2010 Alaska Recap – The Whale Carcass

During the 2010 Alaska cruise season, passengers aboard the small ships were given a rare glimpse into the food chain and life cycle in Glacier Bay National Park. Early sailings discovered a dead and decaying beached humpback whale. Subsequent visits found various mammals feeding on the whale carcass, including brown bears.

What follows is a summary of these sightings. If after reading about the experiences below your interested in this small ship cruise itinerary, we invite you to view more details.

May 13, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Brown bear investigating beached whale carcass

Excited by the prospects of a rumor we headed to the isthmus of the Gilbert Peninsula where another vessel had reported signs of flesh and carcass. A park service research boat was pulling out as we pulled in, confirming the dead and beached whale. We hoped for critters crawling but saw none, so made our way to Margerie Glacier.

Returning to the place we started this morning, we soaked in the dynamic day only to be treated with a grand finale. Carcass and kills always provide potential for the food chain and so we returned to the beached whale carcass – the amazing grace of the “Big-winged New Englander” who, meeting its demise, would now feed the fauna of the terrestrial world.

How blessed we were to find a coastal brown bear feeding on the total ground score! From the looks of it, it has been a while since the humpback whale met its demise, but that did not stop the hungry curiosity of a brown bear recently emerged from winter den and fasting!

June 10, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Coastal brown bear feeding on a dead humpback whale

As we sailed north, we stopped to take a look at a humpback whale carcass that washed ashore about two months ago. The inert giant has been known to attract a variety of carnivores to the shore, where they scavenge on it. Today we found several bald eagles, common ravens and a coastal brown bear who feasted on the deceased leviathan.

June 16, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

We are headed back down the bay, but not before seeing Lamplugh and Reid Glaciers, another brown bear, and a humpback whale carcass that washed up on the beach in April.

June 25, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

One memorable stop on our return was for a dead humpback whale. It died sometime in early spring and was now a huge, pale-yellowish blob. Two lower jaw bones stuck out at odd angles, and the throat pleats ran 2/3 the length of the body. Two brown bears were in the area, no doubt seeking a rotting snack.

July 8, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Gloomy Knob brought us mountain goats and further up bay on Russell Island, a rotting carcass of a humpback whale brought everyone on deck for a look.

July 9, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Two courting brown bears cavorted in the vicinity of a long-dead humpback whale. They wrestled and romped together before finally wandering into the shrubbery, out of view of the many cameras and inquisitive eyes aimed in their direction.

July 13, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Big Brown Bear feeding on a humpback whale carcass

On our return trip to Bartlett Cove, we stopped by a dead humpback whale that was found by the Park Service in May. To our luck we saw a brown bear on it, feeding on the ripe blubber. For a good while we watched this animal, until a larger brown bear showed up and evicted the younger one!

July 14, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Bears on whale carcass

The grand finale occurred as we approached the body of a dead humpback whale washed up in March this year, when snow and ice still dominated the shores of Glacier Bay. It was discovered only in early May, and since then we have kept a close eye on it. We lucked out this afternoon when two brown bears were seen walking purposefully down the beach towards the carcass almost hidden by high tide. They proceeded to wade out in order to climb up, scratch, claw, chew, pull and tug on the remains. Several laps around the whale took place, as well as several spats over choice pieces. A pair, possibly in love. Truly a memorable sight. Forty tons of nutrients are taking several months to get recycled into the local environment through the alimentary tracts of ravens, crows, eagles, bears, wolves and who know who else we can’t see.

July 22, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Brown bear feeding on humpback whale carcass

Continuing up-bay, we approached the decomposing carcass of a humpback whale on shore, and found a brown bear feeding on it. After having its fill, the satiated bear walked off to nibble on some plants before heading into the forest. Park Service researchers have set up a motion-detection camera here to record information about visitors to the whale’s remains.

July 23, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

This place rarely fails to offer something unbelievably special. Near the carcass of a dead humpback whale, a courting pair of coastal brown bears wrestled, romped, waltzed and finally napped in the wildflowers above the rocky beach. We watched silently, spellbound by this rare sighting… What a memorable day we’ve experienced here, immersed in the magic of wilderness and wildlife!

July 27, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Brown Bear on Whale Carcass

By late afternoon, many of us retreated to the comfort of the lounge. The rangers discussed the parks history and its many marvels. Shortly, however, we were again out on the bow. Our approach was announced, as a beached humpback whale carcass came into view. Though it had been dead for at least three months, the whale still attracted scavengers including one of the more coveted sightings in Alaska, the brown bear. Sure enough, as we scanned the shoreline, an old bear lumbered out from the alders. Slowly it made its way over to the carcass and began ripping off pieces of rotting flesh. It was nature at its wildest!

