A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about fishing

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

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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.

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.
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.
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.
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
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.

Alaskan Fishermen enjoy some of the most dramatic scenery while catching fish for a living.

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)

The Best of Astoria

Some History, Good Eats, The People, The Column, and the Columbia River Bar

sunny 50 °F

I’ve been spending time in the small coastal town of Astoria, Oregon lately. Astoria has some charms, beyond being famous for the home of “The Goonies.” First, some historical facts. Astoria started out as a fur trader’s settlement in the early 1800’s and has been settled ever since. In fact, it is the oldest permanent settlement west of the Mississippi River in the U.S. John Jacob Astor’s controlling grip on the North American Fur Trade brought fur traders, opened the settlement, and was named after him. When the fur bearing animals disappeared, the people turned to Salmon for their livelihood. Salmon sustained the town well into the 1900’s. The fisherman caught the fish and sold it to the cannery who sold it to the consumer. “We didn’t mind the smell (referring to the stench of fish products). To us, it smelled like money, and we felt prosperous.” ~ Astoria Fisherman, talking about the Astoria fishing industry.
There aren’t any canneries open anymore. Hundreds of wood pilings line the shore line of Astoria, reminders of former industry. Astoria lives on, a nice town, an enjoyable place to spend some time if you get the opportunity.
On my first visit, I had three hours to explore the town. I was free from ship duties for the day, and we didn’t set sail until the evening. It felt fantastic to be walking on land, in the bright sunshine. I felt good, and wanted to see what this town had to offer. I moseyed toward the downtown area, and soon found myself on a binge of impulse buying. What does a vagabond spend his money on when he’s on a “spree? “ Well, the first thing I found was a music store, and I needed a capo for my banjo, so that was an easy decision. Continuing on, I found a chocolatier who had fresh truffles for sale. I’m a man who can’t resist chocolate, and refuses to feel guilty about it. Five truffles were purchased, three of which went to some of the hard working stewards on our ship. I’m quite generous with my chocolate.

Walking around the corner, I started my way back east on Commercial Ave, the other main downtown street. I stopped in at a local market to buy some hand soap for my cabin on the boat. A plan formed in my mind, and I bought an ice cold drink to enjoy later on at the Astoria Column, a lofty tower that overlooks the country side from high atop the steep hills above town. It was a good thing I did, as the hike up the steep hills of Astoria was a grueling, dehydrating climb. I’ll talk more about that later. I digress, and want to talk more about the downtown spending spree I was enjoying. I decided I wanted a book, so I stopped in at a likeable new and used bookseller (Godfather‘s). I briefly glanced around at the well ordered shelves of books and found myself in the Non-Fiction section. I remembered the last name of an author of a book I wanted to read, and looked at the shelf for “Larson.” Sure enough, they had the book I was looking for. “Thunderstruck” by Erik Larson. It was a done deal. I made my purchase, and was about to leave, when I decided to write an email before I continued on my grand adventure up to the column.

As I said, the climb up the column is arduous. The people of Astoria have legs of steel, without a doubt. I enjoyed the hike. It felt really good to stretch my legs out on some serious uphill. It was kind of maddening however, as I didn’t see the tower until I finally rounded a bend after many blocks of walking. I was following the signs that led up to the park. I like to see my goal, when I’m laboring that hard.
Then there it was. A tall lighthouse like pillar set atop a hillside towering above the nearby coniferous trees. My timing was good. The soft puffs of the clearing white clouds dotted in the azure blue sky made for a pleasing backdrop for the sunlit column. The grounds of the tower were landscaped and well manicured. The tower area had uniform sidewalks of concrete led people to the entrance of the tower, and the spiraling staircase that rose up to the viewing platform. I was getting tired from all the vertical footwork I was making on this jaunt. However, I knew that soon enough I would be at the highest point around, and there would be nothing more to climb. When I walked through the door to the viewing platform, the entire northwest corner of Oregon spread out before me in every direction. It was gorgeous. I could easily see across the river into Washington, and Cape Disappointment. I could see the famed Columbia Bar, also known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” An area of violent seas, where the 1300 mile long Columbia River meets the raging north Pacific Ocean. I’ll be writing more about the Columbia Bar, in a few days, as I’ll be crossing over it myself for the first time.
Looking down onto the concrete far below, some kids were messing around with the gliders they sell at the gift shop. The slanting low angled sunlight of late afternoon made for interesting long shadows on the grid of concrete.

After awhile I tromped back down the stairs and out into the sunny meadow where I relaxed on a picnic table for awhile, before back tracking down the hills to the ship. I was probably making the longest strides of my life as I made my way back down those steep hills. I’d like to see an Astorian walk on flat ground; I bet it would look awkward and funny, like a bowlegged cowboy getting off his horse after many days of riding.

The people of Astoria are open to street conversation. I’ve spoken to four random people on the street, each with their own story. I met a college student studying to be a marine biologist. I talked at length with an elderly lady about what types of meat she prefers to eat. She eats buffalo way more than fish, chicken or red meat. She doesn’t eat pork at all. You might be wondering why I’m relaying this onto you, poor reader; after all, the eating habits of a random woman are hardly vagabond material. This lady spent the better part of fifteen minutes explaining her eating habits to me, and I was patient enough to listen to her, even though my own half pound burger and fries from the Custard King was slowly cooling in its wrapper. I just wanted to share her story with you. I met the leader of a litter pick up crew who told me about some of the better beaches along the coast. Most of them I’ve been to, but he did tell me about one called “Indian Beach” which I’ve never visited. Finally, I met a bookseller, who gave me the location of the bookstore I had already visited. A nice lot, and all of them seemed generally proud of their town.
If you find yourself looking for a good café in Astoria, look no further than the Columbian Café on Marine Drive. I had a day off, and I was looking to go out for breakfast. I ordered Italian sausage, eggs and toast and with it they offered four kinds of pepper jelly. I’m now a huge fan of pepper jelly, cayenne, in particular. It was sweet and spicy, and excellent on toast.

I ended off my day by visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum. This is one of the better museums I’ve ever visited, and I was pleasantly surprised at how informative and interesting it turned out to be. It covers a lot of ground, from shipwrecks, aids to navigation, the coast guard, fishing, canneries, tug and barges, steamships, and Bar Pilots. I liked all of it, but I was especially into the old stories from the gill netters, the ship wrecks, the history of the Columbia Bar, and the bar pilots.
The Columbia River bar pilots are the elite class of the marine navigators. All commercial vessels must take on a pilot to navigate them over the bar. To board the super container ships, the pilots head out during any kind of day or night, in 60 knot winds, and seas commonly over 30 foot seas. They pull along side the monstrous ships, and climb up a wood and plank ladder. Then they direct the vessel safely over the bar.
I can’t wait to see the bar for myself. It’s going to happen tonight at 2 am. There is so much sea faring history in the bar. It’s known as the graveyard of the pacific, and dozens of ships have floundered and sunk in its dangerous waters. It’s going to be fun…

Posted by Rhombus 07:30 Archived in USA Tagged parks rivers fishing history photography astoria Comments (4)

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