Alaska Cruise Report: Chichagof Island

From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska August 23, 2010

The first day of any expedition can set the feeling and tone for an entire voyage. Anxious murmurings about what we might see and do permeated the breakfast conversation this morning aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird. Our anxieties were quickly turned to excitement as a group of humpback whales began to co-operatively bubble-net feed along the eastern coast of Chichagof Island. No fewer than ten humpbacks worked together to herd tiny herring into a tight concentration worthy of the effort that paid caloric dividends to each member of the whale team.

Analyze the situation; almost 400 tons of whales trying to corral hundreds of extremely fast-swimming tiny fish and convince them to somehow wander into gaping mouths to make a tasty meal. Oh yeah, by the way, the water is dark, the fish are at about 100 feet down, and the whales have no hands or tools. Coupled with the lack of a verbal language (as far as we know) and it seems a herculean task for such a large, relatively slow swimming mammal to overcome.

But with a little help from our friends, we mammals can achieve the unthinkable (or at least a satisfying meal from a prey resource much quicker than ourselves). Using the tools available to them (bubbles, sound, and large pectoral fins) these inventive whales can nourish their forty-five ton, forty-five foot long bodies with relative ease and efficiency. A friend in the deep is a friend to keep! The humpbacks ended their feeding session just as we began ours (lunch was served), but not without a departing breach and head-lunge.

This afternoon, in true expedition style, the coastal brown bears conspired to alter our best-laid hiking plans. Several groups set out to hike to a lake above the waterfall at Pavlof Harbor, but the bears had other ideas. Time and again a hungry brown bear would scamper out of the forest to go fishing for pink salmon at the base of the waterfall, utilizing the very trail we ourselves intended to use. Of course in Alaska bears have the right-of-way and so we yielded the trail to the bears. Besides, watching brown bears catch salmon was a wonderful way to spend a “bear-jam” on the trail!

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