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Eating Habits of Whales and Bears

Bubble Net Feeding, Swimming in Alaska, Brown Bear Fishing, and Farewell to Alaska (for now)

semi-overcast 69 °F

I’m wrapping up my last week here in Alaska until September. Yep, it’s time for a month off, and let me tell you I’m quite excited about my vacation. Before I go, it seems like Alaska is giving me a farewell party with a fantastic show of wildlife, cloud, and activity.

Bubble Net Feeding of Humpbacks

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I’ve talked a lot about the behavior of humpback whales, and now I’m going to attempt to describe one of the more spectacular eating techniques they employ: Bubble Net Feeding. Bubble netting is aptly named-- a pod of whales blows a net of bubbles that captures their prey inside of it. Then as a group, they can swim through the net, gulping their way to the surface.

I’ve seen two sets of bubble netting feeding whales, a small two-whale group, and now a large group of over six whales. There are several steps that go into making a successful net, and the whales have gotten their system down pat.

The whales arrange themselves in a line, and breathe along the surface for several deep blows. Then, as in a game of follow the leader, the first in the group takes one final blow and dives down. Each whale in succession follows it. It was impressive to see fluke after fluke of these humongous creatures dive down.
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I haven’t witnessed what goes on beneath the surface except on video, but what can be seen from the air is a large ring of bubbles that percolates at the surface. These bubbles are the sides of net. This net is formed as the whales circle the bait ball and capture it by blowing a long steady stream of bubbles from beneath them. The bubbles panic and confuse the fish, drawing them closer in their fast moving defensive swirl.
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The whales, having trapped their prey, bellow out a long trumpet like call, akin to a charging army’s cry of “CHARRRRGGGGGEEEEE” and as a group launch themselves through the bait ball opening their humongous mouths-- devouring their prey in gigantic gulps of gluttony. The whales break the surface as one, their momentum carrying them high out of the water. Look at how full their mouths are! They filter out the food with the baleen at the top of their mouth. A baleen is a series of long comb like cartilage that allows water to pass through but not the fish. They hold on the surface for a second, and then slowly sink back down enjoying their bite. The surface of the water is turmoil of bubbles dead fish and froth from which the seagulls get their share of the bounty.

I saw them surface through the bubble at least 8 times and we watched them for over three hours. I wasn’t on deck the whole time either, so this goes to show you the massive amounts of baitfish that can support this kind of feeding. That biomass of fish is impressive. The whales eat their fill, and their summer eating supports their migration south for the mating season.

To hear their trumpeting call as their bubbles trap you must be terrifying. We heard it on our underwater hydrophone, and it is eerily awesome. That call signals the others it’s time to eat and they do so with vigorous relish.

If you don’t have an underwater microphone you can tell where they will surface by the activity of the seagulls. They will signal where the whales will surface, and you can see the gulls get more excited as their lunch approaches.

I with I could have so much fun when I eat a fish stick.

Swimming in Funter Bay

This summer our Bosun, Nikki has been really big on swimming everyday. I’ve joined her several times, as I love jumping in cold water. If you are having a bad day, jump in cold water. It will refresh you, wake you up, and somehow make you feel a whole lot better. We were anchored in Funter Bay, and she asked my deck partner and myself is we wanted to go for a swim. Hell yeah! Why not? So I grabbled my shorts, stripped down on the fantail and without much ado, jumped in. Hot damn, was that some nippy water! Woooeeeeeee. It woke me up, made me feel good and I tingled all over from the experience. It was what swimming in Alaska is all about.

I jumped in two more times to seal in my delight. Then, since I was technically still working, decided I should change and get back to work. Since dinner was being served, I didn’t want to walk through the crowded dining room. I decided to change on the back of the ship, the fantail.

