Sunday, June 28, 2015

Just Lion Around

And so we had passed the half way point of our cruise.  The glacier had unleased a bit of fury, and it was time to head for home.  I got to see Humpback Whales, flying Orca's, and a glacier, plus some puffins that were out of lens range.  As we started to motor away from the glacier, we even saw a mountain goat just hanging out by the glacier.

We passed a few more whales, who even took the time to wave goodbye.

We had a few hours to cruise to bet back to Seward. I sat on the upper deck, while most of the saner souls stayed inside where it was warmer, and looked back on my day, quite literally.

The closer we got to the mainland and Seward, the more green the little rocky outcrops got.  We finally got a hint of blue sky too.

The upper deck...a little chilly in this day so everyone was crammed inside.

I thought this rock was really neat, the stark white face of it with the bright green trees covering half of it, while leaving the other side barren.  Well, almost barren.

Closer observation that instead of a little copse of trees, there was a little copse of sea lions sunning themselves!

These are the first sea lions I have seen outside of an aquarium.  I was a little nervous because some of them looked a little, um, dead.  The captain said that they often fight, bloodying themselves, and I thought a few of them looked like fat little blood soaked murder victims.  But really, their thick fur takes on the darker color when some were just a little less sundried than the others.

Sea lions are actually a type of fur seal.  If left alone and not brought to an early demise by humans, orcas, bears, or boat propellers, they will live 20-30 years in the wild.  So this little group is enjoying just another start of summer in Alaska...except the baby...if you look closely you will see a little pup.

I suspect this is the mama...she was biggest and barking orders.

And in this shot the little baby lets out a little cry to let her know where he is hanging out...which is on top of another sea lion.

A bit further away, left alone, appeared yet another fat, possibly dead motionless sea lion, belly exposed to the sun.  I swear I saw it smile just a little as we went by, and vowed to spend at least part of my summer the same way...happily sun tanning and remaining intentionally oblivious to the chaos of the herd.  Smart little fella!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Aialik Glacier

The next stop on the cruise was to go see some glaciers.  This is the sure thing of the cruise, if you don't see the Humpback Whales or the Orca's like we did, the glaciers have been a constant for longer than the cruises have been running, and despite their retreat, the are still likely to hang around for another couple of decades.  The glacier we visited was the Aialik Glacier, not surprisingly it is located in Aialik Bay.

One of the cool things about Alaska is all of the names.  Kenai, Knik, Eklutna, Aialik.  There are a number of dialects that the indigenous people of Alaska use.  Inupiaq.  Alutiiq.  Yupik.  Aleut. Tlingit.  Eyak.  Athabaskan.  Haida.  Tsimsihan.  And that's only if I have it right...I am sure there are others, and in some cases the spelling of those listed may not be traditional.  As someone who loves words...these are beautiful words.  I love the sound of Eklutna, and Aialik.  I wanted to know the meaning, but these are dying languages.  A google search will not tell me what Aialik means.  Finding out will have to go on my to do list.  If the words are Inupiaq there are roughly 8,000 people left who speak the language.  If it comes from Tlingit, my odds drop considerably as there are only 500 people estimated to speak the language today.  What a shame it would be to lose the meaning of these words.  If I find out, you can be sure I will spread the news.  (Update from a reader, Joseph Peterson  " On the Kenai Fjords tour last week, our Captain, Chris, told us that Aialik means something along the lines of "dangerous, fearful, place to be respected." He said that no matter what is happening on either side, Aialik point will have rougher seas as you turn the corner."  Thank you Joseph for sharing that!)

To the left of the larger Aialik Glacier sits another glacier.  One might wonder how old these glaciers are.  Again, this is not common fodder on the internet.  I am sure that samples exist in the geological ice bank (which is located in Denver, Colorado if you are interested), and those samples are likely dated.  But the tours do not state how old this ice is.  They know it was here, and much more far reaching as far back as the 1600's.  But that is all I can find documented.  It must be ancient.  I did find that the Antarctic Ice Sheet dates back 40 Million Years.  So this is somewhere between 400 and 40,000 years old.  They really need a better brochure with more details!

As a size perspective, here are some of the heads that were in my way as I tried to photograph the glacier.  We are several hundred feet away from the basically, it's pretty big.

