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Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography


Humpback Whales of Southeast Alaska
Digital/Photoshop Photo Tour
(there are no plans at this time for this photo tour)

orca brown bear

Note: We were required to make a deposit for the 2015 Photo Tour by April 2014, but upon a survey of our prospective participants we could not muster enough participation, so we had to give up the boat. If you are seriously interested in this tour please contact the office to be put on our inquiry list. If there is enough serious interest we will consider a future date.

Please contact the office at for trip details and availability


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Limited to SIX participants only.
Contact our office ASAP if you are interested!

For an even better idea of what to expect on this Photo Tour,
check out our many recent Alaska Whales Trip Reports, or our portfolios (both our's and our participants porfolio).

Imagine photographing the most spectacular of the world's whales, the humpback, while learning Digital Photography skills, digital workflow, and important new features that apply to photographers in Photoshop. Imagine cruising through some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in all of North America, the fjords, channels, and passages of Frederick Sound and the Chatham Strait. Imagine photographing harp seals loafing on calved icebergs, or perhaps seeing a house-sized block of ice cascading from a glacial face into the sea. Imagine joining us on our exciting humpback whale/Digital/Photoshop Photo Tour!

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The humpback is the most spectacular of the world's whales, and southeast Alaska is the best place in the world to see them. At 45-55 feet they are not the largest, as the endangered blue whale potentially can double this length, but their behavior lends itself to the most rewarding whale photography. For humpbacks alone regularly perform, often tail slapping or lob-tailing, or pec-slapping with their huge, wing-like front flippers, or breaching, where a whale may almost completely clear the water before flopping back upon its side with a resounding, thunder-like crash.
But it is the feeding behavior of the humpback whale that is most intriguing, and the most exciting to film. Humpbacks follow to feeding strategies, with one, called bubble-net feeding, one of the most unique feeding behaviors of any mammal. In this feeding method, one or more humpbacks will drop below a school of herring and begin to expel bubbles from its blowhole. As it does so the whales begin to circle the fish and, as the curtain of air bubbles rise, the whales complete their circle and begin to rise. The enclosed fish are reluctant to pass through the encircling curtain of air bubble and are instead herded toward the surface where, in a mighty surge of bulging sea swell as their heads near the surface, the humpback explodes out of the water, mouth agape as it scoops up fish and water in its car-sized mouth. A humpback may take in more than 500 gallons of water and prey in a single lunge, and with a tightening of its throat muscles the balloon-like sack constricts, expelling water through its baleen as it strains out its prey. In this way a whale may capture as much as 100 pounds of food in a single gulp, and in the course of a day consume 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of food!
lunge feedingThe other method of feeding is called lunge feeding, and here a whale, or an entire school of as many as 40 whales, swims along near the surface and suddenly lunges forward, mouth agape, to capture slower moving prey like krill. This behavior, while not as exciting as bubble-net feeding, often provides a wonderful view of the whale's incredible pleated throat that can expand, like a bullfrog in full song, into a huge sack. Again, after they lunge their throat muscles contract and the balloon-like sack constricts and forces water back through their baleen.


Like all whales, this once abundant sea mammal is now endangered, but approximately 6,000 migrate to the northern Pacific each summer to feed, and approximately 1,000 of these enter southeast Alaska each summer. In the area where we will be cruising, about half, or 500, whales spend their summer foraging time here before returning to the Baja or the islands of Hawaii. In these coastal waters, in addition to seeing and photographing lunge and bubble-net feeding we may see lob-tailing, as a whale drifts leisurely along, upside down, waving its tail like a sail as it drifts, or pec-slapping as it smacks its huge white pectoral flippers against the sea. If we're lucky we may see breaching, although this behavior is more commonly seen off Hawaii in the winter breeding season, but rambunctious adults and young bulls may breach at any time. Indeed, one of my most ironic memories concerns a missed breach. We had been watching a whale for several minutes when it disappeared, and we cruised relatively close to a shoreline. For some odd reason I was suspicious, and thought, 'wouldn't it be neat if that whale would breach.' Well, it must have been reading my mind because without warning the whale did just that, rising out of the water in a cascade of white foam, nearly completely rising from the sea before flopping back in a gigantic splash. I was thinking about it, but I wasn't ready, and I missed the whole thing. Fortunately, one of our participants was thinking the same thing, and caught the whole sequence!


tongassOur whale cruise begins and ends in Petersburg, Alaska, sometimes called Alaska's Little Norway for many of its residents ancestry and, no doubt, for the Norway-like fiords, steep, cliff edged passages and inlets that make so much of southeastern Alaska so incredibly beautiful. We'll be cruising through one of America's most beautiful and potentially endangered forests, the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest of sitka spruce, dreamy mosses and goats beard lichens making the area a cool, jungle-like landscape.