I looked around as I always do when I’m about to get naked in a public place, that ol’ wary eye. The coast was clear, literally, and I dropped my unmentionables in a heap on the deck of the boat. Just then, the captain of the boat walked out to have a smoke. I noticed him, laughed out loud, and said, “Hi, Cap.” Damn my timing. Luckily, I had gone for the towel wrap before I dropped my drawers and so saved the captain from a year’s blindness.

A moment in the life of Thom.

The Brown Bears of August
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Brown bears love august. The reason being, the fishing is good. The salmon have begun running up the rivers and streams of coastal Alaska. They are looking to have one last romantic getaway before dying.

The brown bears know this, and after eating greens and carcasses all summer long are ready for a change of diet: Fresh salmon. They come to their favorite fishing streams in singles (males), or families (females with cubs), to eat their fill before passing out for a long winter’s nap.
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Today I watched three bears pounce on salmon in the shallows just beneath Pavlov Falls. I’m not sure who Pavlov was, but of Russian descent and probably the first person to hike up this little creek. The fish were plentiful, and the bears make fishing look easy. They simply wait until the salmon get shallow enough, and then pounce on them, hooking their enormous claws into them and mashing them with their bulk against the stream. If we humans tried such a technique, we’d fail miserably.

Then the bear would grab the fish with its mouth, haul it to a nearby rock and eat only the choicest parts, mostly the guts and brains.

Now for some science.

Soil scientists have been studying the soil around these streams and have been finding large amounts of salmon nitrates in the soil. How did it get there? How could so much fish bits be in the soil? So they took samples perpendicular to the stream to see how far back the salmon bits went. They went until they finally found salmon free soil. I don’t remember the distance from the stream but I think it was at least a half mile on either side of the stream.

What they found was that salmon have been fertilizing and enriching the soil around these streams, which in turn gives the forest it‘s impressive lush foliage. How do salmon get into the soil? Bears. The bears catch the salmon, and often will carry their salmon out into the woods to eat in peace. The fish decomposes and turns to soil, and the bear having eaten its fill will digest and pass on the rest of it, broken further down and ready to add nutrients to the soil, making for lush coastal forests.

Now that is a smart natural system. Nothing is wasted, and everything keeps the system working.

One Last Whale
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This was the last whale I'll see in Alaska for awhile. I'm pleased that my last memory is that of a humpback waving good by with its gigantic fluke.

Alaska has once again been very good to me, and I'll miss waking up to its tremendous landscapes. I think it's good to take a break from it for awhile, lest I get complacent with the scenes around me. I don't think I ever will get tired of Alaska, but I don't want to take that chance. I'll be back in September and look forward to my return. Until then, stay tuned. This traveller has some fun lined up for August.

Some Last Looks.
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Posted by Rhombus 14:03 Archived in USA Tagged islands fishing seascapes whales alaska clouds oceans swimming photography bears bubblenetting Comments (0)

Puffin Flight, Jelly Fish and Unbeatable Mornings

How to Kayak, Thom Style. On Loveable Birds, and Jaw Dropping Scenery

semi-overcast 64 °F

Kayaking with Jelly Fish

I was sitting on the far side of an island I don’t remember the name of anymore. It’s not important to this story, and perhaps the only important part of this story consists of three elements: Whales blowing and breathing far off in the distance, a small lion’s mane jelly fish puffing just underneath the surface of the water, and the fact I was happily rafted in a thick mat of bull kelp sitting semi-comfortably in a big yellow kayak.

I rafted myself in kelp for a couple of reasons. For one, I didn’t feel like paddling. I just wanted to chill and listen to the sound of the whales blowing and taking in air. Secondly, I know that sea otters often raft up and hang out in the kelp, lounging on their backs and eating clams on the half shell. I’ve been known to imitate animals and the sea otters aren’t a bad animal to ape. Thirdly, I could see a bald eagle in the tree above me, looking for an easy meal. I could also hear the roaring belches of distant stellar sea lions, which I have described in detail in past posts. In short, it was a good place to hang out and be at one with the world. I let my senses free to explore as they will. Since I had been up for almost 20 hours straight, it was easy to zone out and let my thoughts and interests wander. It was kind of like being high, yet much healthier. I’ve only been high on morphine, but that’s another long story for another time. It involved skateboards, emergency rooms and odd memories.

