Sunday, May 7, 2017

Whales, bears, and porpi oh my!

Andrea and I did an overnight trip to a Forest Service cabin about an hour boat ride from Wrangell over the weekend out in the "real" ocean.  I call it the "real" ocean only because this area is far enough away from the Stikine River that there is no freshwater influence or silty, murky water like there is around the Wrangell vicinity.  The Stikine River is a high volume river with several glaciers along its 350 mile length so there is quite a bit of sediment carried along in its waters.  There is a gauge on the Stikine maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey which gives real time readings that can be found on the internet, at the time I am writing this, the river level is 8.36 feet and is discharging 219,927 gallons of water a second.  An 8 foot river is still more of a winter river level than a late spring one and during an average summer, the river level is usually around 19 or 20 feet and discharges 500,000 gallons a second or more!  So, as you can see, there is a lot of silt laden freshwater dumping out into the ocean!
The "real" ocean area we were in is called Clarence Strait which connects into the open ocean, has a very long fetch, and is over 1,000 feet deep so can be a rather dangerous and intimidating place to be at times while at other times can be a flat, sunny beautiful pond.  Marine life is abundant out there with lots of whales, fish, jellyfish, birds, and in the summer, migrating cruise ships and their odd cargo of hairless apes.  Our weather was sunny and warmish and while we didn't have dangerous and intimidating water conditions, neither did we have flat calm pondwater, but my boat, the trusty workhorse, LynnD, can handle some pretty tough conditions.

Here is a view of Clarence Strait with a couple of Dall's Porpoise in the bottom of the photo.  Do you see them?  Neither do I, this seems to be a typical photo of these guys as they are some of the fastest swimmers in the sea.  We were surrounded by a group of about 15 of them speeding all around us and under the boat as we bobbed in the swells trying to catch one on camera.

This is the best shot I got of them!  Beautiful creatures aren't they?  I guess you'll have to trust me, they are really fun to watch and have a pretty black and white color pattern.  They always look to me like they are having an incredible amount of fun.

Some of the most beautiful sunsets you could ever see can be seen from the cabin we were staying in.  While this one Friday night wasn't one of the best I've seen here, it was still pretty.

On Saturday morning, we got in the boat to go do some beachcombing on a nearby island and saw this little guy frolicking with its mother.  This is a humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae.  The scientific name means "great-winged New Englander" which refers to these very long pectoral flippers, the New Englander part comes from their abundance in New England during the whaling days.  This calf seemed to be having a very good time slapping the water with its tail and flippers and rolling over on its back in the sunshine.

Flowers may be somewhat less exciting than young whales frolicking in the ocean but to a nature nerd like me, they present a different kind of fulfillment and awe.  These are some of the first wildflowers of the year and look like they are about to burst with dozens of flowers in a few more days.  This yellow flower is a villous cinquefoil growing right out of the rocks above the ocean.  The blue in the background in the bottom photo is the ocean.

The first lupines of the year.  These flowers were also on the beach but a little further away from the water in a more protected spot.

A dead crab of some kind washed up on the rocks.

Our trip back to Wrangell Saturday evening was not a pleasant one, we had consistent 3-4' seas with some swells approaching 6 ' and strong wind that seemed to come from every direction.  At least it wasn't raining!  Every time we would round a point of land that I thought would give us a respite from the wind and water, the wind would be blowing in a different direction and we would continue to get pummeled.  It was a long boat ride home but a good one to appreciate the power, beauty, and ever changing nature of the sea. 
I spotted a very glossy black and large black bear lying on a beach eating grass on the way home and decided to stop and put a stalk on it with the thought of shooting it with either the rifle or the camera, or both.  Andrea did manage to get a couple decent shots (with a camera) of the bear which is pretty impressive considering how rough the water was and how much the boat was rocking.

Beaching the boat in the rough seas was a challenge involving topping my boots but we made it downwind of the bear which gave us hopes of being able to stalk near enough for a shot of one kind or another.  Alas, as we were walking up the beach toward the bear, I noticed that the strap of my camera was blowing in the direction of the bear, the wind was swirling and probably carrying our scent right to it.  To add to our misfortune, I spotted two Canada geese on the beach near where the bear was, that bear had its own security guards!  I told Andrea that the odds of the bear being there were very low since there is no humanly possible way to sneak up on or passed a goose which would noisily spook and alert the bear.  Sure enough, once we got within the geese comfort, or discomfort range, they noisily flew away so when I got to a spot where I should have been able to see the bear, the only sign of it was a bear-sized depression in the grass and some chewed off grass blades.  Oh well, good on ya bear may you keep doing bear things for many years to come!  That encounter makes me wonder if the bear intentionally picked that grassy beach over the others nearby just because those geese were there.  Wild geese are impossible to sneak up on as I stated before so would make an impregnable security system for a hungry bear.  Trying to stalk the bear from the forest was an option for us but there is no easy way to be quiet when you are travelling through the temperate jungle of Southeast Alaska.

I thought our home stretch to Wrangell would give us a break from the rough seas but it actually was the worst water of the whole trip!  Jeez!  With town and the harbor in sight, I was ready to be out of the boat and done with the concentration and discomfort of driving the boat in rough water but then I saw something a few miles ahead of us that I could not not go investigate.

The small island on the left of this photo is 5 Mile island named such because it is about 5 miles from Wrangell.  What is that thing on the right?  Some sort of buoy?  A navigational marker?  Nope, it is actually what caught my eye a few miles back.

There was a large humpback whale breaching only a couple miles from town and only about a mile from the edge of the Stikine delta!  I have never seen a whale breaching this close to town before especially that close to the delta!  It breached more than a dozen times and did the spyhopping behavior in the first photo.  We were fairly close to it but the wind was really howling and the seas were a good 5-6' so photography was challenging especially for me as I was trying to keep the boat pointed into the waves while keeping up with the whale and trying to get some photos!  I'm lucky to get these!  You can tell how just how hard the wind was blowing by the spray blowing off of the whale.  It was an incredible show!

Andrea got some good shots as well (she usually gets better ones than I do).  Here are her best ones.

I love this place!

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