August 10, 2015

Becoming part of the neighborhood…

[Sent via sat phone, so photos must be added later… or not… Perhaps these few words are sufficient? Let me know… Of course, regarding photos, see my "Death of Nuance, or Missing the Moment" essay…]

Some of my best wildlife observations have come after sitting quietly in an anchorage for a few days- becoming part of the landscape if you will…

We have been exploring the west side of Prince of Wales Island these last few days, and on our 3rd afternoon in our present anchorage [see "Where's the Boat"…] I heard a whale taking a breath- right behind our boat. I stepped outside with my trusty feline crew and watched a humpback whale glide by, surfacing for air every minute or two. It is always wonderful when you hear them before you see them…

I had this happen once on a passage, late at night, on watch alone in the cockpit. It is rather startling when all is quiet, dark, and calm, and suddenly there is a loud whoosh of air next to the boat. No coffee was needed the rest of that watch…

Likewise for the time sailing in inside waters in the dark when a sea lion decided to sneek-up on the gliding boat and challenge it with a warning bark. Sleep was long in coming after anchoring that night…

We saw a pair of small porpoise do a couple of laps through our bay yesterday afternoon. The disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

Today we watched a sea otter feeding on mollusks he dove for right next to the boat in 90+ feet of water. I guess our decision not to deploy the crab and shrimp pots here was a good one… [Sea otters love a free smorgasbord too…]

From years in Prince William Sound I am used to seeing many sea otters, alone and in large groups, summer and winter, on the water and on the docks… In southeast Alaska, one has to approach the Gulf side waters to see them more than occasionally.

Once in the past- at anchor- while having my early morning coffee in the cockpit I heard squeaky baby animal sounds. It was a lone baby sea otter being fed breakfast. It would float around on its back while mama dove for food. After mama was underwater for about half a minute, baby would get nervous and start calling with urgent squealing sounds. When mom resurfaced with a chest full of mussels clutched in her forepaws, it was always a reunion like they had been separated for weeks. Munch, munch, munch, while floating on their backs, then roll 360° in the water to clean up the mess on their chests, then munch some more. ..

During one of mama's dives, baby seemed to suddenly notice my boat 30 feet away as though it just appeared, and started slowly swimming in my direction with big, inquisitive eyes. I was careful not to move or make a sound- even though my other thought was to startle it so it would learn to stay away from boats [and hence mankind…] Mom resurfaced and took things in her own paws: she called out her feeding chirp, but baby continued swimming my way as inquisitive as ever. Mom tried again to no avail, so she started to slowly swim over to her pup- clump of mussels and all- and gently swam between her starry eyed pup and me on my boat- shepherding the baby away to finish breakfast at a safe distance…

One evening I heard whale song resonating through the hull as though I was softly playing a recording over the stereo. I had to double-check that this wasn't the case… Sure enough, they were in the small bay where I was anchored, encircling the boat on their quest for food or…

Another time I was watching a black bear catch salmon in a stream only to watch her throw them into the brush on the embankment. A minute or two later, the fish would come wiggling out of the bushes and back into the water only to swim away. She would patiently catch another and do the same thing. Finally, after several cycles, she carried one up the embankment where I thought she was going to dine. Instead she was greeted by two cubs- who were hiding in the brush- whom she was apparently trying to teach to kill the salmon she caught.

She dropped the fresh catch at their feet. The salmon writhed and wiggled as fish do. No way, Mom. We aren't touching these wiggly things! Mom listened, grabbed the writhing protein and quickly dispatched it. The two cubs consumed it immediately… A lesson for another day I guess…

Today we are at anchor- now with a couple of other commercial fishing boats in front of us- awaiting the passage of a mild weather front promising to bring torrential rain. I'm guessing this is why our new neighbors stopped working and hunkered down as well…

We keep our eyes and ears alert for more wildlife. As I was writing this post, I noticed 2 more sea otters feeding on mussels harvested from the shallow rocks off the point just northwest of our position. Salmon jumping. Bald eagles, gulls, ravens, and arctic terns feeding and occasionally putting on the most provocative mock aerial battles… It is there if you look. It also makes me realize how much I must have missed over time…

And while I'm on the topic of birds, gulls- often referred to as flying rats- I have some gratitude for. Boating in areas like we are where mature trees line many shorelines [and where logging is still occurring- in ever diminishing volumes however…] there are occasionally trees randomly afloat in the same waters as the boat. When I say trees, I mean 1-2 foot diameter and 10 to 30 feet long. Not something you want to run into… Are they easy to spot? Somewhat if they are floating high and not yet waterlogged… Otherwise they can be tough to see until you are close. They can even be submerged just below the surface… Enter the gulls. When I see gulls on the water in the distance, I have learned to look closely. Are they floating/swimming or are they standing? [On a log, a rock, sandbar, etc…] However, when they are in a straight line I pay extra attention: most of the time they are doing us the service of highlighting the location of one of these logs… Thank you.

On the other hand… there was a bay I enjoyed in Prince William Sound that had salmon streams at its head. Lots of bear (and gull activity…) You could tell the tides by the cacophony made by thousands of gulls returning to feed on the salmon carcases exposed on the mud flats at low tide. [Remember salmon die after spawning…] Of course, as nature provided, birds fly more efficiently when they are lighter. [Remember their hollow bones?…] Another way to lighten ones load in early flight is to jettison any waste one might be carrying. As the tide came in and they decided to leave their feeding grounds- seemingly all at once- it was best to stay below deck until the last of them passed… Thanks again, this time for your clean-up efforts… [but not for mine…]

Bald eagles are fun too. We enjoy watching the paired adults fledge their offspring this time of year. You can always tell when this is happening. You come into an anchorage and you hear eagles. Then you notice one whining and rarely moving. Junior is being kicked out. He is used to mom and dad bringing him food whenever he whines. Now they just fly to another high tree top. When he flies their direction, they take off for another tree just before he arrives. And so it goes for a day or two. A seemingly cruel game of tag. Then mom and dad are off on vacation enjoying the 'empty nest' and junior is left to fend for himself [as well he can as in his immature plumage he appears larger than his parents…] He will sit in a treetop for a day or three whining, wondering why mom and dad aren't heeding his beck-and-call. Finally [I suspect hunger takes over] off he goes to forage on his own, much to the delight of the ever teasing and tormenting gulls and ravens who relentlessly badger recently fledged eagles…

And speaking of being capable… I once witnessed a bald eagle dive head first into the bay where I was anchored. I had never seen this behavior in a bald eagle before. It came up about 10 seconds later and seemed dazed. It spread is wings [about a 7 foot span…] across the top of the water and just 'floated' there for a few minutes. I thought it must had injured itself. My fears were reinforced when I saw it using its wings to paddle toward shore. Slowly, awkwardly it made progress toward shore. Once it reached the shallows it seemed to be struggling to walk. I understood what was going on once it was fully out of the water: in its talons was an 8-10lb pink salmon… It fly-hopped on land keeping the still squirming salmon firmly in its grip. Once about 10 feet from the water, it put the salmon out of its misery and dined for an hour or more. When I last saw it it was standing on shore with its wings fully spread in the sun [drying it feathers?] The last I saw it took flight for its next rendezvous…

From where we are anchored today, we can see two sandy beaches with our naked eyes at the head of this landlocked bay overlooking Sumner Straight. Since this is the highest bear [black and grizzly] population area on Prince of Wales Is. [according to state fish and game…] our chances should be good…

Its great to be part of the neighborhood, and be fortunate enough to see the few animals we do…

Now where are my binoculars…?

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