As I gunk holed and relaxed, I looked down and saw a beautiful jellyfish just below the surface of the water. It’s head was perhaps six inches around. It was orange, partly translucent, and happily puffing along. I thought it was beautiful. The contrasted coloring against the dark blue green of the water was fantastic, and I took the portrait you see here.
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It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. I’m starting to really like kayaking.

Puffin Flight

Puffins aren’t gifted flyers. When landing, they tend to crash land into the water instead of gracefully “skiing” in as some of their cousins do. Perhaps that’s part of their charm. They are klutzy beauties of the sea. Here are a few facts about puffins. Puffins are particular about what they eat. What puffins lack in flying ability, they make up for in swimming ability, and they catch their food by diving underwater and nabbing it with their beaks.
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They live and nest in areas where they find their food supply, usually high up on small island cliffs that rise steeply out of the water. Two Islands that I know of that are home to puffins are the Marble Islands in Glacier Bay Nat’l Park, and St. Lazarius, a National Wildlife Refuge located roughly 20 miles west of Sitka, Alaska. I surmise that they like the view, the protection, and they like easy take offs, and short flights to their food that these islands provide.
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When puffins take off from the water, they have to take off into the wind. They aren’t aerodynamic enough to fly other directions. They start by winding up their wings and flapping hard. They start padding along the water with their feet, running hard and flapping hard, until they finally get airborne. Then they continue to flap hard, to keep themselves aloft until they crash land once again into their desired location.

Puffins are charming, awkward and cute. If you have the chance to watch puffins for awhile, I’d recommend you take the time to watch these marvelous creatures.

Misty Mornings
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Alaskan mornings are some of the finest I’ve experienced. There are so many dimensions and depths of layers to the land and seascapes. We had been experiencing heavy fog for the better part of the night. In fact, it was kind of like looking at the world through a white plastic bag. We had our foghorn running, and extra watch on the bridge long after the sun had come up. I was working on the aft of the ship when the fog began to break. It started slowly. I looked up and realized I could see the tip of a mountain and scattered blue skies. Then I could see the whole mountain, and watched the swirling mists curl around the spruce trees. With the mirror quality of the water, fantastic patters began to emerge. They held briefly to allow me to appreciate their beauty before transforming themselves once again. The scenes you see here lasted for the better part of a half hour before it had almost completely lifted. During that time, I was transfixed, hypnotized by the swirling mists and captivating landscape.
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Fishing
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Alaskan Fishermen enjoy some of the most dramatic scenery while catching fish for a living.

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Alaska will probably haunt me in my dreams forever.

Posted by Rhombus 15:13 Archived in USA Tagged birds islands fishing wildlife alaska clouds kayaking mist photography puffins mornings Comments (0)

Fjords, Glaciers and Elfin Cove

Tracy Arm, South Sawyer Glacier, and Elfin Cove: Population 12

semi-overcast 46 °F

This time of year in southeast Alaska, it gets light out at about four o’clock in the morning. I like to take advantage of the early morning light because nobody on board is awake. As a deckhand who works the night shift, I have ample time to watch the alluring scenery pass by. I’ve been known to pull out my camera while on duty, but that is a fringe benefit of this job. I like to get my early morning chores done as quickly as possible to allow for more quality time enthralled with these marvelous Fjords. I like fjords. The word fjord is fun to say, and the geological feature is a great place to explore.
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I was sitting on a deck box of the aft deck of our upper deck, sharing a blueberry muffin from Heritage Coffee with one of my deck partners and sipping good mint tea. Bakery tastes better when it is shared, especially with good comrades.
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I decided to count all of the waterfalls I could see around me, and I finally gave up after I reached nineteen. It’s not that there weren’t more of them, it’s just that deckhands lose interest in numbers after awhile, and really I just enjoyed being surrounded by falling water.
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The waterfalls ramble down the rock face of the cliffs of the fjord in long narrow ribbons often falling hundreds of feet into the water. The surrounding mountains have a lot of melting snow at this time of year, and with the continual rainfall of southeast Alaska, their flow is constant and healthy.