 A happily headless shot of the Aialik Glacier.  It was really hard to bring out the shade of blue that you could see in the deeper crevices where the ice is more compressed.

Not exactly Titanic, but there were loads of mini icebergs surrounding the boat.  They fished one out so we could feel glacial ice.  Pretty much like an ice cube but bigger...but there is something to be said for having an authentic experience so it was a little more special than just an ice cube.

We did get to experience that fabulous moment where the glacier "calves."  Usually the warmer water erodes the base of the glacier below the surface of the water.  The weight of the overhanging structure eventually reaches a point where gravity take over and it shears off the face of the glacier.  You hear a loud crack and a roar as some of the ice gives way and rushes down the front of the glacier.  The experience is captured perfectly below, where you can imagine what it looks like if that head were anywhere but directly in front of me.  Have I ever mentioned that I hate crowds?  And yes, it really was cold enough to mittens and toques in May at the Glaciers...that is eons of cold you are standing in front of.

Once all the action was over, the heads went inside where it was warm and I got a couple of nice, quiet, sadly uneventful pictures of the glaciers before we left.

So this was the halfway point of our journey.  And now it was time to retreat from the retreating glacier, and return to Seward.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

High Fins

 Having already seen some Humpback Whale fins, I was pretty sure that the highlight of the tour had been had.  But it wasn't very long until the Captain notified us that there was a pod of Orca Whales nearby as well.  This came as a bit of a surprise to me...I was not expecting Orcas in Alaska, particularly not so close to the shore and the little town of Seward.  It's ocean, but not way out in the middle of the ocean.  Yet here they were, almost waving fins/giving high fives, er fins,  at us in sight of the coast...this one even came up to take a look at us.

The fin of each whale is unique.  If you spend enough time looking at fins, you can identify a whale or dolphin by the uniqueness of the fin, among other markers if you are lucky enough to get that close.  The year I volunteered at Dolphin Quest in Bermuda there were 3 calves...I could tell them apart by their the one little guy was a bit spastic.  Whale Biologists say the same thing.  That is how they know populations.  And that's how they know that the average life span of whales in the wild is over 30-50 years.  The oldest known whale is "Granny", and has been sighted between California and Southern Alaska with her pod since 1911.  Yup.  She was confirmed sighted last year at 103 years of age.  Wikipedia quotes a Captain Pidock as saying "She was born before the Titanic went down...can you imagine the things she has seen in her lifetime?"  I thought that was a pretty fabulous thing to consider.

I have no way of knowing if this might be Granny's pod or not.  Whales are a matriarchal society and they travel as a family unit.  Orca whales have had bad press since the year 70 AD when Pliny the Elder in Ancient Greece described their fearsome habit of ramming other whales as though in battle.  The genus name Orcinus translates to "of the Kingdom of the Dead."  While they are an apex predator, they are not known to harm humans in the wild.  And while we think of them eating other large sealife, which can be true, 95% of their diet comes from the Salmon up here.  So I will call these gorgeous creatures Orcas rather than Killer Whales and try to dispel the bad boy reputation...these momma's boys stay with the pod for about 15 years before they even think about finding a girlfriend.  They maintain close ties with their mother through adulthood.  The pod is a highly structured social environment.  Orcas are known to be highly intelligent, playful, and sometimes interactive with their human fans.  These two were putting on a bit of a show for another boat that was a bit closer than we were.

And then there was a 3rd, much smaller fin....a baby Orca swimming with its momma!
Once again I thought that was about as good as this day could get.  I stood there and watched the little guy and his mom glide below the surface thinking what a cool experience it had been.  Just then, as my guard was down, one of the Orca's leapt from the water and went airborne.  My jaw dropped in awe, as did my camera hand.  As an afterthought, I randomly remembered to push the button as my hand and jaw continued to drop.  I had missed the once in a lifetime shot.  Well...pretty much.  I did get the little blur below, but only me and possibly Rebekah would ever know what it was by looking.

This is the large splash it made...that's in focus.  Sigh.

