Six miles downriver from our home on Chignik Lake, the river broadens and joins an estuary, Chignik Lagoon. A few miles beyond that, there is a massive, sheer rock cliff – an ocean head beyond which the Pacific stretches for thousands of miles. Each spring and again in fall whales and orcas travel along the coastline here.
My friend Fred Shangin and I had gone down the river and out around the head to set crab pots and a halibut skate in Castle Bay: May 6, 2018. It was a spectacular day. The seas were calm, at times glassed off, and although snow lingered on mountaintops we were comfortable in warm jackets as we cruised along the ocean. The crabbing and fishing were excellent. In short order we had a a large tub filled with Tanner Crabs and another filled with King Crabs. The skate, which Fred had baited with salmon, paid off as well and we headed home with a 40 pound halibut carpeting the deck of Fred’s skiff.
Just as we passed Eagle Rock at the entrance of Chignik Bay, our attention was drawn to a mighty commotion in the nearshore rocks. Orcas! An adult male, an adult female, a juvenile female… and a very young female not much more than a baby or perhaps a toddler. The cause of the commotion soon became evident. The adult female had caught a harbor seal. Rather than kill it, she and her male companion were escorting their catch to open water. Their daughters kept pace.
“Training Day,” Fred and I came to call the event. The adult orcas were using the seal to teach their daughters to hunt. Fred idled the engine and we watched for perhaps half-an-hour as the orcas pushed at the seal, dragged it here and there, held it under water, and then let it up to allow one of the youngsters to have a turn. I have photos in which the helpless pinniped wears in its eyes the expression of terror and dread of one who understands one’s fate. I did not choose those photos for this presentation, but if you take a second look at the picture above, you can see the alive but exhausted seal floating in front of the orca’s nose.
Life in The Chigniks has brought me more closely in contact with the natural world than I ever imagined I might be. One of the themes I keep confronting – an ineluctable truth – is how intelligent animals are. It’s an injustice to call them “critters;” and not much better to refer to them as “creatures.” They are beings, not so different from ourselves as some might imagine in terms of their relationships with each other, their capacity to learn, to observe, to experience emotion and to teach.
Again and again, Fred and I were struck by how close the orcas came to the skiff: so close that although I was not using a particularly long lens, at times I failed to get a shot. (How I wish Barbra had been along to witness the event and to work with a second camera!) In a vast ocean setting, the adults chose the piece of water Fred’s skiff occupied to conduct most of the teaching. They certainly were aware of us. At one point the male cruised just below the skiff, so close it’s huge dorsal fin might have touched the boat’s underside. When it broke the surface, it angled back to look at us. It felt very much as though they wanted us to see, to be part of the event. That, just as we were drawn to the orcas, they were drawn to us. (Nikon D5, Nikkor 70-200 mm F2.8, 1/1000 at f/16, 70mm, ISO 2000)
Wow, what a lesson about the natural world.
I thought how beautiful the photo was, then I read the post. The photo was still beautiful but now I was sad for the seal and impressed with the orcas.
Such is life. One day in Whittaker waiting for a tourist boat ride, we saw a seal “playing with it’s food,” repeatedly tossing a fish into the air and catching it. I wonder if we saw just that or if more was going on.
We found ourselves experiencing those same feelings. Yes, such is life. To your second point, when Coho arrive in Chignik Lake, there are a few places where they tend to gather and remain for awhile before heading further up the system to their spawning grounds. One of these places is the beach cove 30 yards from the windows of our home. We sleep with a window open, and at night we can hear the Harbor Seals doing just as you describe – catching salmon, tossing them into the air, and chasing them down to catch again. They make quite a ruckus. Further down the river, I was able to get photos of seals catching salmon. The images are simultaneously pretty cool, quite interesting and kinda gruesome.
I love the photos and stories you share. Your writing is so easily read and the narrative flows freely. I am among the many that are envious of this event in your life, and wish Barbra was there too!! I hope you continue to share your insights and days of your lives. Peace
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Debra. I’m taking a little break from my Chignik Birds project and am in the midst of writing up short “behind the photos” essays for each of the photos in “Chignik Seasons: The Lake in 29 Photos.” The link is at the top of each page. Blizzardy here today – a good day to stay in and edit photos and write. Hope all is well with you!
Agree with the above readers of your blog. The drama of life & death in nature can seem cruel but the seal was to feed & train the baby orca. Yes, from the whales & dolphins I have come across here on the coast, they are truly sentient beings with self awareness.
Everything is in a state of change – coming into and going out of existence. It’s an awesome thing to contemplate… and perhaps strangely centering.