30,000 Seabirds

At any given moment, there are as many as 30,000 seabirds roosting, nesting, flying and feeding at Cape Resurrection near Seward, Alaska. While kittiwakes and common murres are the two most abundant species, tufted and horned puffins, murrelets, guillemots, auklets, oyster catchers, cormorants, various gulls and other seabirds are also in the mix. Above and below: black-legged kittiwakes in the thousands take advantage of every available ledge.

The noise (and smell) generated by these colonies is as startling as the sheer number of birds. 

The cape also hosts large rafts of common murres containing dozens or even hundreds of birds.  

Horned puffins (above) and tufted puffins are also quite common. They use their thick, uniquely-hinged bills not only to fish, but to dig nesting burrows up to several feet deep. Once the nesting season is over, puffins spend the rest of the year at sea.

In flight, puffins look like large bumblebees, beating the air into submission with their stubby wings. In search of the small fish they feed on, puffins can dive up to 80 or more feet deep and are agile swimmers. 

On land, with their white bellies and dark backs, murres look a lot like penguins, and like penguins, they are very much at home in water. Murres have been recorded diving to depths of  600 feet. Their eggs are various shades of blue with brown speckles and are steeply pointed at one end to prevent them from rolling off the cliffs where they nest. 

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.

Getting Wasted on Cheap Vodka

“Higher! Lift it higher!” Barbra strains to hoist a lingcod of about 30 pounds that fell to a jig in 100 feet of water. 

Six-thirty AM and virtually no wind. Gaff – check. Rods rigged and ready – check. Plenty of knife jigs, lead-heads, twister tails – check. A fifth of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle…

Check.

It was our friend Jerry’s last day in Seward, and he had just enough time for a quick out-and-back morning trip. We were looking for his first-ever halibut, along with whatever else might be interested in our jigs.

With Barbra at the helm of our C-Dory, cruising between 15 and 20 knots over calm seas it took us about an hour to get to a place we knew would offer a chance to pick up halibut without running all the way out into the Gulf of Alaska.

Sea birds, vast shoals of herring, porpoises, seals and off in the distance the misty spout of a whale – all against a dramatic Alaskan background of green-sloped, snow-shouldered mountains, glaciers and  rugged, rocky – make any trip out onto the bay a good one.

We got a few fish, too. Jerry nailed his first-ever halibut (not to mention a 50-pound-class lingcod – also a first), Barbra got her hands on her first 30-pound lingcod, and I hooked another nice halibut. In three hours of fishing, we caught maybe half-a-dozen lings, the halibut, Pacific cod, greenling, a brilliantly colored sculpin and over a dozen assorted rockfish including blacks, yelloweye, quillbacks, and a beautifully marked tiger.

We kept a yelloweye, the tiger (photo on the left), and a halibut.

Since the lings have to be released (the season doesn’t open till July 1, and it is permanently closed within Resurrection Bay), the only one we pulled out of the water for a quick photo was Barbra’s 30-pounder.

But she brought an even larger fish to the boat that day, and the way she caught it was a first for us – one that gave new meaning to the exclamation “Color!” fishermen often call out when they get the first glimpse of a fish coming up from the depths.

Laid across the mouth of one of the most beautifully marked lings we’ve ever seen – a 40 pounder with striking, amber-brown spots – was a bright orange yelloweye rockfish! The jig hook was planted firmly in the yelloweye’s mouth, but had no purchase on the lingcod. The ling’s jaws were simply clamped down on its meal – and  it was giving every bit as good of a fight  as if it had been securely hooked.

We released several nice black rockfish, such as this one Jerry caught.

I knew, based on reading about events like this, that as long as we didn’t raise the ling’s head above water, he’d continue to hold onto the rockfish like a dog playing tug-of-war with a rope. So what did I do? I grabbed Barbra’s leader and lifted the ling’s head above water, causing it to instantly drop the yelloweye and sink back into the depths. Oops…

We thus missed a chance for a really great photo – the bright orange of the yelloweye lying lengthwise across the jaws of a massive lingcod. Ahh… next time!

Interestingly enough, the yelloweye didn’t look particularly damaged. When we released it, it scurried straight for the bottom.

And the vodka?

Jerry and I had read about fishermen using cheap booze – not a .22 rifle, not a .410 shotgun, not a billy – cheap booze to subdue fish. Halibut are notorious for going crazy once they’re on the deck of a boat. They’ve been known to bust up tackle, wreck coolers and even injure their captors. But with a shot or two of alcohol on their gills…

When Jerry got his fish up on the surface, I gaffed it right behind the cheek and pulled its head up out of water. As soon as the fish opened its mouth, Jerry poured a couple shots of vodka down its hatch. The affect was amazing. The fish slumped like an overserved patron passing out on a bar, and we slid it over the gunwale without a struggle . Once we had it on the deck of the C-Dory, we splashed its gills with another shot of vodka for good measure and then hung it over the side of the boat to bleed it out.

