Resurrection Bay Wildlife, a C-Dory Angler Tour: Sea Lions, Mountain Goats and More

sea lion roaring 2014 nWith a mighty roar this young bull sea lion bellows out that this rock in Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska is his rock. Nestled between snow-capped mountains and hosting an abundance of otters, porpoises, seals and sea lions, sea birds by the tens of thousands and with whales almost a given, the bay offers lots to look at. 

A morning filled with sunshine, calm seas and friends visiting from out of town were inspiration to take our C-Dory out for a lap around Resurrection Bay.

mountain goat may 2014 n

sea otter spy hopping 2014 n

 

 

 

 

Sea otters like this curious spy-hopper are abundant along the shoreline. Meanwhile, scan the mountainsides on the east side of the bay for puffy white balls; put binoculars on them and they might become mountain goats. 

A pair of juvenile sea lions were swimming in the harbor near our boat as we made ready, and almost as soon as we cleared the marina a harbor porpoise arced near our boat. Bald eagles chirped and spiraled in the blue sky overhead, terns and kittiwakes dive-bombed for small fish, and several cormorants, including a crested cormorant, were drying their wings on the remnants of a pier after a morning of fishing. horned puffins may 2014 nHorned puffins are among the tens of thousands of seabirds that nest in the rocky mountainsides surrounding Resurrection Bay.  whale tale may 2014 nNo cruise is complete without encountering the whales that call the outer parts of the bay and the nearby Alaska Gulf home. This sounding humpback appeared to be feeding on herring.  sea lions communicating nThere’s sometimes a fine line between love and aggression. At one point, the smaller sea lion appeared to have its mouth entirely inside the larger one’s. After some barking back and forth and a little more bared-teeth interplay, the larger animal slid into the ice water – perhaps to forage.

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Approaching Cape Resurrection by boat, you can smell the rookery well before your eyes pick out individual birds on the whitewashed cliffs. Here, thousands upon thousands of black legged kittiwakes jockey for position as they haphazardly construct precariously perched nests.

murres raft 2014 n

Dense rafts of murres rest near current seams that disorient small fish – the murres’ prey. At times, acres of herring can be seen just below the surface of Resurrection Bay’s waters.

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Thick-Billed Murres are so common it can be easy to forget what amazing birds they are. Somewhat stubby-looking on land, they can achieve flight speeds of 75 miles an hour. In water, they transform into sleek acrobats, capable of dives to over 300 feet deep – the length of a football field.  

tufted puffins may 2014 n

A pair of tufted puffins, golden sunlight illuminating their eponymous feathers, glide through the waters of Resurrection Bay in search of small fish.

Whether life takes you to coastal Alaska or some other shore, we can’t recommend a boat tour of inshore and nearshore waters highly enough. In Seward, local tour boat companies offer daily cruises captained by experienced National Park Service rangers – a not-to-be-missed experience.

 

Great Cameras and Joel Sartore’s Great Course

moose calf d4_nThe drive from Anchorage to Seward can usually be counted on for wildlife viewing. Grizzly bears, black bears, Dall sheep and moose are all possiblities, and eagles are a given. On our first trip of 2013, we found a young moose grazing on pond weeds and willow buds. 

Last year at this time we were shooting with a Nikon D60 and a D90. Our three most frequently used lenses were a Tamaron landscape lens, a Nikon 60 mm prime and a Sigma 50-500. We got some really good photos with this gear, but we were eager to make some upgrades.

moose calf d800

Although it’s late May, Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is still pretty brown and you don’t have to go very high in elevation to find everything covered in snow. But spring is definitely here. Today (May 24), temperatures in Seward broke 60 under cloudless blue skies.

After months of reading and research and lengthy discussions with a new friend who knows way more about this than we do, we purchased a D800, a D4 and several new lenses. Equally important was taking Joel Sartore’s 24-lecture course Fundamentals of Photography, a first-rate DVD course offered through The Great Courses. We had been reading all kinds of articles and books and we subscribe to Outdoor Photographer. We had also taken a few courses at Ritz Camera back when we were living in Sacramento, California. All of this was useful. But none if it provided the learning experience Fundamentals of Photography gave us. Armed with our new gear and committed to faithfully following Joel’s lessons, we could see our skills improving from week to week.

moose calf 2 d4_n

Our usual MO while driving Alaska’s highways and hiking the trails is to have either a landscape lens or a normal lens on one camera body and a larger wildlife lens on the other. We still talk about the time when, new to this part of the world, we saw two magnificent bull moose feeding near each other at a small lake. “I’m sure we’ll see lots of these now that we’re up here,” one of us said as the other kept driving. Needless to say, we’re still looking for another shot like that one. Lesson learned. 

