Southeast Alaska, 5/15/2023, National Geographic Sea Bird
National Geographic Sea Bird
We awoke to clear blue skies and pleasant temperatures. These are unusual but most welcome conditions for Southeast Alaska in mid-May. Shortly after the early risers woke, we crossed over the ancient, submerged terminal moraine of Sawyer Glacier into Holkham Bay, the entrance to Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness. The submerged moraine creates swirling vertical and horizontal currents, which churn up plankton that attracts numerous foraging birds. Shortly after crossing the moraine, we observed a single black bear on the beach. Several minutes later, we spotted a single humpback whale a few feet from the cliff face. Tracy Arm was ‘littered’ with brash ice and growlers, which forced the ship to stop well before reaching the glacier. No matter…we embarked on Zodiac cruises, but still, we were unable to get closer to the glacier. Nevertheless, while cruising through the ice field, we saw numerous roaring waterfalls, breathtaking vistas of snow-covered mountains and sheer, vertical cliffs, creatively sculpted ice, lush green and impossibly positioned spruce and cedars, and several harbor seals, including a mother-calf pair resting peacefully on a small growler.
After lunch, we listened to two presentations and watched for wildlife, spotting a mother-calf pair of humpback whales. Before dinner, we enjoyed a rousing game of Jeopardy that covered a few subjects, including: How well do you know National Geographic Sea Bird? How well do you know your naturalists? How well do you know photographic terms? Great fun was had by all.
After dinner, many of us gathered on the bow to watch for wildlife in stunning conditions: a clear and sunny sky, warm temperatures, and a following wind. A wonderful ending to a pretty great day in Southeast Alaska!
It was Malle and Cousteau’s The Silent World , viewed in a dusty meeting hall on a wintry day in central Wisconsin that forged Jim’s dream and commitment to become a marine biologist. Never mind that he was only 8 at the time and that it would be a...
This morning found us where the Pacific Ocean meets Cross Sound and Icy Strait, the Inian Islands. Named by William Healey Dall, one of Alaska's earliest scientific explorers, in 1879, the Inians are a mecca for wildlife. The powerful tidal currents flowing in and out daily create a tremendous upwelling of nutrient-rich water. This area is where fishing boats from the various ports in the northern portion of the Inside Passage enter and exit. It was a glorious day with calm seas, which allowed us to cruise around the various islands in our Zodiacs drinking in the fantastic scenery and looking for wildlife. Unmissable were the Steller (or northern) sea lions, the largest member of the “eared seals,” first described in 1742 by Georg Wilhelm Steller, the German surgeon and naturalist on the Bering expedition. We saw many of them on “bachelor haul-outs,” rocks where single males of all ages bask, posture and feed on numerous species of fish. Sea otters with pups are just about the cutest animals on the planet! As members of the weasel or mustelid family, southern sea otters are the smallest marine mammal. Like other members of this family, they have very thick fur. In fact, at 850,000 to 1 million hairs per square inch, sea otters have the thickest fur of any mammal. Without blubber to protect them from chilly ocean waters, sea otters rely on their thick fur.
The “crown jewel of the Park Service” is a fitting title for Glacier Bay National Park. With blue skies above and Marjorie Glacier in front of us, we started our day of exploration. Brown bears roamed the shorelines, mountain goats did convincing imitations of laundry piles. A group of Steller sea lions seemed to take exception to our attentions towards the goats on Gloomy Knob and photo-bombed them. Onward to Geike Inlet where a sleepy brown bear reclined in a snowbank, and five wolves traipsed up a snow slope, and a moose reclined down the inlet in the same style as our prior bear. Onward to South Marble Island with the boisterous and odiferous Steller sea lions draped about the shoreline rocks. Staccato squawks of kittiwakes and other gulls filled the air as a pair of bald eagles sporadically took flight, upsetting the avian residents of the island. A stroll around the park headquarters at Bartlett Cove amongst bird song and golden light put the finishing touch on our day in a gem of a national park.
Our day began with an on board stretch class on the sun deck led by our wellness specialist. Not only is this a great way to prepare for the day's activities, but participants have a pretty good chance of seeing wildlife amongst the beautiful Alaskan backdrop. Fresh smoothies were offered at the end as a reward! Later that morning, our team embarked on an extraordinary Zodiac expedition to the breathtaking Inian Islands, situated off the coast of Alaska. Nestled within the Gulf of Alaska, these pristine islands are home to a diverse array of wildlife. Under the captivating sunshine, we encountered an awe-inspiring ecosystem teeming with sea lions, otters, humpback whales, and eagles. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of these magnificent creatures and unveil the wonders that May brings to this marine wonderland. Sea lions, Rulers of the Rocky Shores: As we approached the rocky shores of the Inian Islands, we were greeted by a boisterous chorus of barks and growls emanating from the colony of Steller sea lions. These massive creatures can grow up to 11 feet in length and weigh over a ton, and they rule over the rocky outcrops with their majestic presence. We marveled at their agility as they effortlessly navigated the treacherous terrain, leaping from one rock to another. Males, with their impressive manes and formidable size, asserted their dominance, while playful pups engaged in spirited frolicking nearby. These intelligent and social animals reminded us of the intricate dynamics of their society, where hierarchy and vocalizations play a significant role. Otters, Mischievous Guardians of Kelp Forests: In the tranquil kelp forests surrounding the Inian Islands, we had the privilege of observing the enchanting behavior of sea otters. These charismatic creatures, renowned for their playful antics, floated on their backs and used rocks as makeshift anvils to crack open their favorite meal—abalone and sea urchins. Their thick fur, composed of up to one million hairs per square inch, kept them warm in the chilly waters. We were enthralled by their dexterity as they groomed their fur meticulously, almost as if performing an underwater ballet. It was truly a delight to witness these mischievous guardians of the kelp forests; their presence is vital to maintaining the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Humpback whales, Singers of the Sea: Our journey took a momentous turn as we encountered the gentle giants of the deep—humpback whales. May marks their arrival in the waters surrounding the Inian Islands after they migrate from their tropical breeding grounds. These magnificent creatures, measuring up to 50 feet long and weighing up to 40 tons, graced us with their majestic presence. With each exhalation, towering spouts of mist pierced the air, announcing their presence in a grand spectacle. We were enthralled by their acrobatic displays as they breached and slapped their tails against the water, seeming to celebrate their arrival in these abundant feeding grounds. The air was filled with the haunting melodies of their songs, a testament to their extraordinary communication skills. It was a truly humbling experience to witness these gentle giants in their natural habitat. Eagles, Lords of the Skies: As we explored the rugged cliffs and towering trees of the Inian Islands, we couldn't help but notice the commanding presence of bald eagles. With their iconic white heads and piercing eyes, these majestic raptors soared effortlessly through the skies, embodying the spirit of freedom and power. Their sharp talons and keen eyesight enabled them to spot fish swimming near the surface of the water. We watched in awe as these formidable hunters swooped down with incredible precision to snatch fish from the water's surface. The presence of these magnificent birds added a touch of regality to the already awe-inspiring landscape.