Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hot Bear Naked Action

I had the good fortune to spend nearly 6 hours at the Anan Wildlife Observatory with 4 awesome New Zealanders yesterday.  Bears and Kiwis are a good combination with high potential for a memorable time.  I quickly broke the ice and created a relaxed and familiar atmosphere by mistakenly calling my new Kiwi friends Aussies!  (My apologies to you guys once again!)  Calling a Kiwi an Aussie is similar to calling an Alaskan a Canadian, neither one is that bad but one is most definitely better than the other!  Good on ya New Zealand, we know what's what!  May your chilly bins never be empty of cold ones!

Moving on from good hearted regional rivalries to bears, we had the entire observatory nearly to ourselves with only one FS employee and one Russian photographer sharing the space with us all afternoon into the early evening.  In the morning, there were 62 people at the observatory, most of whom came from a cruise ship called The World that was moored in Wrangell for two days so, while the bear viewing was still good, it was a crowded and chaotic atmosphere as compared to the peaceful and idyllic afternoon.  The bears seemed to appreciate the tranquility in the afternoon as well as they really gave us an experience that only Anan can provide.

A gallery of dead Dungeness crabs greeting us at the trailhead shelter where the Forest Service ranger, Leah, gave us our required safety briefing.  There is obviously a fair amount of "down time" for the rangers while they staff the trailhead but you couldn't ask for a better office!

There have been 4 juvenile Ravens making the observatory their regular hang out over the last couple of weeks.  The only thing more inquisitive and slyly intelligent than a Raven is a juvenile Raven!  These guys have added a fun element to Anan this year and have been a pleasure to watch.  I am making progress in befriending one of them and had it come to me and peck my fingers several times yesterday as I pretended to have food to offer.  I guess I will have to sneak some food up there the next time or pick up some leftover fish parts so I can offer them some real food and further make their acquaintance!

This is a juvenile brown bear, probably 4 years old, demonstrating how dexterous they can be with those massive jaws and teeth by precisely biting through this pink salmon's head to eat its brain.  This is not a zombie brown bear with an unholy preference for brains to appease its undead appetite, it is merely selecting the parts of the fish with the most nutritional value.  In this case, that nutritional value is the high fat content found in the brain of we organisms possessing one.  It is not uncommon for bears to only eat the brains and eggs of these fish once they have begun putting on weight.  They will even toss aside a male fish uneaten and go back to their fishing spot to try again for a female containing those rich, nutritious eggs.  Bears will also use their paws to hold a female fish on a rock and then press the eggs out of it in order to lap up those little pearls of calories.

This mama bear and her cub fished on the opposite shore of the creek from the juvenile bear.  That is what this cub in particular was watching so intently.

I'm a bit disappointed in those two above photos as I thought that I got the little brown bear cub in frame as well.  At the top left of the photo is a fairly large black bear nervously observing the scenario playing out below it as the juvenile brown bear is now on the same side of the creek as mama and her cub.  As is the case so often with teenagers of any mammal species, this juvenile bear seemed overly sure of itself and didn't have quite the respect for the older bear and her cub that it should have had.

In this photo, you can see that the black bear has made itself scarce and retreated quite a bit further up the steep hill above the creek while the juvenile brown bear continues to push its luck and mama does what any wise and experienced adult does and ignores the teenager to the best of her ability.

Does this photo remind anyone else of John Belushi in the movie, Animal House?  This little bear is not doing an impression of a talented but long dead comedian nor is it doing some sort of little bear dance, it is trying to find mama who, a little too nonchalantly and inattentively, began to move off down the creek.  This little guy lost sight of her amidst the large boulders lining the creek and climbed up here for a better look around while bawling out its version of "MOM!!"
While this did get mama's attention, it also unfortunately got the attention of the cocky teenager who seemed too interested in the possibility of bullying, or killing, its potential future competitor.

The juvenile bear got the little cub cornered out on this log and, seeming to realize that mama was nowhere around, took on a more aggressive posture and attitude coming at this cub with what seemed like very ill intent.  At this point, neither mama nor the juvenile were aware of each other.

This photo was just a fraction of a second later than the previous one but shows a difference in mama's demeanor.  The juvenile still has not noticed mama but mama has noticed her.  A close look at mama's face and body in the first photo shows a slightly casual expression and energy about her with her left ear slightly turned toward the creek with the right facing forward.
The second shows a more tense and focused look and energy with both ears directed forward.  She has a look of purpose and intent about her.

Now cocky teen has seen protective mom and has quickly realized an important life lesson.