Hopefully this summer will be another Alaskan safari – packed with birds, fish, mammals, wildflowers and the kind of scenery that causes one’s jaw to drop and hang.

The Arctic Foxes at Tikigaq Cemetery

Stunning in their soft, white coats, Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) are common in this part of Alaska. The size of a small dog and as soft on their feet as a cat, these omnivores forage on whatever is available, from berries to insects to small mammals and birds – and it appears, big, fat marine worms!

In the past few weeks, there have been spawning events on our beaches near Point Hope. A couple of weeks ago, we were hearing about small fish – probably capelin (smelt) – coming ashore with the surf. More recently, we’ve been finding large marine worms on the beach. The size of Ball Park Franks, the appearance of these worms has coincided with egg cases in areas of coarse sand and gravel. In turn, these spawning events have drawn numbers of snowy owls and Arctic foxes looking for easy meals to the point of land west of town.

Morning sunlight slants through the jawbones of bowhead whales commingled with crosses at the Tikigaq cemetery in Point Hope, Alaska.

Not so long ago, National Geographic Magazine ran an article about domesticating foxes. Apparently there’s been some success, as breeders in Russia select the most gentle, friendly, trainable and inquisitive offspring generation upon generation. At an average size of six to eight pounds, Arctic foxes would be just the right size to curl up on the sofa for an evening of popcorn and a movie.

Like ribs pushing up from the tundra, these bowhead jawbones mark the resting place of one of Tikigaq’s last shamans.

The diversity – and sheer number – of animals and plants that manage to hack a living out of this cold land amazes us. Far from being the vast, frozen desert the Arctic has often been described as, each season brings with it an astounding number and variety of flora and fauna to the land and sea around Point Hope. Tracks in the snow near our house reveal that we have a weasel or two living beneath our porch!

Orcas Near Resurrection Bay

It has been an excellent summer for wildlife viewing in Resurrection Bay and surrounding waters. Twice, recently, we have found our C-Dory in the midst of feeding and playing Orcas.

The fishing has been slow out of our homeport of Seward, Alaska lately. For days now, thick fog has blanketed the outer islands and waters beyond, and while boats making long runs are still coming back with fish, even some of the charter captains have been struggling. Nearer to Resurrection Bay, water that recently was teaming with salmon, rockfish and halibut seems to have become deserted, with only a few, scattered fish willing to bite.

It’s still great to be out. An occasional silver salmon breaks the monotony of otherwise fishless hours as we scan the water for whales, Orcas, dolphins and other wildlife. The other day, between patches of dense fog we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by about two dozen Orcas! Maybe they had found the salmon that were eluding us.

We slowed down and idled among these killer whales for awhile, and then motored off in search of fish.

Silvers and Pinks (And Otters)!

This curious fellow swam right up to our C-Dory, Gillie, to watch me rinse off a salmon Barbra had just caught.

Alaska. Every trip out on the water is a reminder that you could live here several lifetimes and never see it all. While sea otters are fairly common along the southern and central Alaskan coastline, we’ve never have one swim up to the boat. (Although, there were a trio that used to follow us as we walked the docks in Cordova.) This guy seemed genuinely curious – and maybe hopeful of a handout – as I rinsed off a Coho before putting it in the fish box on a recent excursion to Rugged Island in Resurrection Bay, near Seward. Meanwhile, floating on her back with a pup on her stomach, a mother otter watched us a little more guardedly and from a distance.

Fishing partner Bixler McClure got this shot of the otter coming over to investigate the boat. 

On any given sailing or boating trip out on the bay, you’re likely to encounter harbor porpoises, Dall porpoises, Orcas, whales, eagles, thousands of sea birds, leaping salmon, seals, sea lions and every once in a while you might spot the fin of a seven-foot salmon shark (they look very much like small great white sharks) cutting through the water. Bears come down to the beaches, and on rare occasions a wolverine might be glimpsed.

And, of course, there are the fish. Resurrection Bay lies between green-shouldered, snow-capped mountains – a dramatic backdrop. It extends over 10 miles before meeting the Alaska Gulf, and on many days the waters are nearly glass smooth, rippled only by a gentle breeze. On days such as these, the fishing is truly pleasant.
When the silvers (Coho salmon) show up – usually the run is in full swing by mid-July – the fishing is excellent, with six-salmon limits the norm. Skilled (or lucky) anglers often mix in a king or two, and after you’ve got salmon in the fish box you can switch tactics and target rockfish and halibut. There are bigger rockfish and halibut out in the Gulf – and more of them -, but if you stay with it you can find fish in the bay and you don’t have to deal with a long run.
The custom here is to take the fish out of your fish box and load them into a dock cart so you can wheel them up to one of the fish cleaning stations. Once we’ve filleted our fish, we take them to J-Dock to be vacuum packed and flash frozen. Fish cared for this way taste great even a year or more later.
 Below: Barbra got this watery photo of the otter swimming around Gillie.
Below: Three limits of salmon and a couple of rockfish, laid out, rinsed off and ready to take up to the cleaning station. This winter in Point Hope, every meal these fish provide will be a memory of our summer in Seward. These are the good old days.