July 28, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Heading back down the Bay we stopped to check out the carcass of a humpback whale washed up on the shore. We were hoping to see bears and other carnivores taking advantage of an easy meal, but saw only a dozen or more ravens plus an unidentifiable small, dark, four-legged creature that scurried from the scene when we arrived—could have been a wolverine.

August 5, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Returning as we came, we decided to take a close look at the humpback whale carcass that has become such a focal point this summer. As we approached, the call was put out: WOLVES! There were 5 inky-black pups dancing on the beach, followed closely by two adults, one also black and the other silver gray. They stayed in our view just long enough for some of us to get a quick look, then trotted back into the thick vegetation at the top of the shoreline.

August 6, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Humpback Whale carcass

Crossing over to the other side of the Bay, we visited the remnants of a humpback whale carcass that had been found. Also visiting was a brown bear looking for a quick, easy meal. We watched in fascination as he ripped off piece after piece of the rotting flesh, before staggering off into the woods full almost beyond capacity. Cameras installed by the National Park Service to document activities at the site show that a whole host of different animals have been coming by for their share of the bounty, including bears, wolves, coyotes, birds, and even a wolverine or two.

August 10, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Brown bears feeding on a humpback whale carcass.

It was so spectacular that it’s hard to believe that it was the wildlife that stole the show today! Before we could even reach the glacial face, we cruised by the decomposing carcass of a single humpback whale on the western shore, which has been providing vital proteins for a host of Glacier Bay wildlife this summer. At 06:00 the excited whisper went out over the p.a. system: “There are at least four bears and a wolf having breakfast on a humpback whale carcass on the port side. Please be very, very quiet as you come out on deck.” We felt as if we were in a National Geographic special feature, as the Captain held the ship steady as the Alaskan brown bears ripped at the flesh and buried their faces into the carcass, chasing off the wolf to wait its turn. What a spectacle!

August 11, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Brown bear on humpback whale carcass.

Changing course, we shifted to the Eastern wall and headed through Russel Cut on our way to witness a macabre, yet intimate example of how life sustains itself in the wild. A humpback whale, dead now approximately four months, lay on a beach serving up a buffet for many life forms, not the least of which being our best brown bear sighting yet. This bear pawed, climbed, chewed, tore, shook, tugged, and altogether eviscerated this whale for any bite of malleable meat. Mid-meal he took a bath in the bay, giving us a delightful scene of wildlife at play.

August 19, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

Alaskan brown bears having breakfast on a humpback whale carcass

The gift that keeps on giving continues to do just that, to our awe and fascination today in Glacier Bay National Park. A humpback whale carcass has been washed up on Skidmore Beach on the west shores of Glacier Bay for the entire summer, and has provided a summer-long protein feast for Alaskan brown bears, black wolves, and certainly many other scavengers. Motion-sensitive cameras that were set up by the National Park Service have revealed that the primary feeding takes place at dawn and dusk, so we were ready with a gentle ship-wide wake-up call at 0550 as we approached the carcass and saw five bears feasting and a wolf waiting its turn in the distance. Everybody was on deck with the bow of the ship looking over the scene that seemed straight out of a National Geographic special. In fact it was, as the wolf then approached and boldly sniffed a giant, sated sleeping bear, and then moved on to join the other four bears on the carcass. We watched in awe as the bears gorged, then swam and wrestled in the water, then returned for more prime whale. The wolf departed at a quick pace and then showed itself in the tall grass again a half hour later. It almost certainly had brought others, for it kept turning its head back and forth, monitoring the feeding of the bears.

By breakfast time at 0730, there was nothing more that Glacier Bay National Park Ranger Andrea Markell needed to say to convince us of the wildness and importance of the entire Glacier Bay ecosystem.

August 20, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Those of us who heeded Cindy’s 5:30 AM call to get up on deck were richly rewarded with one of the best wildlife performances ever. Leading players in the drama were the carcass of a humpback whale on the beach, four brown bears and eight (!) wolves. Act 1 had two brown bears working the carcass and two more in the water cleaning up after their breakfast. Act 2 introduced the wolves prowling along the shoreline. In the grand finale there were two brown bears and two wolves sharing a meal. A “peaceable kingdom” indeed because usually these animals will aggressively defend their food, but in this case the resource was so great that they seemed happy to share. As a postlude, one of the wolves ate a huge chunk of whale meat and trotted back along the shore to meet four frolicking wolf pups. Our NPS Ranger Jeff Pietka offered the theory that the wolf was intending to redistribute the meal to the pups by regurgitating.