landscapeOur route will travel to LeConte Bay and its terminus at the coastal LeConte Glacier, where we may film harbor seals and calving glaciers. From there we'll head north into and through Frederick Sound, home of Alaska's highest concentration of humpback whales, as we head towards Whitney Island and the confluence of Frederick Sound and the Stephen's Channel. From there we'll follow the coasts of Kupreanof Island (the island where Petersburg is located) and Admiralty Island, where most of this island is preserved as the Admiralty Island National Monument, and home to brown bears and bald eagles. In some areas here there is a higher concentration of brown bears than anywhere else in SE Alaska, perhaps in all of Alaska, with a density of about 1 bear per square mile.
After rounding Admiralty we'll head up into another whale-rich location, Chatham strait, as we head toward Warm Spring Bay, another potential brown bear location, before turning back and retracing some of our route through the whale rich waters of Frederick Sound as we head to Petersburg. Our exact itinerary and certainly our time frame will be dictated by weather, sea conditions, and most importantly, whale sightings, and it is entirely possible we may not travel anywhere one day if we encounter a cooperative group of humpback whales bubble-net feeding nearby.


In addition to humpback whales, we'll be looking for Stellar Sea Lions, Dall porpoises, black and brown bears, bald eagles, and orcas (killer whales), and we may find these, and other species, virtually anywhere, or everywhere, along our route. The scenery of this area is unparalleled in North America (think of all those huge cruise ships cranking through SE Alaska each summer) and unlike the cruise ships our wonderfully appointed cruise boat can, and will, travel into fjiords and bays and lagoons not accessible to these monster ships.
eagleOur boat is a 60 foot long expedition charter yacht, captained by Captain Dennis Rogers, a professional, Coast Guard licensed seaman with over 25 years of experience in these waters. Sleeping 10 passengers, we've limited our cruise to a total of 8, or 6 participants, with Mary and I leading and available for instruction throughout.


I'm excited about the chance to photograph in these waters after nearly 9 years, and doing so digitally for the first time. No longer constricted by the costs, and the finite quantity, of film, we're excited about our photograph chances with unlimited shots, and changeable ISOs to accommodate for action and light. We're excited about the opportunity to photograph seascapes from boat and shoreline, of photographing towering black silhouettes of sitka spruce knifing into low hanging, misty clouds, of photographing tidal sea life, and of exploring and photographing the mossy, lichen-filled forests of the Tongass National Forest.


Every trip to this area is unique, and indeed Captain Rogers calls each cruise a 'limited edition' because one never knows what will turn up next. On previous trips I've photographed Dall porpoises as they cruised along, riding the bow wave of our boat in glass-like still black waters, or trailed, and filmed, orcas as they hunted a coastline for salmon or seals. I'm excited about our new possibilities, perhaps seeing brown bears fishing along coastal rivers, or photographing pink or red salmon as they scurry up river bottom shallows to spawn.
I'm also very excited about sharing with you the latest in Photoshop, and the digital possibilities it provides. Some of CS4's latest features, like the Mask Palette in the Adjustment Panel, offers quick selections and adjustments that are so fast and easy to use I simply can't believe it, and the new ACR RAW converter offers several new features as well. However, sometimes our shooting is so intense, and the weather so good, that we simply don't have the time for a formal Photoshop set of classes. Even if that happens, there is still plenty of time for informal interchanges and instruction, from Mary and I, and also from the helpful participants.
orcaIn our off-time, during bad weather (if we have any) or while cruising (if whales are not visible), and in the evening after a delicious dinner, we'll conduct several seminars on digital photography and all its aspects. We'll cover metering and exposure, and offer suggestions on digital workflow. We'll cover Photoshop CS6's latest offerings, and hopefully we'll get you up to speed with this exciting new program. If you don't have CS6, most, if not all, of what we can cover will also be available via CS5, but in a slower or more round-about way.
We encourage everyone to bring along a portfolio of 40 images of their best images, show casing your work, or your latest trip. We also invite you to bring along as many as 20 images that you wish to have critiqued, for a total of 60 if you so choose, or mixed in with your 40 show images.
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Join us on what can seem to be a relaxing cruise -- sailing through southeast Alaska's best whale waters, as we search for and photograph humpback whales and other sea mammals and birds. I say, 'what can seem to be' because activity may prove to be frenetic at times if we luck into spectacular bubble-net feeding, or we spend hours ashore photographing along the shorelines and in the forest of the Tongass.


Phone: (717) 543-6423 or Fax: (717) 543-5342

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