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.
A Chance Encounter
Earlier in the day we were underway and heading into Holkham Bay with the intention of going for a hike on Wood Spit. Off in the distance, we spotted a couple of killer whales. They were moving fast and entering the bay. We tried to follow, but lost them as they swam quickly and entered the adjacent Endicott Arm. Jeffrey and I talked about the likelihood of seeing them again after our walk at Wood Spit.
So we anchored the David B, lowered Skiffy-a-saurus into the water, and off our group went for our walk. We poked around in tide pools and looked for bear tracks in the mud and sand. We entered the forest and felt the squish of thick moss on bear maintained trails. We identified plants and talked about ecology, and spotted a black bear. At one point Jeffrey radioed me to say that Wilderness Ranger Chrissy was nearby and that we could meet up with her on the beach. After a little planning, we set out across the spit covered in shoulder-high ferns to meet Chrissy and talk about the wilderness area that was all around us.
While we were chit-chatting, we heard the distinct blow of a surfacing killer whale. It stopped all conversations. We watched mesmerized as two mammal-eating killer whales searched the bay for food. They came within 200 yards of the beach, and we were transfixed as they skirted shallows and searched icebergs. It was a beautiful encounter and we watched them swim round the end of the point. We thought it was the last we’d see of them…we were wrong.
We said our goodbyes to Ranger Chrissy and radioed for Jeffrey to come pick us up. On our way back to the David B, the whales surfaced next to us. For the next hour the whales showed us how to hunt seals. We sat in the skiff with the motor off. The whales swam in circles at times, or in straight lines. They alternated which one was at the surface. We watched them make a kill. Their speed and grace was amazing. It was pure nature and we got to watch. It was a chance encounter and another chance to discover more about a world we seldom see.
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.
Dalls porpoises riding on the David B’s Bow
Something I look forward to every year when we are running trips on the David B are the occasional visits by Dalls porpoises. These mid-sized sea mammals that looks deceptively like baby killer whales love to surf bow wakes. We often see them in the Inside Passage and Alaska. Usually they are foraging for fish, but sometimes, they turn their attention to the David B. It begins with seeing their characteristic rooter-tail splashing a ways off, and with surprising speed, they soon rush up alongside of the boat, and then they begin jockeying for the prime spot just in front of the boat’s stem. It’s a thrill to watch their speed and their agility.
Here’s a little complication of a few of the amazing experiences we’ve had with surfing Dalls porpoises.
Some days are simply perfect. The weather’s warm. The skies are blue. The water flat calm, and the line between sea and sky is almost indistinguishable. We had a day like that in August. It was the kind of day that happens every-so-often in the temperate rain-forest climate of southeast Alaska. It was the kind of day where all the conditions were just right for watching humpback whales. Not only could we stop to watch, but we were able to turn off the engine and drift silently. Without background noise from the boat, we were able to experience something different. All around us, and spread out over several miles were humpback whales in groups of two or three, and alone. All foraging. When they would surface, their breath would make an explosive “swooshing” sound. Atomized water particles hung still in the air marking the spot where they had come up. It was hard to know where to look. The sounds of whales surrounded the boat. They would sometimes surface near to the David B. Other times they’d be distant. We just drifted upon the open water; watching, listening, observing.
Our only real plan for that day was to anchor in the evening somewhere at Admiralty Island or Baranof Island. We didn’t have any concrete plans for the day. Having an itinerary means you have to get somewhere, and when nature presents something beautiful and awe inspiring to enjoy, an itinerary means you just have to put on your blinders and keep going. So there we were, sitting around listening to whales. We’d also dropped a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) over the side. The small amplifier on deck that the hydrophone was plugged to revealed all kinds of whale sounds from funny-bawdy to ethereal. From my spot on deck, I could see couple of whales surfacing about a quarter mile away. It soon became evident that they were heading our direction. Everyone on deck turned their attention to these whales. They moved in a straight line. We watched. Each time they broke the surface, they were closer. Soon, one whales was close enough to see it under water –it’s long pectoral fins faintly glowing against the deep dark water. Over the amplifier, a couple barking sounds and some bubbles could be heard. Then a few seconds later, a whale surfaced just off our starboard side. It lifted it’s fluke high and dove under the boat. Farther aft, the second whale surfaced and dove as well. There was a moment of joy, then wonder. I wondered why they chose that path? Where were they going? What did the sounds mean? How long would they remain under water? Where would they surface next?