August 24, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

At 0600 hours we had an early wakeup call: a short distance ahead of the ship, brown bears were feeding on a whale carcass! There were five bears close by. As we watched, two or three bears at a time tore at the huge, white carcass. Another bear napped in grass above the tidal zone, while a fifth bear went for a swim after its meal. They were obviously well fed; the bellies on some of these bears looked huge.

August 25, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Brown bear feeding with gray wolf in Glacier Bay National Park

Expedition Leader Sue Perin’s voice softly came over the ship’s intercom in the pre-dawn light, gently waking us in Glacier Bay National Park. Sharp eyes on the bridge had sighted both coastal brown bears and a lone gray wolf feeding side by side on a humpback whale carcass. We rolled out of bed, rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, grabbed our cameras and binoculars, and headed for the bow of National Geographic Sea Bird.

As civil twilight gave way to the dawn’s early light, we could better make out as many as five brown bears feeding together all at once. Normally brown bears are quite anti-social, preferring to be left alone, even by members of their own kind. The fact that these bears were feeding in such close proximity can only be explained by the abundance of food available. Even more astounding still, these bears were willing to share their breakfast with a single gray wolf, an interloper that normally would be roughly reminded he was unwelcome at the table.

After gorging almost past the point of being able to move, one bear waded into the fjord, sat down and gyrated back and forth attempting to clean the pungent whale remains from his fur. We left the bears as we found them, still feasting. Given that an adult humpback whale approaches forty tons in weight, these lucky early rising scavengers will be fat and happy with this abundance as winter approaches.

September 2, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

After welcoming our National Park Ranger Janene Driscoll on board, expedition leader Larry Prussin made sure we started our visit to Glacier Bay bright and early. At 6 am his soothing voice coaxed us out of our bunks and onto the bow of the National Geographic Sea Lion. Bundled up to weather the cold mists of morning, we were stunned to witness brown bears along the shore, feeding on a humpback whale carcass. The tide was favorable, so we got quite close and caught a good look at bears having breakfast. Having provided food for bears, wolves, eagles and raven for several months already, the whale carcass did not look too appetizing, but the bears seemed to enjoy it thoroughly and worked hard to drag pieces of it out of the water and up on shore.

September 3, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

Our 5:30am wake-up found us adrift a short distance from a beached humpback, here since April (or perhaps before), that’s been a summer blubber buffet for ravens, wolves and brown bears. It takes a long time for a 40-ton marine mammal to decompose and be scavenged. Darkness pulled itself back slowly to reveal a golden shore with seven coastal brown bears and seven wolves playing their game of wildlife chess, each maneuvering past the others to get a piece of, well – the action. Our long lenses projected off the port side of the National Geographic Sea Bird like a photographic equivalent of the Guns of Navarrone, three dozen motor drives firing away each time two bears tussled, or a silver-black wolf, agile and sleek, slipped past the bears to get its share of the bounty and then disappear into the shoreline cottonwoods (where it probably cached its share of whale meat).

September 7, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Lion

At 6 AM we had an unusually early wake-up call; brown bears were on shore near the ship – and wolves, too! As we quietly emerged on deck, we watched a total of five brown bears and three wolves feed on pieces of a whale carcass that had washed ashore months ago. I felt so very privileged to see this, for only in true wilderness can one observe bears and wolves in close proximity to each other, tearing at pieces of a dead whale, at dawn. The light on jagged, snow-covered mountains was glorious. Finally the sun peeked over the mountains and hit the beach, and the two bears that were still eating were illuminated in golden light. They looked very rotund.

September 8, 2010 – National Geographic Sea Bird

One of the key elements of wildlife photography – or an expedition – is being in the right place at the right time. Today, was one of those days where everything clicked.

It started long before sunrise. At first light, the National Geographic Sea Bird was drifting quietly, close to shore, where a carcass of a humpback whale had washed up this spring. An early wake up call prepared us for what was to follow, bears and more bears.

At first they looked like dark rocks, but soon we realized there was not one but three bears eating along the rocky shore. Then four. Next five. Soon it was six, and finally seven. But the highlight would happen just before breakfast, when a pair of siblings began to spar in the shallows.


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