Tracy Arm Wildlife:

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Mountain Goats
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Arctic Tern
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Long Tailed Duck
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Black Bears

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Looking at the rock walls of the fjord, I was intrigued by the striated rock. There is little vegetation that has taken root here. This is because this is the newest rock to escape the icy grinding of the glacier. It’s fresh rock, so to speak, and it was cool to see the effects of a glacier close up, and so soon after it had released its grip on the rock.
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Tracy Arm is an inspiring piece of landscape. There is a beautiful view in every direction to inspire those susceptible to its charm. At its head are two glaciers, the Sawyer and the South Sawyer. I was fortunate enough to spend a beautiful morning watching ice calving off of the face of the glacier and listening to the white thunder.
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As an early birthday present, I witnessed a gigantic house sized hunk of dense glacier blue ice roll off of the face of the glacier and bob into the water. It was incredible. I was lucky to have my binoculars handy, and I had a really good look at this amazing phenomena. A large wave swelled up from the displaced water, and started rolling outward. It made our zodiacs bob up and down while it passed crashing against the far side of the bay.
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“White Thunder” is what the natives would call the sound of ice cracking off of a glacier. It is an apt description. It sounds just like the sound of a thunder clap after a lightening strike, and it’s really cool to hear one echo around in the fjord.

Elfin Cove Population 12.
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Elfin cove is a nice little cove on the west side of Chichagoff Island in Alaska’s Southeast. It’s a very small village, with 12 full time resilient residents, and several dogs. When we walked up the slippery boardwalk that makes up the main street of the village, the welcoming committee came out to welcome us to town.
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My friends could not resist, and gave it all the attention it wanted. Who can resist petting a friendly dog? We explored along through the misting rain until we found a good bench swing facing the bay. We sat down, and cuddled up close to keep warm against the cold wind and increasing rainfall. It was a very pleasant way to spend our time, swinging, talking and slowly getting soaked. I enjoyed the good company, that my fellow deckhands bring, and we capped off our day with hot chocolate when we returned to the boat.
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Should you find yourself in Elfin Cove, take advantage of the hospitality and good seating available at this nice little village.

This ends my first stint in Alaska. After seven months aboard the Sea Bird, they’ve finally decided to give me a break, and I have a month to spend chasing my muse before returning to Alaska in June. Look for me in California Wine Country, on the coast of California, rock climbing at the New River Gorge in West Virginia, and revisiting my old stomping grounds on the shore of Lake Superior.

The wanderer is seldom bored.

Happy Travels!

Posted by Rhombus 17:13 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats wildlife towns fjords ice alaska clouds glaciers bears harbors Comments (0)

A Sailor Hits Seattle

Sailing into Seattle, Spending Spree, Enjoying City Life after a 4 Month Abscense, Welcome to British Columbia

semi-overcast 45 °F

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We docked the boat at about seven in the evening on a huge pier just north of downtown Seattle. Our entrance to Seattle was a pleasant one. I was sipping tea, chatting with my friend Bill-who is from Seattle, and he was proudly telling me about his town. We leaned on the rail of the ship, sipping and watching the anchored cargo ships, and the downtown area come closer into view. I believe the rails of most ships are designed for deckhands to lean on. It’s a good, comfortable leaning spot, and no matter where you are in the world, you can see deckhands leaning on rails, watching the world go by.
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Almost the entire crew came out for the event, excited to be able to walk on solid ground again, after six days at sea. The captain did his thing, and we linesmen did ours. It was a smooth landing.

