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)