The cub has obviously gratefully reunited with mom.  Interestingly, mom was not demonstrating overly pissed off behavior at this point but she was making it extremely clear that she was not happy with what she was seeing.  The juvenile did its best to present a cool demeanor and tried to seem casual as it walked away, which must have pushed mama's buttons.  She charged the juvenile who, with no hesitation whatsoever, took off at a full sprint straight up the steep and rugged hill with mama close behind.  She chased that kid all the way to the top of the slope, over the top, and our of sight with baby doing its best to keep up!
Within what seemed like minutes, mama and baby were back down in the creek fishing like nothing had happened.

These 3 photos were not from yesterday although there were several black bear cubs in the area.  Black bear cubs are just so dang cute I wanted to share them with you.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


It takes a certain type of person to truly enjoy living in Southeast Alaska.  One should enjoy misery to a higher degree than most to relish life in SE AK, that has been my experience and is my opinion anyway.  It's good to keep the population low and the human developments minimal.  If you want to add a higher level of misery to your life in SE AK, a level approaching or attaining sadism, then one should also own at least one boat. More than one boat can get you closer to some sort of lunacy.
There are many sayings regarding boats and boat ownership that have a dark humor element to them to help all of us boat owners and boat dependent people commiserate and feel like we have some sort of support network.
B   break
O  out
A  another
T  thousand

The two best days of a boat owners life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells the boat.
A boat is just a hole in the water that you throw your money into.
A boat is just an aggregation of spare parts waiting to fail.

There are others but those are the only ones I can think of at this moment but they should get the point across!

I decided to do a post about boats after spending 8 hours travelling through Dry Strait on a broken down boat.  Fortunately, the small 9.9 horse power auxillary motor was working fine and I had my camera with me to help pass the time.

Seagulls on ice

Hours trapped on a crippled boat lead to trying to find interesting perspectives.  This is a marine VHF radio (very high frequency) on channel 16 which is the standard hailing frequency for mariners in the U.S.  Once contact is made, mariners then choose a different channel on which to chat and conduct their business.  There are certain channels designated for certain users and/or purposes so a person should know exactly which channels are for what purpose.

Just some things on the control panel.

Navigational electronics are very sophisticated and easy to use in today's world making navigating ocean waters almost too easy sometimes.  Radar, GPS, sonar all can paint you a pretty clear picture of the marine world around you.

A self inflating PFD, personal flotation device.  This particular type has a pressure sensitive release mechanism that punctures a small carbon dioxide canister like the kind in BB guns that rapidly inflates an airbag that then serves as a life jacket.  If you were to fall in the water, it would automatically inflate once you submerged a short distance under the water.  If it does not for some reason, there is a manual way to inflate them as well.  Last summer, I got to unexpectedly experience this while teaching a co-worker how to dock a boat.  When a new boater approaches a dock way too fast, a reflexive reaction seems to be to throw the boat in a full throttle panic reverse which then typically sends a person who may be standing on the bow of the boat at the time forward into the water.  I had just enough time to go completely under the water, come back to the surface, think "Well that didn't inflate" and then, POOF! inflation.

8 hours is a long time on a boat, even a perfectly functioning boat, so a few trips to the beach were made to stretch the legs and get some pictures.  This is a fresh wound on a western hemlock tree made by a hungry porcupine.  Those guys gnaw on the tree bark until they get down to the inner bark where the sugar rich sap is then they feast, many times effectively girdling a tree which will eventually and surely lead to the trees demise.

A mollusk called a limpet exposed at low tide.

The part of a tree you don't normally see.  There is very little soil here in the hidden gem so even the tallest and most massive of the Sitka spruces are very shallow rooted creating these interesting radiating root networks.

This is an ancient mummified tortoise I found on the beach.  Actually it is an interesting part of a tree root that looks either like a turtle or a sloth to my eye.  This interesting oddity brings to my mind several philosophical ideas regarding the mystery of life and existence.  I'll go into depth about that in a future post if anyone is interested in some armchair philosophy.

This is Peltigera, a foliose cyanolichen in its fruiting phase.  What is a foliose cyanolichen?  I've no idea but I showed this photo to a friend who is a literal lichen expert and that is what he told me.  The fruiting bodies are called apothecia. 

Some ferns growing on a spruce branch about 50 feet above the ground.

Some tidal currents that looked kind of cool.