Minke Whales

Quintessential Alaska – a whale blows close to moss and fern covered rocks in Resurrection Bay. The water is hundreds of feet deep near shore here – this slope face rises almost vertically to snow-coverd peaks.

Coming back from a fishing excursion the other morning, we spotted a pair of whales near shore, off our forward port (left) quarter. They appeared to be in no hurry and so we, too, slowed down to spend some time watching them. Here and there we noticed telltale herring flipping on the surface – no doubt the reason the whales were in so close to shore. The steep banks would make the perfect place to corral a meal.

Smooth back, pronounce fin and white markings on the side indicate a minke whale – a member of the rorqual whale group. Rorquals feed by opening their massive, expandable mouths and straining small fish, shrimp, krill and other food through baleen. 

Although we kept a fair distance, at one point the whales disappeared. We thought they’d sounded and left the area until suddenly they both came exploding out of the sea on our starboard side. Herring seemed to be flying in attempts to escape the whales’ massive jaws. As whales go, minkes are small, but they still average nearly 30 feet and 10 tons – large enough to reduce a 22-foot boat like ours to fiberglass splinters. This was our first time to see whales so close, let alone lunge-feeding, and rather than snap photos all we could do was watch, jaws agape, exclaiming “Oooo!”

This photo (taken with a Nikon DX 18-55 lens) captures the blowhole and the distinctive white markings of a minke. 

We lingered, hoping to capture a repeat feeding lunge on film. And then it happened.

If you look closely, you can see a couple of herring in the spray around this minke whale’s head.

Suddenly the surface of the water began to bubble with jumping herring, and then, as if out of nowhere, a huge head came exploding out of the sea. Fortunately Barbra had the presence of mind to snap photos.

By the early 1900’s, after the world’s whaling fleets had mined most of the large whales out of the ocean, countries such as Norway and Japan, which continued whaling, turned their attention to smaller whales such as minkes. They’re still being hunted, but they remain locally common, and overall populations appear to be stable. Minkes can be found throughout the world’s oceans. An excellent field guide to Northern Pacific whales is Whales and Other Marine Mammals of British Columbia and Alaska, by Tamara Eder.

Dall’s Porpoises – Tasmanian Devils of the Northern Pacific

You might see a pod of them off in the distance, plowing up water in plumes of bubbles and spray, arcing, crossing each others’ paths, zipping like mad across the sea’s surface. As they speed toward your boat, you can almost hear the sound effects that accompany the Tasmanian Devil’s entrance in the Warner Brothers Cartoons. “Dall’s Porpoises!”

At an average length of 6 feet (1.8 m) and distinctively marked in black and white, they look like miniature versions of Orcas. And they love small boats. On any given outing here in Resurrection Bay, you can almost count on a group of these speedsters showing up around your bow. And since they seem to prefer to play around boats that are running fairly slowly, they don’t discriminate between powerboats and sailboats.

Dall’s porpoises frequently come right alongside small boats, seeming to use the vessels as objects to play around and to race against. Here a group of them are cutting back and forth beneath our C-Dory.

Strictly speaking, Dall’s porpoises don’t really “porpoise.” They quickly surface, throwing up rooster tails of spray as they do, take a quick breath and keep on swimming. Fast. Photographing them is a matter of guessing where they’ll show up next and snapping shots until they do.

Like other dolphins and porpoises, Dall’s have teeth. They feed on small fish, such as herring. We’ve noticed that when we’re trolling for salmon, right about the time we spot Dall’s, our rods often start arcing and our reels start singing – probably because both the porpoises and the salmon are keying on herring.

Although groups typically contain a handful of individuals, there are times when they gather by the thousands. They roam both nearshore and offshore waters in the Northern Pacific. Unfortunately, although they are still common, hunting (several countries take an average of 10’s of thousands annually – an unsustainable number) and fatal encounters with fishing nets are reducing their numbers.

A good place to read more is in the book Whales and other Marine Mammals of British Columbia and Alaska, by Tamara Eder.