Photographing the Kittiwakes in Glacier Bay
One day in May we anchored the David B in Tarr Inlet. We were in the middle of our Glacier Bay Photography Cruise. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day with both the Grand Pacific Glacier and Marjorie Glacier in view. Marjorie had been active. The floating ice that had calved off was scattered all around the inlet. Most of it was of small bits of brash with the largest icebergs about the size of a city bus. On both large and small chunks of ice were little gulls called black-legged kittiwakes — my favorite bird of the moment. Not far from our anchorage there was a cliff with hundreds more, some on nests, some circling in the air, making the cliff face a distant bee-hive of activity.
Several flew past the David B making their distinctive “ki-ti-waak” call. The call is how they got their name. They frequent places like Glacier Bay to nest during the summer months then spend their winters off-shore.
Not long after the anchor was down we all got into the skiff with our cameras and favorite lenses to skiff over to Marjorie Glacier. On the way we made a special side trip to the cliff with the kittiwakes. With our lenses pointed up and with stiff necks, we shot photos. From my sea-level vantage some of their nests seem to cling precariously to the cliff. We listened to the chatty colony. In the skiff, we were lost in our own photos, watching, listening and concentrating on our own individual birds. We checked exposures, and asked the instructors questions while we took in the dramas that were unfolding in front of us. There was the thrill of wondering what was going to happen next.
Occasionally two kittiwakes would engage in an aerial dogfight. The combatants would lock beaks and come tumbling and cartwheeling out of the sky, sometimes hitting the ground or water, or even tumbling down the cliff and landing in the fjord. At one point a bald eagle flew towards the colony. Would the eagle steal a chick, or would it just perch? How would the colony respond? We trained our lenses, and talked about what was happening. The eagle circled a few times, to the great displeasure of the kittiwakes. Their cries were almost deafening, then finally it perched on a ledge away from the colony. It kept to itself and sadly was too distant for a good picture even with my zoom.
With all the excitement, I kind of lost track of time, so I’m not sure how long we spent at the cliff before moving on to Margarie Glacier, but it long enough that we got to enjoy watching, photographing, and chronicling a tiny snapshot of life in a black-legged kittiwake colony. I came away with a deeper love for these birds and the lives they live, and I’m sure the others in the skiff with me came away with their own interpretations and appreciations.
As I go through my photos from this year’s Glacier Bay Photography Cruise I can’t help but feel the growing excitement that we’ll be back again next spring for two more Photography Cruises in Alaska with instructors John D’onofrio and Alan Sanders. One in Glacier Bay and the other in Tracy Arm / Fords Terror Wilderness and the Admiralty Island / Kootznoowoo wilderness. I’m excited because it’s a chance to get out in the wilderness, use my camera, see nature, and learn more about taking better pictures. If you’d like to know more, visit our Glacier Bay Photography and Alaska Photography pages and our schedule page for dates and availability, or contact us.
Skiffy-a-saurus Wins Again!
Skiffy-a-saurus Wins Again!
We built a new skiff for this season and we’ve been really loving how much it’s changed things.
It was kind of a last minute decision, and the builders really rushed to get it done for us. We only loaded it on board the day before our season started, It’s huge by comparison to our old skiff (which by an interesting requirement at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had been known as Skiffy.) The new one is so big (to us) that we named it Skiffy-a-saurus.
We use it for all the things we used to do. It’s really good and stable (people can stand up and move around while we’re moving) and it easy to climb in and out of at the beach. We’re using it for getting into kayaks too, but but now we’ve added a couple other activities to our skiff repertoire. The best one– skiff exploring.
We didn’t use Skiffy much for exploring, because it’s capacity was so limited, usually only half the group, but now, everyone can go at once. Now when we get to a new cove or harbor and drop the anchor, we all pile in Skiffy-a-saurus and head out to explore the shoreline. We putt along at 3 or 4 knots, sometimes shutting down the motor to drift and listen, and really get to see what’s there. On this last trip alone, we watched eagles and gulls, saw deer feeding at the water’s edge, spied on crab crawling across the bottom, even drifted while harbor porpoises and icebergs circled the boat. But the best one yet… We watched a brown bear right up close!
It was morning, just before breakfast. The sun was lighting up one side of the little fjord we were anchored in. The other side was still in the shade. A brown bear swam across from the sunny side into the shadows on the other side. It was probably a half a mile down the shore. We watched it for 15 or 20 minutes, then Christine suggested we go take a look with Skiffy-a-saurus. Everyone got their cameras, and we all quietly climbed in.
I headed us over to the shore, then hugged the shore as I idled us close to where he was. At about a hundred feet from the bear, I shut down and let the tide carry us along the shore. We were just feet from the rocky edge. Slowly we got closer and closer, The grizzly didn’t seem to notice (or care) that we were there. No one made a sound. When we were even with him on the beach we were probably only 30 feet away! About 15 of that was deep water, so we calmly took pictures and watched as he poked among the rocks, eating barnacles and mussels. Then we followed him back down the beach for almost another 10 minutes. It was fantastic. Chalk another one up for Skiffy-a-saurus because this moment was only possible because of it.
Skiffy-a-saurus wins again.
Unfed – or – Whales Always Eat First
Highlights from our Whales and Marine Ecology of SE Alaska Trip with Josh McInnes
By Jeffrey Smith, Photos by Josh McInnes and Christine Smith
On the David B we like to do what comes along. We do have a schedule like everyone else, but a lot of times we change it to respond to the moment. We don’t want to miss anything.
So that’s why I was a little taken aback when I tried to help out another boat that was nearby so that they would see some orcas we had just spotted. When we find wildlife, especially something as cool as transient killer whales, I typically radio other boats that are nearby to make sure they’ll get a chance to see too, (and hopefully repay the favor later). Then there’s usually a radio discussion about how we can all maneuver so as not to be in each others view.