Barefoot bear feet.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Whale Tails

I've been having a great time this summer taking people on whale watching trips and boy have the whales been doing their share!  Whales and glaciers are the two things that I don't think I will ever get bored with seeing and experiencing.
I really thought that I wanted to be a marine biologist at one time and still have an occasional regret that I did not pursue that course, but an active and inquisitive mind can still do its own learning and research and not being bound by the constraints of science can make the experience even more fulfilling and insightful.  I don't have to be concerned with being anthropomorphic or getting judged by scientific peers, I can just enjoy the creatures and their place in the world and make my own observations.  But still, being a marine biologist would be pretty damn cool!
I decided to add a new feature to our whale trips this year by giving folks something to help them identify with the whales so I started taking pictures of the tail flukes (tail flippers) to put into a book so that we can identify individual whales.  They all get a name and an entry regarding when and where they were sighted, what they were doing, and who they were with.  It is something really fun for the whale watchers, for me, and eventually the information will be given to actual whale researchers for their data collections.
So far, we have 16 different whales photographed and identified in the book with the photos taken by me, Nancy, Mikey, and whale watching clients who have generously and eagerly donated photos.
I thought I'd share them with whoever out there reads this blog.

This is Vancouver who has been a pretty regular whale to see on our trips.  So far we have always seen it in a group of at least 6 whales and have watched them bubble feeding several times.  Vancouver is very easy to recognize because of those scalloped ends of the flukes and the white designs there.
Humpback whales are identified by the tail flukes:  the white and black patterns are like fingerprints, they are unique to each whale.  The trailing edge of the fluke, the top edge in the photo, as well as the notch where both halves of the fluke meet are also identifying features which help in identifying individual whales.

Victoria.  Honestly, I don't know the gender of these whales yet so the names may not really fit.  Victoria and Vancouver are together often.

Jackson.  This whale's fluke made me think of a Jackson Pollock painting, hence the name.


Ghost.  All white or mostly white flukes are the least common in the humpback world.  Ghost is a regular and we have seen it in two different locations about 20 miles apart.


Both of these are of Montana.  So far we have only seen Montana once by itself but with two other lone whales in the vicinity.  Montana is memorable because we got to watch it scratching itself on a rocky reef for several minutes.  It swam very close to a rock reef exposed at low tide and then just stopped and laid on the reef just barely underwater and blew bubbles.  Then, we saw its tail and flippers come out of the water as it twisted its body against the rocks!  It did this several times until moving on.  After it left the reef, I drove the boat over to the spot where this scratching was taking place and found a sort of trench in the rocks just big enough to fit a whale where Montana had been grooming.  Pretty damn cool!

Freedom.  This was a new whale to us just seen and photographed yesterday in a group with Vancouver, Victoria and Eclipse.


Grizzly.  Another new one from yesterday travelling and feeding with Vancouver, Victoria, Freedom, and Eclipse

Aurora B




So, one of the things most interesting, dramatic, and just plain cool to see humpback whales do is bubble feeding or bubble net feeding.  This is a cooperative effort usually involving several whales and as far as humans know, is unique to humpbacks in the NW Pacific.  The whales find a school of small fish like herring and then one of them blows bubbles in a circle around the school to corral the fish and force them towards the surface, then the other whales come straight up with their mouths open and gulp them down.

Like this.

At the end of our trip yesterday, I had planned to go by a recent shipwreck for some photo opportunities and as another interesting Southeast AK experience when we came upon something very unexpected.  First, a few photos of the ship I had intended to visit.

This is a wooden fishing tender called the Deceptive C that lost power somehow and then drifted onto a rocky shoreline not too far from Wrangell.  No one aboard was hurt as it probably took awhile for the boat to drift onto the beach giving the crew an opportunity to either abandon ship or be picked up by other nearby vessels.  All fuel and fluids and valuables able to be salvaged are typically removed under Coast Guard supervision and then the vessel's fate is determined by several factors.  I don't think there is a plan to try to salvage the ship but I am not sure what its final fate will be.

This was the unexpected shipwreck that we encountered on the way back from the whale trip.  From a mariner's perspective, this would be considered a very bad day!  I don't know the story behind this mishap but this sailboat is perched on a charted rock in a charted and clearly marked reef in a very large body of water where avoiding the reef is very easy.  Somebody wasn't paying attention!  We stopped by to offer assistance to the guys patching the holes in the boat but they were OK and had a plan when the next high tide came in.  Be careful out there!!

An update on the above sailboat- I ran into some of the folks who were on the boat today in town and learned the story.  They were on autopilot but the current pushed them off course and obviously whoever was on watch wasn't watching very well!  Luckily for them, they were very close to a shipping channel and there was a commercial fishing opening in the area as well so they had several vessels keeping tabs on them.  They were on the rocks for over 24 hours until a high enough tide allowed a commercial fishing vessel to pull them off the rocks.  They did sustain some significant damage to both keels, it is a catamaran, and were taking on some serious water so had to do quite a bit of bailing until the fishing vessel was able to lend them a pump which could outpace the water coming into the boat.  They got towed to Wrangell where the boat got drydocked this morning for repairs.