When the gangway was set in place, the crew eagerly bounded down it to walk on the cold concrete of the pier, some disappearing into the depths of the city some three miles distant. I was expecting to go to work, but the chief mate asked me if I had plans, and that I could begin my shift two hours later than I had figured.

With unexpected time on my hands, I found a couple of my friends who were going for a jog, and told them to wait for me. I threw on what I guessed were suitable jogging clothes, put on my dilapidated, unsupportive footwear I call sneakers and joined them. We happily and energetically ran around, hopping over concrete barriers and chatting amiably. It felt damn good to be free of the confines of our 152-foot world.

I watched this huge factory ship dock in the night. It's bow is taller than the top of our bridge deck.
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We ran downtown along a shoreline asphalt trail. The darkness of early night was closing in, but we didn’t care. When we reached the city, we walked up on of the seven hills on which Seattle was built. We continued downtown to Pikes Place Market for a cup of coffee before returning to the shift. It was a good run, and in good company. I’m not a runner, and I knew my feet were going to feel sore the next day after the pounding I gave them. I didn’t care. It was worth it.
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The next day, I awoke, threw on some clothes and walked back into downtown for a little adventure of my own. The day was full of signs of spring. There were large areas of fresh green grass with dandelions and daisies bobbing around in the breeze. The trees were budding, and little songbirds were perched high in them attempting to seduce one another with song. The skies were blue with occasional cloudy patches bringing in drizzle. It was warm enough for a tee shirt, then cold enough for a jacket, all in five minutes. I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it was to see a colorful landscape after five months in a desert.
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I love walking in cities, exploring through the hustle and bustle that residents take for granted.

I like looking at the little vignettes of city life: A woman cuddles into her man as he kisses her on the cheek. A pigeon lands briefly on a baby carriage (is this the right term anymore?) the bird and baby eye each other peacefully before the bird flew off. A man walks by me eating a cinnamon roll, and refusing to make eye contact with me. That’s the way of the city, nobody will look at you. I looked at everybody. I saw two elderly sisters standing the same way, walking the same, looking at their goal across the street; that being Macy’s. A young man looking street smart and hip waits for a bus while listening to his Ipod.

I was enthralled with the simple joys of a city after six months at sea.

I went on a sailor’s spree. I’ve a bit of money saved up for my toil and labor this winter. I didn’t spend much money down in Mexico. My nest egg is now full enough to spend at will (I realize that I probably gave the financially wise populace a heart attack). I’m boat rich; Easy come, easy go.

With nobody to keep me in check, I purchased a cinnamon roll, and a good cup of coffee ($3), some toiletries I needed ($30), an Ipod (my first, and I STILL can’t download itunes which makes it basically worthless)($160), I went into the map store on 1st Avenue and immediately bought two books I’ve been wanting to read. “The Natural Navigator” by Tristan Gooley and “As Told At The Explorers Club”($30). This particular store is very charming and very dangerous. I didn’t stay long, as I knew my weakness for maps. I finished off my day by going down to Pike Place Chowder for a bowl of chowder ($7) and getting one for the road ($7). Pikes Place Chowder is a very good bowl of chowder. In my opinion, there’s only one place on the west coast that makes a better bowl. I was satisfied with my efforts for the day, and walked back to the ship in good spirits.

The next day we sailed north into Canada and British Columbia. The first sunset of Canada was a memorable one. It was one that a picture can’t really do justice to, though I tried. To be in that moment, in that scene, was to be immersed in grandeur. I love being surrounded by glowing clouds and seascapes. There were only four of us who witnessed it, even after we told everyone to come and take it in. The fools, their noses were glued like mine is right now to their computers.
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For those of us who watched the evening unfold, it was a symphony in the sky, and a well composed one at that. The clouds were its greatest feature, lit up in colors I hadn’t known existed by the setting sun. It was one to remember, and I’ll do my best to do so.
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I’m now in Alaska…
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Posted by Rhombus 15:37 Archived in USA Tagged sky boats parks cities seascapes clouds sunsets oceans seattle Comments (3)

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