Easiest time of it I’ve ever had with a halibut.

Even the little fish are cool: Barbra with a brilliantly marked Pacific sculpin that tried to eat a jig nearly as large as itself.

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.

A Boat to Sail the Ocean Blue

We fell in love with this 2002 Island Packet 350 last summer while visiting Seward. Here she is hauled out for survey on March 3.

Her tip-to-tip length is 37′ 10″, on deck she’s 35′, and at the waterline 29′ 4″. Her mast rises 48′ 3″ above the water. Rigged as a cutter, she’s also powered by a 38 hp Yanmar diesel engine. Displacement is eight tons. Gross tons: 12. 

Below deck there are two staterooms (sleeping berths), one fore and one aft. The two settees convert to beds to sleep a total of six people. Teak deck, 6′ 4″ of headroom in the main cabin, and lots of storage space. The head, complete with shower, is located just aft of the forward stateroom. The fuel tank holds 50 gallons of diesel and the freshwater tank holds 100 gallons. There’s a dedicated navigation table, a dinette table that folds into a bulkhead when not in use, a smartly designed galley and easy access to the engine.

The gimbled two-burner stove with oven is the centerpiece of the galley. The narrow space allows the cook to wedge in and brace when the boat is moving. The microwave will go. 

Here she is this past summer with a fresh coat of bottom paint. She sure put a song in our hearts! (Click photo for larger view.)


Yelloweye & Grits: Breakfast Onboard Gillie

Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastus ruberrimus), a species of the Pacific Coast from Baja Mexico to Prince William Sound Alaska, is prized for its delicate flavor.

We’d spent most of the night on our C-Dory, drifting over deep water on Prince William Sound, admiring the moon and stars in the clear summer sky, talking about our life and occasionally dropping heavy, water-slicing knife jigs to the rocky bottom 160 feet below. Fishing was slow – a few small lingcod notwithstanding. The night was as still as a painting, the inky water mirroring the heavenly lights. With the engine cut off, the quiet was enveloping. When the yelloweye hit, I knew right away it wasn’t another ling. “Might be our yelloweye!” I said to Barbra as I worked the fish up from the depths.

And sure enough, it was. Barbra expertly scooped it up in the net, I did a quick fillet job, put it in a plastic container which I set in our cooler, and we headed back to port for some well-earned sleep. It was already early morning, though not quite yet dawn.

A few hours later when we woke, the sun was already high in the sky and the marina was bustling with activity. With daylight burnin’, we walked up the dock to the showers, blue skies and a few puffy white clouds overhead, deep green hanging on the mountains rimming the harbor.

Back onboard Gillie I put the Coleman stove on the aft deck, fired it up, and after Barbra made coffee I fixed a fisherman’s breakfast of southern-style grits topped with easy-over eggs and a couple of yelloweye fillets along with the collars – that especially sweet piece of meat that includes the pectoral fin muscle. (The collar looks a little like a lobster in the above photo.)

Not a fancy breakfast, but a special one. I kept the seasoning simple: a little sea salt and black pepper ground coarse. The steaming plates of food accompanied by French roast coffee made for a great start to another day in paradise.

A Perfect Night

Full moon over Prince William Sound near Whittier, Alaska

Summer days in Alaska are long–near midsummer, they are nearly endless. In our home states of California and Pennsylvania, fall is the season we like best. Up here, it’s summer.

We were camping on our boat in the marina at Whittier one summer in early August. The fishing had been only so-so, but with massive glaciers spilling into protected bays and rafts of sea otters in the nearby waters, the nature viewing was spectacular. On our last day, at about 6:00 p.m. with the sun out and clear skies above, Jack and I decided to take the C-Dory out for an evening cruise. We motored out as the last of the boats of fishermen and sightseers were heading in. We didn’t really have a plan. We just wanted to be out on the water.

Once we got a few miles beyond the harbor, we found a spot to fish and so we cut the motor. There was not another boat in sight. It was as if no one else in the world existed. Surrounded by mountain peaks dusted in the remainder of last winter’s snow, the sea was glassy-calm. Gillie barely rocked as we drifted silently with the current. The slowly setting sun, lit up the few low clouds. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the full moon glowed against a dark blue sky.

We began to pick up fish here and there–mostly small lingcod. The moon climbed higher in the sky and shone brighter and brighter, it’s reflection dancing across the water as our own movements caused the boat to rock. At times we broke the quiet with talk about different possibilities for the future. But for long stretches we were quiet, lost in our own thoughts, washed in this phenomenal night.

The shaker lings continued to periodically attack our jigs, and then Jack connected with something that fought differently. He worked the fish up from 160 feet down and I did net duties on a beautiful yelloweye rock fish. With a fish in the cooler that would provide for a gourmet breakfast the following morning, it was a good place to call it a night. I started up the engine and guided us home across the moonlit water.