Friday, August 27, 2010

Hallo Bay, Alaska

I hate this part. The waiting.

All the endless planning and packing and prep and schlepping mountains of crap to the edge of the continent. And now the boat is packed and ready to go, and I am filled with the gutsick certainty that I have forgotten something very, very important.

I fuel up with $407 worth of unleaded. At least I didn't forget my wallet. The boat settles in the water under the weight of 125 gallons of fuel. That should be enough to cover 400 nautical miles. Give or take.

It's about 50 miles to the end of Kupreanof Strait, and I slowly motor along the northern edge of Kodiak Island through flat, protected waters under a t-shirt sun.

The final 27 miles are another matter. Shelikof Strait divides Kodiak from the mainland Alaska Peninsula. It is a narrow passage of water the stirs all manner of exotic tides, currents and Aleutian storms in an ill-tempered cauldron. I can see the mountains across the strait, their glacial peaks glistening, but te prevailing southeast wind sets up a steep chop against the running tide and the boat starts to buck and slam into the waves. It's feels like some sick rodeo ride. As I try to decide whether to wait or go, a pod of Dall's Porpoises start to play in my bow wave, racing through the water just beside me.

It seems as good an omen as any.

I've done this crossing enough times to remain zen, stare at the distant mountain peaks and try to ignore the battering. Still, the sea scares me more than a coastline full of bears. Which is where I'm bound, Hallo Bay and the Katmai Coast.

In a little more than two hours, I motor into the sheltered waters of Hallo Bay. The afternoon sun turns the verdant coastal slopes an electric green, and the water glows turquoise. It's like Hawaii. With bears.

I love this part.

By the time I make my way to shore, low clouds have rolled in and the tide gone out. I take my dinghy to shore and in the gathering summer dusk walk out into the Kingdom of Bears.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Yasha Island, Alaska

Even before the cold water started to settle around my crotch, I knew this was a bad idea.

I'd been trying to photograph Steller's Sea Lions swimming underwater for the better part of a day, and it was slow going. The novelty of a boat bobbing on its anchor a mile from their haul out had quickly worn off, and I stood for long hours with my underwater camera stuck in the water, photographing precisely nothing. The sea lions were idly playing all around me, they just couldn't be bothered to come visit.

Other pinniped watchers may have packed up and moved on, but I am made of sterner stuff.

As soon as I dragged out my scuba dry suit and started flailing around on deck, the sea lions perked right up. By the time, I got ready to step off the boat and into the water, all of us were palpitating. Them with eagerness for a new plaything and me with something approaching mortal dread. I was five miles from shore, 20 miles from any other boat, swept by currents and surrounded by wildlife of unknown temperament. I tied one of the boat's mooring lines around my waist as a sole concession to safety and dropped into the water.

In spite of their curiosity, the sea lions kept a wary distance. I told myself to relax, at least until I noticed the trickle of water coming in around my poorly sealed wrist. The cold water slowly worked its way up my sleeve, across my chest and created a cold, decidely unpleasant pool around my nether bits.

Even in summer, the water temperature hovers in the high 40's. In spite of that, it is filled with a very busy aquatic community in the form of massive plankton blooms. Great for plankton eaters and the circle of life that feeds upon them. Crap for pictures. As I bobbed soggily about, I stared into cold green murk and watched the shadows of sea lions flit past.

It's one thing to try something radically stupid, get cold and wet and scared, and at the end of the day have something to show for the trouble. This was some other thing entirely. I climbed back out of the water, devoted an hour to wringing out my clothes and gear, pulled up the anchor and moved on.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Frederick Sound, Alaska

The whales are talking to me. Or maybe about me. It's hard to say.

Listening in through a hydrophone dangling down into the water, I hear a trippy chorus. Equal bird chips, armpit farts and creepy satanic music.

Half a hundred humpbacks have gathered in a slow motion feeding frenzy in Frederick Sound, feasting on a massive plankton bloom that has turned the cold water here a cloudy green. They breathe in loud exhalations and gasps through blow holes, then take one final gulp of air before arching their backs, gracefully lifting their tails and diving. They swim down toward the sea floor 300 feet below, then circle back up, blowing circle of bubbles to concentrate the phytoplankton and krill. In the mirror calm sea, you can see and hear the bubbles percolating on the surface. They emerge with a sigh, their massive gullets filled with greenish goo.

Given the whales' bulk, strength and speed, I feel like they're not really living up to their potential here. The graceful ballet is lovely and serene, but I miss the dramatic of humpback group feeding, with whales lunging out the water in a massive hurling sprawl. Then again, subtlety is often wasted on me.

After an hour or two of eavesdropping on their underwater conversation, I start to imagine I understand what they're saying.

"Affordable health care is a fundamental right."

"Glenn Beck is a doucebag."

"You're our favorite photographer. This week, anyway."

I knew I liked these guys.

As more hours pass and dark clouds roll in, their voices turn needling and nagging.

"You call that a job?"

"When was the last time you called your mother?"

"That's a nice boat you got there. It would be a shame if anything was to happen to it..."

Before things turn menacing, a pod of orcas swim past, pinging the krill eaters with their sonar. The scare sends one of the lazily playing calfs into a fit of breaching.

Jumping whales? Now we're talking. It might not be subtle, but it works for me.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Freshwater Bay, Alaska

I came for the whales. I stayed for the jellyfish.

There have been days when the whales have gone wandering, the sea lions scattered and the eagles elusive. But during the short Alaska summer, life abounds below the ocean surface as well.

While sheltering in a small bay from the afternoon winds that turn Chatham Strait into a lumpy, quease-inducing mess, I looked down and noticed an enormous red jellyfish. And another. Cool. They were softly swaying, trailing long translucent filaments.

I quickly dragged out the underwater housing for my camera. There's not much science involved in this. I haven't dropped the requisite thousands on a remote video viewing system, so it's strictly spray and pray. You stick the camera underwater, point it in the general direction of the jellyfish and start snapping.

Even in sheltered water, there's always some current or puff of wind moving the boat. Generally speaking, and I do so from experience, it's a good idea not to run the object of your photographic inquiry through the propellors.

I was feeling very pleased with myself, showing initiative and a bit of macho toughness, spending a couple hours with my arms plunged into the cold water. It wasn't until a dozen thin red welts started rising on my arms that I started having second thoughts.