stayed around the beach where we left them, undisturbed, when we slowly backed out to sea.
It rained through much of the afternoon and we headed down into Frederick Sound hoping to find whales. They seemed to have disappeared and the usual hotspots were barren. Dennis was nervous, wanting to produce, but there were no whales about. We headed towards the southern shore where we hoped to find whales, and while crossing the sound Dennis spotted a distant whale breaching. We sailed west, arriving while the whale was still active. I missed the first potential series when I extended the wrong leg on my tripod, requiring me to reset the legs and, while doing so, a spectacular breach occurred.
wFortunately we had several more breaches and I caught one with the 800mm that just barely fit within the frame. Mary was using a 500mm and did much better with her framing, as did everyone else with shorter lenses. After the whale stopped his show others appeared, lung feeding on krill or, perhaps, herring, which each individual whale collected in a personal bubble-net, circling inward upon themselves as the bubbles created a broad 9, with the whale surfacing within the center hole of the figure 9. Sometimes the whales surfaced quite close to the boat and from the top deck thiswould have been a great shot but when I moved up there with Warren the whales moved off, frustrating us with the missed opportunity. We headed in to Cape Fanshaw for our evening anchorage under dreary skies.

A Marbled Murrelet slaps across the water prior to take-off.

August 5. It continued to rain lightly through the night and we awoke to low, dull, wet skies and a whale-less sea. Although our original plan was to wait for bubble-net feeding, we scraped that in the absence of whales and instead headed to Gambier Bay where earlier a stream had been thick with Pink and Chum Salmon. We arrived at the head of the bay as the tide was rising, and after unloading and removing our life vests we almost lost them as the rising waters nearly cut off the small island where we unloaded the vests. Moving to higher closer to the trees the vests were safe as we explored the temperate rain forest and the salmon stream.
Gambier Forest views, from huge tree trunks to the understory of Western
Skunk Cabbage, ferns, and mushrooms.

Belted Kingfishers feed on the young salmon; while the carcasses of salmon, here
from a bear kill, replenish the stream with vital nutrients.

Before we disembarked for our on-land excursion I had challenged everyone to try to capture the essence of the rain forest and the environment, for an impromptu photo contest where we’d determine the winners in a slide show that evening featuring three images from each photographer. It was a fun exercise that motivated everyone to really ‘see’ the forest and later, when we did the show, it proved to be a productive exercise that really depicted the beauty of the area.
I carried a GoPro video camera that I intended on setting in a salmon stream, but stupidly, being unfamiliar with the camera, I had the video set for reversing the image which would capture a right-side image when the camera was suspended upside down. Since I set the camera upright, my resulting video was reversed, although software would correct that on a computer. The video, however, was great, when salmon swimming right up to the camera and hovering there in the current. These were Dog Salmon or Chum, with elongated toothy lower jaws the males develop as they begin their final journey into their spawning grounds. In the video, I captured spawning, as a male released a cloud of milky sperm into the water, and a few spats where males banged and bit at one another, and amusing close-ups as salmon faced the camera, just inches away, and hung there, jaws agape.

These are screen shots from my GoPro video of the Dog Salmon, with the one on
the left releasing milt (sperm) into the stream bed. The salmon will die after spawning.

While I set up the videocamera I passed close by to a pair of Kingfishers that perched on a log overhanging the stream. Had I had my 800mm along, I’d have had frame-filling shots, and I suspect these kingfishers had never been exposed to humans and were unafraid. Still, this wary bird would fly off when I glanced in their direction, but as I moved along they’d return to the same spot. A wonderful opportunity, but one I could not exploit.

A quiet moment and self-portrait, and Warren working on the photo project.

We didn’t leave the forest until after 2, and after a late lunch headed back toward Fanshaw for our anchorage. En route we encountered an enormous flock of Surf Scoters in molt, and as our boat approached the birds steamed ahead of us, churning the waters with their wings and reminding me of the flightless steamer ducks of the Falklands. Most species of duck moult at the end of the breeding season, perhaps leveling the odds for the survival of their chicks as the bentire flock becomes flightless in what’s called a catastrophic moult. After a few weeks the birds regain their flight feathers and their beautiful fall plumage, which they’ll maintain through the next year’s breeding season and until the next late summer moult.
Later, we sailed to a stony beach where over 100 Harbor Seals had hauled up. Dennis assumed we’d only get distant shots as these seals are hunted and are wary. Most of the seal humped themselves noisily into the water as we approached but a group of 40 or so remained on the beach and proved remarkably tolerant as we slowly approached. The seals stayed, and with my big lens I had nearly frame-filling shots, and two or three seals filled the frame for most everyone. Dennis couldn’t believe our luck, as these seals were never this tolerant. When we finished we quietly backed out, leaving the tolerant seals remaining on the beach.
Harbor seals are true seals, in that their hind limbs are true flippers and extend backwards, following the line of their body. The Steller’s Sea Lions are ‘eared’ seals, an entirely different group, distinguished by external ears (lacking in true seals) and hind flippers that can rotate sforwards, allowing them to move along at a near gallop, fast enough, it is said, to outrun a man on a beach. On our last Antarctica trip a Southern Sea Lion galloped across a beach, charging me, which I stopped just feet away by sticking my tripod legs in its face. One of our co-leaders wasn’t as lucky twenty minutes later, not having a tripod he had nothing to block this same sea lion when it charged him, knocking him down and biting him severely on his knee.
We continued toward the east in increasing bright skies, and Mary did some great landscape/cloudscapes in the late light. Earlier in the day we had set five shrimp pots which we now collected, catching over 280 large shrimp and some odd crabs and sea stars. These we photographed on a plastic container before releasing, while the shrimp will see another fate tomorrow.

