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.

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.

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 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.

C-Dory 22 Angler: A Boat for Alaska

The Gillie: Our 2008 C-Dory 22 Angler taking a cruise on the Sacramento River

“Gillie” is a Scottish term that refers to a fishing or hunting attendant, much like a guide. As such, armed with an excellent electronic fish-finding unit, a dependable 90 hp Honda engine (and an 8 hp kicker), and enough open deck to comfortably fish two or three anglers (four in a pinch), this boat has proved to be a reliable gillie. Barbra and I have spent many nights both on the water and on land snuggly tucked away in the cuddy cabin, and the dinette table in the pilot house is just big enough for the two of us to enjoy a meal. These boats are capable of storing an amazing amount of gear, the hull is tough, and on flat water loaded down with fishing gear and four medium-sized adults, it tops out around 25 knots (about 29 mph). Inside the pilot house with the Alaskan bulkhead door closed, making long runs is both warm and quiet. The 90 hp Honda trolls beautifully when we’re running rigs for salmon, and the shallow draft (well under two feet) allows us to get in the rocks in pursuit of species close to shore.

Ask a typical boat owner what the best boat is, and they’re likely to tell you, “The one I own right now.” That’s how we feel about our C-Dory. With a beam of only 7’9″, it’s a breeze to tow, yet it’s enough boat to feel safe on fairly big water–from the California coast to the ocean bays of Alaska. You’ve probably heard the quip that goes, “The two happiest days in a boater’s life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it.” Not with a C-Dory. The happiest days are the ones we have it on the water.

Shades of Blue


In the summer of 2009, we drove over 3200 miles to arrive in Valdez. We were hoping to make it in time for a half-marathon in Cordova, Alaska. It took us six days to drive from Sacramento, through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Yukon Territory and finally through Alaska to Valdez. We drove hundreds of miles per day fueled by eagerness and the energy we absorbed from the incredibly beautiful drive and the daylight that lasted till late at night. The last leg of our journey was the 90 boat trip from Valdez to Cordova.

That sounds pretty doable, right? Never mind that we had just towed our boat behind our truck for all these miles. Never mind that our boat had only about 10 hours on the engine. 10 hours? Yes, Jack and I had taken the boat out of Bodega Bay into the great Pacific a sum total of two times.

We spent the night in the long term boat and trailer parking lot in Valdez. We had prepared the boat, the Gillie, for her journey. We filled her tanks. We scrubbed her down. We loaded her with all that we thought we would need to camp on her for a few days in Cordova. We woke early. She was launched pretty smoothly about 7 a.m. The water was flat. The weather calm and overcast. The further we were from Valdez, the more relaxed we became.

Being very new to boating with the Gillie, we constantly checked guages and our electronics to ensure that all was running smoothly. The main outboard engine was monitored to ensure that it was staying cool.

Ten miles away from Valdez, Jack noticed that the cooling stream from the outboard motor was slowing. It was not “pissing” as it should. Uh oh. We knew we had to shut off the engine and let it cool. Fortunately, we still had cell phone reception. I called the harbor master in Valdez to find out who could work on an outboard motor. Hmmm… no one. Yikes! Now what?

We have an 8 horsepower kicker that runs separately from the main outboard. We started that motor and limped back to Valdez to regroup.

Jack thought to call the motor shop in Sacramento to see if they had any advice. The guy who answered the phone suggested running something long and skinny up the exhaust to see if we could clear it. We found a long zip tie that fit perfectly. After a few pokes and a hard blow on the other end, small stones and dead bugs that had collected on the road spilled out. And then came the clear, strong flow of the cooling water. Thank you to Buck’s Outboard!

It was about noon at this time. The water was no longer flat. The wind had increased a few knots. Should we stay and miss the deadline? Should we go for it?

We went for it.

After we passed the place where we had turned back the first time out, we came to a finger of Prince William Sound which ran up as far as the Columbia Glacier. Someday I hope to see this glacier up close. Floating down from this finger where these beautiful sculptures of ice. The blues in the icebergs were amazing. They calmly floated away from the glacier carrying gulls and kittiwakes. The icebergs have these organic shapes that are captivating. The safe arrival in Cordova that evening should have been reward enough. The icebergs were the real reward.