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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Animals and Icebergs in Prince William Sound

Location: Valdez, Alaska
Population: 4036

Today we took a wildlife watching trip out of Valdez into Prince William Sound. When I was 12, we came to Alaska for a week on a family vacation and went whale watching in Glacier Bay National Park. I was always an animal lover, but in many ways that trip cemented my passion for the natural world and for whales in particular. It was the first time I saw orcas in the wild, and when I got home, I looked to see if there was somewhere closer to home where I would have a chance to see killer whales again. That's when I learned about the San Juan Islands, where I have visited or spent every summer since then. Even though I have loved being in the San Juans, a part of me has always yearned to return to Alaska, which is why I couldn't pass up this trip. As we pulled out of the harbor this afternoon, I couldn't help but smile - I've finally made it back!

We passed a fishing boat offloading its catch to a cannery on the way out, and it was interesting to hear the captain explain that in Alaska, the salmon fishing season only opens after the escapement goals are met, rather than based on projected escapement as occurs in other states. (Escapement refers to the amount of fish that "escape" a fishery to ensure the population remains sustainable.) Perhaps that is one reason Alaska's fisheries are so much more sustainable than those in Washington, Oregon, and California?

A bald eagle flew right by the boat and several black-legged kittiwakes (192) followed us out into the sound, a good omen for the trip to come. It didn't take long to spot a young humpback whale. This whale was lunge feeding on herring - something I've never seen before! It was awesome to watch. The whale would suddenly erupt from the surface head first with its throat expanding to take in a mouthful of water and fish. Then water would stream out its mouth as it filtered through its baleen and swallowed the herring. The whale would then take one breath, fluke as it dove, and we would have to wait and see where it would burst to the surface again. The whale was remarkably close to shore doing this behavior as well. Just like in the San Juans, the fjords here have been carved out by glaciers and thus the channels are very deep right where the land meets the water. The captain said the whale was in about 250 feet of water when it was as close to shore as in the photo below:

It's a little hard to tell what you're seeing in this next photo, but it is the whale's head coming out of the water with its chin facing the camera. If you look closely, you can see little herring jumping out of the water trying to avoid becoming lunch.

Humpback whales can be identified by the unique markings on their flukes. We got several nice looks as this one dove down to set up for another lunge:

After a while we headed further out into the sound. We saw several groups of Dall's porpoise throughout the day, including a group of about 6 or 8 that came over and rode off the bow for a while. That is always so much fun to see!

We passed Bligh Reef, the place where the Exxon-Valdez ran aground in 1989 causing what was, until recently, the most devastating oil spill ever to occur in North America. It's pretty poignant to be at the site of this oil spill now with what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico. The captain was talking a lot about how well the ecosystem has rebounded, which is great to hear. He said there are actually more herring and hence more humpback whales in the area now than in the pre-spill days. Unfortunately, he didn't talk much about how the area is still feeling the impacts of the spill that occured more than 21 years ago. For example, the large numbers of deaths that occurred to local marine animal populations will take a long time to rebound, if they do at all. The 22 orcas that died as a result of the oil spill have doomed at least one local pod. I don't want to put such a damper on things, but it's important to talk about, especially in light of what's going on right now!

We went past Glacier Island, which had an impressive colony of Steller sea lions on it. It was cool to see so many females, which we only rarely see in the San Juans. They are amazingly small next to the big males! I got some closer pictures of the sea lions, but I thought this shot that showed how many were there was actually kind of neat. It also shows what most of the landscape we passed looked like:

Also in the same area we spotted two far-away flying tufted puffins (193). Apparently it's still a bit early in the year for them. I'm going to count them on the year list, but I hope we get a better view of them and maybe their cousins the horned puffin sometime this trip!

Today was our first day of the trip that was gray and drizzly. The temperature also dropped considerably. The air temperature was about 40 degrees when we left the dock, and dipped to a frigid 34 by the time we made our way towards the Columbia Glacier! As we navigated through the the bay filled with icebergs to get closer to the glacier, we spotted this sea otter with a pup on her chest. It was cool to see sea otters all over the place today! In this shot you can just make out the head of the little one below the head of the mom:

The gray skies and low-level clouds were an appropriate atmosphere for being surrounded by ice. We had experienced the warm temperatures and mosquito-filled air of the Alaska summer, but today it truly felt like we were approaching the Arctic. Our captain, who has been running trips in the area since the mid-1970s, said it used to be possible to drive right up to the face of the Columbia Glacier. In 1977, a crack formed in the glacier that sped up the calving process, and since then the glacier has retreated a remarkable 8 miles in just over 30 years. Tidewater glaciers advance and retreat for a variety of reasons and not all dwindling tidewater glaciers are as a result of climate change. Apparently, it's debated what caused the crack in the Columbia Glacier, but the result is clear. Where once you could boat right up to the front of the glacier, you are now met with an impassable field of giant icebergs that have broken off from the main ice of the glacier.

It was an impressive sight and an unusual one, which led to the taking of lots and lots of pictures. Here are two I picked out to give you the feel of it:

On our way back to the harbor we came across another, slightly larger humpback whale. This one seemed to be feeding as well, though with a little less enthusiasm, and it didn't lift its tail once when it dove. It did, however, surprise us by coming up right off the bow, first by rolling at the surface as it gulped some herring and raising one pectoral fin in the air in the process:

Then it took a breath and gave us a fantastic look at the double blowholes humpbacks have, like all other baleen whales (orcas and other toothed whales and dolphins just have one blowhole):

The spray from the blow drifted right into our faces on the deck - so cool! Too soon it was time to go and we headed back to port, again accompanied by some black-legged kittiwakes:


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Sounds like that was a trip and a half - I too would like to covered in Humpback snot!! Missed the one that stayed in the river for some time at Glasgow several years ago by a day...ohhh noooooo.



Katie Jones said...

Great shots as usual! I like the second glacier photo especially! Glad your excursion was a success :)

Adrián Baños said...

espectacular photos of the wales!!!

Adrián Baños said...

Espectacular photos of the wales!!!!