By-catch from our shrimp pots, all released unhurt back to the sea. However, a sobering statistic - in some fisheries, this by-catch may be as high as 15:1, composed of invertebrates and non-commericial fish, turtles, dolphins, etc. These animals usually die and are discarded!

wAugust 6. We overnighted in Cape Fanshaw, hoping to find whales in the early light but we didn’t have luck. As we had breakfast Dennis headed out into Frederick Sound in hopes of finding whales and we had success with several humpbacks tail-slapping. All feeding activity was restricted to deep dives for krill, and except for dramatic blows against a dark shoreline the whale shooting was slim.
After lunch we took turns going out in the skiff for water-level shots of whales, and although I thought we did fairly poorly, not getting too close, in looking at the images afterward I saw that we actually did quite well, with dramatic lighting and low angles. We had one close encounter with a whale tail-slapping, but the slap occurred unexpectedly and was not repeated, and I managed only one quick shot.
wMary’s turn in the skiff went better, and Rich managed a great water-level shot of a breaching whale, the second they had on their ride! Towards the end of their nearly two hour ride they came upon the pair of humpbacks we’d been working on from the boat, getting nice low angle shots as the pair lunge-fed towards them.
While Mary, Rich, Romaine, and Sherry did the skiff the rest of us shot from the boat where, for well over an hour that same pair of humpbacks fed close by, giving us some incredible opportunities for lunge-feeding shots. I used the 800mm for most of the shooting, which was a challenge as there was virtually no warning when the whales surfaced, but with it I got some extremely detailed close ups of the baleen. Once, the pair surfaced quite close, and then, blowing loudly as if in agitation, they approached and, with a mighty swirl of fins, dipped beneath the boat, surfacing several hundred yards away. They returned, however, and continued the show.

Two views of the baleen, the filtering combs in a whale's upper jaw. The baleen is composed of tissue similiar to the ridges in the roof of your mouth, it is not like teeth.

When the skiff returned we headed for an anchorage, overnighting in Farragut Bay where, at the beginning of the trip, we had our best breaching whales. The sky, which started our day in a thick, brooding overcast, had opened during the day and tonight, the sunset was perhaps the best we’d had our the trip. As was our dinner … most of the 280 shrimp we caught the day before.


August 7. We awoke to a brilliant sky, hoping that we would be surrounded by whales. We were not, but just before breakfast a lone Orca appeared, its tall black dorsal fin piercing the water like a sail. We headed out, and as we ate breakfast Dennis tried to keep the orca in sight. The whale did several very lengthy dives, and in one of these the whale slipped away, lost in the vastness of the sound.
We continued on toward Petersburg, and at Dry Bay we spotted a group of six Humpbacks blowing, their exhalations bright against the deeply shadowed eastern shore. Heading in that direction we were elated to see the group dive and bubble-net feed, the first time we’d seen wthis behavior on the trip! Finally finding a group doing this unusual behavior we stayed, and ended up spending the entire day at Dry Bay, sailing up and down the shoreline as we followed the humpbacks as they fed. The morning activity was spotty, but we were so enthused that the twenty minute gaps between feeding, usually interspersed by long sleeps where the whales’ rounded backs reminded everyone of manatees, did not distract us. By lunch time the tide had changed and with it, apparently, more herring swam in and the activity picked up, so much so that most of us grabbed our lunch and ate on the deck, gobbling a couple of mouthfuls between bouts  of bubble-netting.
During the peak action, whales would sound and surface, bubble-net feeding, in as few as two minutes and as long as six. The average was around three, so the action was constant although often the whales surfaced too far away, or appeared behind our boat, and not every session ended with photographs. Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls usually cued us to their impending emergence, as the gulls circled high and, as the herring started boiling at the surface, dove toward the boil at the last second. Frequently, the gulls would land at the tail-end of the bubble wnet with the whales appearing at the opposite end, which threw us off, and for me, trying to use an 800mm, I missed several good lunges by not seeing where the whales were appearing, my attention drawn to the gulls instead. Nonetheless, with as many opportunities as we had, me, and everyone else, did quite well.
Bubble-net feeding is perhaps the most spectacular whale behavior, excepting  for breaching, perhaps, as a group of whales sound, swim deep, locate a herring school, and one or more whales down deep circle from below, emitting bubbles as it does so, corralling the confused herring in a curtain of ascending bubbles. We had a hydrophone beneath the water and could hear the feeding calls of the whales, which changed from the typical moaning, an ‘ooh ooh ooh wooh,’  to a higher pitched, rising tone, an’eeee eeeee eeeee,’ just before the whales would break the surface. Between the hydrophone and the gulls we had a pretty good idea that the whales were about to appear, we just wouldn’t know where, and once, when I had my 800mm on, the entire group surfaced unexpectedly right in front of the boat. I fired and sprayed, hoping to catch one interesting pose in such a tight frame.
By 5 the tide had changed again and the whales became wider-ranging and less predictable, and further away. Once, the group we were watching unexpectedly breached, so close to the sheer cliff walls that someone on shore could have jumped on that whale or the other whales that followed behind. Another whale further out breached as well, and began tail-slapping, but it was too distant for any real shots. By 6PM, with hundreds of bubble-net shots on our cards, we headed east, to our last destination, Leconte Glacier.

