Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Whale tails, again

Judging from the number of views the previous whale tail post received, I feel safe in making the assumption that those of you who read this blog have an affinity for whales far exceeding any other subject!  Well then, good on ya!  Here are some more whales for you!

I have a few new whales to add to the growing list of Wrangell area humpbacks that I have been able to photograph and identify so meet the new ones.

This is Razorback who was seen with a group of 8 that we followed as they bubble net fed along the shoreline of an island.  Several of the whales in this group were ones that I have been seeing all summer, many of whom are usually together.

Halo.  According to some whale information I have read, 70% of the humpbacks in SE AK have all black flukes.  This statistic hasn't proven itself out yet in my personal observations but Halo is one of the few I have seen with nearly completely black tails.

Mako.  I found a photo from 2013 of Mako in a file so was pretty interested to be able to start getting a little bit of a history of these whales.


Glacier.  All of these whales were in the same group of 8 and were doing quite a bit of this --

Bubble net feeding is typically preceded by a high pitched call that is sometimes audible through the hull of the boat and on a calm day like the one in the photos, you can see the bubble ring forming which gives you time to prepare for a sight that is always incredible.  There is obviously a good deal of coordination that must occur during these feedings as one whale has to do the bubbling and calling while the others get into specific positions as seen in the photos.  Depending on the size of the group, one or more whales typically come straight up high out of the water in the center while the others twist on their sides around the center whale.  This is a very coordinated behavior that has to be preplanned somehow to make it work.  Very often the feeding groups consist of the same individual whales regardless of where I have found them which may also mean they form a kind of "team" to include ones with the best fishing abilities.  

This breaching whale was a smaller whale than the ones in the group who we noticed breaching far out in the distance in the middle of the strait.  It fortunately breached several more times when we got closer and put on a nice display.  This whale was swimming very quickly on an intercepting course with the group of 8 but never became part of that group.  Once it reached the shoreline, it was always several hundred yards behind the group and could have easily caught up to them but didn't.  I'm not a whale, but I got the sense that it was not being permitted to become part of the group.  Maybe it was a less experienced bubble feeder that would disrupt the good thing the group had going.   We eventually came to a place where we saw other whales in the distance ahead of us, including a double simultaneous breach!, at which point this whale appeared in front of the original group of 8 hurrying toward these new whales.

This is Eclipse diving with some of the scenery of SE AK in the background.

A series of shots showing bubble feeding from the beginning to close to the end.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Killer Whales (or orcas if you prefer)

One thing about life in the last frontier and the hidden gem of it in particular, is that you really never know what memorable experience you may have from day to day.  I suppose and accept that this is a statement that is applicable to life anywhere, but I specifically mean that we have potential for memorable experiences that reconnect one to the natural world from which we increasingly attempt to disconnect ourselves.  Feeding pigeons in a city park may connect a person with the natural world to some beneficial degree, a deer in the backyard can be a profound and intimate encounter so it may be a personal failing of my own that I require more than that to feel that intimacy and connection.   This is not some romantic notion or attempt to portray myself as some rugged mountain man, if anything, I think this has caused me more difficulties throughout my life than any comfort and ease.  I imagine that there are many Alaskans out there who are Alaskans for similar reasons.

While the summer of 2017 will not go down in the memory banks as a particularly pleasant one weather wise, I have been graced with some very memorable experiences so far.  One of the most memorable happened just a few days ago.

While sitting at idle in the boat at the beginning of a trip up the Stikine River on the edge of the delta, I spotted a very faint, quickly dissipating cloud of mist very near to the shore of a nearby island.  Somehow, the mind can learn to discern one type of mist from another when you have lived long enough in a land of mists.  (The mind can also come to appreciate the many shades of grey as well!) 
That mist came from one of 5 or 6 killer whales patrolling near the island.

There were two adult males, two adult females, and two small young ones, one of which was a female, I'm not sure about the other.  This group was obviously circling and doing something with a purpose.

The orca on the right in the above photo has a very distinct white mark on the left side of the front of its dorsal fin.  The mark looks a lot like the state of West Virginia so will make future meetings with her easy.  While we were watching these "whales", killer whales are actually the largest of the dolphins and are not whales at all, a single seal popped up while the orcas were all under the water.  This seal's appearance began to give us some insight into the story that was playing itself out before us - these orcas were transients who were hunting and very likely teaching their young ones how to hunt seals!  Just seconds after the seal submerged, there was a very large swirling disturbance in the water.  There was no obvious sign of seal death but not long after this swirling disturbance, the behavior of the orcas became somewhat less coordinated and the young ones became playful and silly.  One of them breached and began slapping its tail and pectoral fins on the water in a display that I can only describe as happy.

Of course, I can't say for sure if they were responding to me or not, but I started to slap my hand on the water and make splashes of my own which might have encouraged the youngsters to put on a show for us as the tail and pectoral slapping and breaching increased and all of the orcas stayed fairly close to the boat.

This was the last breach as they all began to swim away from us which I was lucky enough to get on the camera.  This is the little female which I named Drea.

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.