A few minutes later they surfaced again along the same line. I assumed they were traveling to a spot with more food, but I don’t really know what they were doing or planning. We hung around a little while longer. Jeffrey started the engine up, and we picked our way around other foraging whales. In the evening, we anchored in a little cove at Baranof Warm Springs Bay. As I made dinner, I reflected on the day, our luck, and I thought to myself, “it couldn’t possibly get any better than this.“
Please note – For full screen click on video, then click on” [ ]” in lower right corner.
Four days in the San Juan Islands
Early spring is one of my favorite times in the Pacific Northwest. It a time where the wildflowers brighten up the landscape in the already beautiful San Juan Islands, and of course the David B is back out on the water. Our first cruise in 2016 was a 4-day trip that started on April 28th. Within a couple of hours of being underway we came a cross a small pod of killer whales near Point Lawrence on Orcas Island. We stopped and watched the whales for a short while. There were no other boats around and we knew it was a rare treat to get to watch these endangered animals without their usual compliment of boats. Since the whales were going the opposite direction from us we didn’t watch them for long, but it felt nice to stop, admire them, and then leave them to continue on their way.
We anchored at Sucia Island and spent the rest of the afternoon on a walk to Fossil Bay. It’s one of my favorite spots in the San Juan Islands. I love the trail and looking for fossils. In early spring the icing on the cake is getting to see the wildflowers. My favorites are the Sea Blush which paint the rocky slopes and bluffs of the San Juan Islands a beautiful pink. Later, when we returned to the boat, I made a salmon dinner with pearl couscous, green beans and some sautéed mushrooms for our first night’s dinner.
The next morning while I made coffee, I listened to the lovely dawn chorus of songbirds. After breakfast, we kayaked across Echo Bay to Ewing Cove. A couple of seals cautiously followed us. I like to think that seals have sense of timing when it comes to having their pictures taken. Just when you get your camera ready, they lift their noses to the sky, close their nostrils and slip silently under water.
Later, we raised the anchor and made way for Garrison Bay. In Spieden Channel we got to watch a big Stellers sea lion fishing. When we anchored, I stayed on the boat to make fresh pasta and a creamy spinach pesto for dinner, while everyone else when ashore to tour English Camp.
On the third day of the cruise, we hauled up the anchor and went the short distance to Roche Harbor. We spent a couple hours there, and then got back underway and cruised to Hunter Bay at Lopez Island. We had some pretty amazing weather. It was easily in the mid-70s with lots of sunshine. We anchored in the early evening and had happy hour on deck. I made Butter-Lime Halibut for dinner.
I always try to make the last day of every trip special and part of that is to make my favorite pastries — croissants and pain au chocolat. In the early morning I watched the sunrise from my galley window while I rolled out the croissant dough, and felth the warmth of the wood cookstove take the chill out of the morning air. I shaped
each croissant, and thought about them baking in the oven as I brushed them with milk and cream. I thought about pulling them out of the oven when they are just the right dark golden color. Then I thought about how much each croissant or pain au chocolat would be enjoyed by our guests as they come up from their cabins, one-by-one for a cup of French press coffee and a warm buttery croissant.
To work off the croissants we ate for breakfast, we went for a nice walk on Lopez Island. There wasn’t really a destination– just strolling conversation, but we did end up at a small general store. We poked around and read the bulletin board of fliers showing the services, concerts, and goings-on on Lopez before we headed back to the boat.
Just before lunch we got underway and headed back to Bellingham. It was four beautiful days in the islands and a truly wonderful way to begin a new season.
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.
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.