I politely, and a little excitedly made the call. Then the whales turned around, so we moved to follow them, I called again. All of our guests were out on the deck taking photos and loving the show. Josh McInnes, our guest naturalist and whale biologist was explaining what we were watching as it happened, play by play.
I finally made another call, because I wasn’t sure if the other boat was uncertain of my intentions. They seemed to be staying a long ways away. Finally she explained what they were doing:
“We’re going to be staying away from the whales for about another 20 minutes, because our guests are still eating breakfast.”
What??? I was unable to believe. How unfortunate for those folks, because in 20 minutes the orcas might slip away. Our chef was out on deck with the whales. Our galley was unoccupied. We were with whales!
Over the next few minutes the pod slipped through a narrow passage, so we followed. Then they reversed course, and swam right past us, and caught an unsuspecting harbor seal right in front of us. It was amazing. There was even a brand new unknown calf in the group. We might have been the first humans to see it. We turned around and stayed with them for almost another 30 minutes.
The happy ending of the story is that they did finally join us watching the whales, and got to see some amazing breaching, a behavior that the transients do after a kill and after they’re done eating. And we didn’t miss any meals on the David B either. It was good for everyone
I love our ability to be unscheduled. We go where the wildlife is when it’s there and happening. We actually saw the hunt, the capture and the kill. Food, for us, can wait. For the bigger boats, I understand, they need to be scheduled. But I really think our guests get a better trip.
Even if we are unfed.
New Glacier Bay Photography Cruise
This is really exciting! We are teaming up with AdventuresNW Magazine editor John D’Onofrio, and Quicksliver Photo Lab’s Digital Imaging Specialist and instructor, Alan Sanders for an 8-Day Photography Cruise in Glacier Bay.We’ve been working with John and Alan over the last several months to develop a special cruise for photographers that combines all the excitement of our Alaska trips with hands-on intensive instruction, new techniques for photography, and nightly constructive critique sessions.
If you’ve been on the David B before, you know I’m a complete and total Shutter Bug and having a chance to have two great instructors aboard the David B makes me absolutely giddy! I’m looking forward to this trip as a way to share the beauty and magnificence of Glacier Bay with you, as well as, having the opportunity to learn a whole lot more about how to take great photographs!
Glacier Bay Photography Cruise
Trip Number: 295
Dates: May 22-29, 2017
Boards/Returns: Auke Bay (Juneau)
Rates Per Person: $5600 (Special Introductory Pricing – $300 off 2017 rates!)
In the meantime, please enjoy the little video below I made from a trip we did last summer to Glacier Bay with Captain Jeffrey’s family and a couple of our good friends.
Watching whales in the Inside Passage
On the second day of one of our southbound Learn to Cruise trips, we came across these two humpback whales foraging near the shore of Dundas Island. As they foraged we stayed a respectful distance to make sure we didn’t disturb them, but we were close enough that with binoculars and a good camera lens we got to see the individual markings on their flukes (tails) when they dove. When they surfaced, we could see the baleen in their mouths that they use to strain the fish or krill that they were eating.
It was fascinating to watch. The whales would often surface close to shore and my guess is that they were probably using the rocks underwater to help school their prey. We stayed with the whales for 20-30 minuets before heading on to Prince Rupert. Besides these two humpback whales we saw two others, several harbor seals, lots of different sea birds, and many bald eagles.
Waiting for humpback whales
I always feel like there’s sort of a Jack-in-the-box element to watching humpback whales forage. When they are at the surface we can see them breathing, flapping their flippers, or slapping their flukes (tails), but when they dive, it’s anybody’s guess as to where they’ll surface next.
I like to think about the wait between surfacing as a time to refocus my attention on my surroundings. I know that they will be beneath the surface for 3-7 minutes. They’ll be rounding up forage fish and doing the things that whales do — the stuff we can’t see. In that time, I like to think about where they’ll come back up, or how funny it is that there are these enormous animals so close, (only a few hundred of feet away) and yet I can’t see them. I like to look into the water for passing jelly fish, or a tangle of kelp that slips along in the current. I watch the gulls for cues about where the whales are. On occasion when they swim right beneath us, the bubbles of their breath will bounce up along the David B’s planks –a reminder that somewhere, just a out-of-sight, but oh, so close, there are whales. I refocus my attention to the whales. I wonder how long ago they were under the boat. I wonder what direction they are going. I calculate the time. I lift my camera and wait. I wait for the thrill of hearing the explosive breath again and seeing these usually invisible giants. It’s like a Jack-in-the-box.
The gift of experience
Everyday I think to myself how lucky Jeffrey and I have been able to run the David B as a tour boat for the last nine years, and that we’ve been able to share with our passengers the most spectacular places in Southeast Alaska. As we move deeper into the holiday season and I’m constantly bombarded by the advertisements to buy more and consume more, I think about how much I enjoy my experience-based business. On days where I have to reluctantly go to the part of town with the big mall and its traffic, or I listen to people talk about the drudgery of buying gifts, I always wonder why more people don’t give the gift of an experience? Maybe it’s a small thing like a day trip to a nearby nature preserve, hotel stay, dinner at a special restaurant, or something really big like a trip in Alaska on the David B. I know my favorite gifts have all been the ones where I’ve spent time with the people I love and the memories I have from those experiences.
Here’s one of my favorite memories from our 2014 season. We were cruising near Admiralty Island and we came across a couple dozen humpback whales feeding. They were spread out far from each other. The weather was calm, the skies were clear. We stopped. Jeffrey shut down the engine, dropped an underwater microphone (hydrophone) in the water and just listened and watched. Soon two humpbacks surfaced nearby the David B.