Beached icebergs at the bay's mouth, and bergs against a mysterious,
cloud-shrouded mountain slope nearer to the glacier.

iAugust 8. Our last day, and despite the beautiful weather of yesterday and without any sign or warning of a change, we awoke to a light rain. As we headed into the mouth of the Leconte Glacier fjord, beached icebergs, glowing an other-worldly blue, drew us out into the rain as Dennis circled various bergs, all shaped and twisted differently from the action of the waves below, before continuing on into the fjord. On almost all of our previous trips the weather was reasonably clear, so our views today, constricted by tendrils of low clouds and swirls of fog gave this normally dramatic, steep-sided cliffs an entirely new look, and a very dramatic one. Dark shapes of trees clinging to thin crevices on the otherwise glacier-polished rock faces had a spooky, ethereal quality, and waterfalls plunging from the heights disappeared in the mists above.
As we continued towards the glacier face we found scores of Harbor Seals lying upon the bergy bits and brash ice and we motored in surprisingly close, to frame-filling distance for many lenses. As we neared the glacier a ‘shooter,’ a broken slab of glacier that dislodges from beneath the sea, blasted to the surface near a tour boat, and a few minutes later another large wall crashed down from the glacial face, a skyscraper-like pile of ice that slammed into the sea, rocking that boat and eventually our’s in its wake.
We stayed with the glacier for about two hours, hoping that we’d have another big calving, but aside from some little slides and tiny shooters the glacier was quiet. A few ice bits that fell created a gunshot-loud blast that may have intensified in the steep walled canyon but at a third of a mile from the glacier it’s hard to get perspective. It is more than likely these small ice chunks that crashed into the bay were the size of small cars.
This glacier is one of the few still advancing in Alaska, moving about 80 feet a day although there is probably no real forward movement as this glacial front continually drops its face into ithe sea. The glacier is at least 600 feet thick, and from our boat, looking up at the polished rock that rises an easy 600 feet or more above the bay, its hard to imagine that the glacier was once at least twice this high. From the sea, 12,000 or more years ago, one would have been looking at a glacier front at least 1,000 feet high!
We headed back to Petersburg after lunch, stopping mid-trip for a going-away ceremony where Dennis awards certificates and we did a short portfolio presentation to show the crew what we had shot on the trip. The Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls that met us on the way out, a week ago, were now replaced by huge flocks of Glaucous-winged Gulls milling about by the hundreds against the dark shoreline. The rain continued, a complete contrast with the clear, warm skies that began this adventure.
We had our going-away dinner at Inga’s again, one of the only restaurants in town, where we reviewed the highlights and major points of the trip. It was gratifying that the shore excursion at Gambier Bay was one of the favorite activities, one we almost passed on because of the expressed desire by everyone to go and find whales. I’d been haunted by that initial decision, where we worked as a democracy, and where I didn’t make the final decision, but fortunately we made a later change to visit Gambier, and everyone loved it. The bears at Kake were another highlight, as, of course, were the breaching and bubble-net feeding and lunge-feeding of the humpbacks.
When we returned to the hotel we found four women sleeping on couches, discovering that today’s flight to Juneau and Anchorage had been cancelled because of fog. We hoped tomorrow’s flight fares better.


August 9. The morning was clear, and our flight seemed assured, but the flight was nevertheless late, by two hours, and we wiled away the hours sitting in the tiny, crowded Petersburg airport. Sherry missed her connecting flight to return to Washington, and in Juneau we said good-bye to Romaine, with the remainder, Rich, Rafael, Johann, and Warren, continuing on to a rainy Anchorage for our next leg, a 6:45AM flight to Kodiak Island and the coastal bears of Katmai


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