These things have a lot to do with luck.  I was lucky enough to see what I had seen.  I was blissfully happy.  But THESE guys had the best luck around....the Orca's were playing right in front of their boat the whole time.  Just means I will have to try my luck to get even closer another day.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

South to Seward

So shortly after starting work, I learned that the computer system for the whole facility would be changing the first week of May.  For me that meant, in addition to getting used to a new country, new city, new home, new employer, new job description, I would also have to add in learning about the new-to-me-on-the-way-out computer system and give input into the still-in-design-brand-spanking new computer system.  The computer expert for my department was located in Utah, and fortunately  our brains work in a relatively similar fashion.  There must have been a thousand fragmented spastic emails back and forth as thoughts were had, ammendums made, tests trialed, tweaked, scrapped, and accepted.  Plus there were dozens of hours on the phone and webinars, conference calls, and sometimes even calls within conference calls.  We worked really well together, and in the end made an amazing amount of progress in a short period of time.  And so the person I have spent the most time with since I moved to Alaska is a former Micro tech turned LIS guru who lives in Utah.  When the day came for "go live," the term for flicking the old computer system off and the new one on, we were very lucky that the corporation decided to send her to Alaska for 2 weeks as part of the transition team.  It may not have been lucky for her, as she got the dubious privilege of sharing my office (which turns into a flurry of haphazardly posted sticky notes, papers, reports, and reference materials...truth -- I require both quiet and the space of 4 normal people to contain and make functional the chaos in which I find my most productive moments of genius.)  There was only 1 (and a half) days off in those 2 weeks of otherwise 12-14 hour days, but we actually both got the same day off when it did happen.  By this point the Utah friend would be the first new friend I would be going on an adventure with since I moved here (technically Sharon, Dave, and Stan are previously acquired friends -- at least ten years awesome friends actually --  but the title of First New Alaska Friend to go on an adventure goes to a resident of Utah).
So I was long overdue for a drive through beautiful Turnagain Arm.  As my first opportunity to play tour guide, I was able to share the little I know so far...tales of the mud flats of Cook Inlet, where to stop to see the roofs of the houses in Hope, Beluga Point, where someone installed a pipe in the rockface that spews a constain stream of free, rock filtered glacial spring water.  I was amazed again at how different it looked in the month since I had driven here last.  The green makes a big difference!

Past Turnagain Arm, it was all unchartered territory as I headed down the road to Seward.  Seward is named after the U.S. Secretary of State William Seward who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7 Million.  I wasn't familiar with this part of American history until just a few short months ago, and not being American, there was a bit of a lapse in the connection of what else was going on in the 1860's in the U.S.  William Seward was actually the leading contender for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party in 1860.  He was beat out by one Abraham Lincoln though.  His home was a stop on "The Underground Railroad," and on the night of President Lincoln's assassination in 1865, a simultaneous assassination attempt happened on Seward, who was stabbed 5 times in the neck and face.  He survived, outliving Lincoln and the conspirators who were subsequently executed.  He needed a few more years on this earth to acquire my new Alaska home.  He visited Alaska, and managed a few more years of travel before dying in 1872.  I am grateful his accomplishments brought this amazing place into the territory of North America.

And so me and a computer tech from Utah found our way to the Oceanside town that bears the name of that interesting U.S. historical figure.  The plan was to hop aboard on of the glacier cruises that leave from there.  There are several, but on the recommendation of my awesome Alaska boss, we tried the Kenai Fjords Tours. 

Our cruise was set to be 6.5 hours, and we shuffled down the deck and hopped on board...The Orca Voyager.

At this time of year, they tell me the humpback whales migrate through.  I know the Humpback Whales also cruise through Bermuda every March as well, but my attempts at whale watching there were thrwarted twice by bad weather, and the one year I did make it I spent a lot of money to freeze on a boat on a drizzly grim day and didn't see so much as a flipper.  That said, my expectations were pretty low.  I planned on getting some good scenic shots from the deck of the boat, since I haven't seen Alaska from the water before.

We were barely out of sight of the town of Seward when the boat slowed.  The captain announced he thought he had seen a blow -- the spray of water resulting from a Humpback Whale when they surface for a breath.  "Great...I finally am out on a day when someone see one and I missed it," I thought.

The boat bobbed on the water and we all stared out at the water, not exactly sure what to look for, or where.  Suddenly, there was the spout of water again!  It looks like a bit of smoke in the picture...but that's all I have to document a far away whale breath.  The object to the left is part of the very large Humpback Whale below the surface. 

Unfortunately, this is about as much as I saw of the Humpback Whales.  Apparently those pictures where they leap out of the water and pose for the camera are rare.  What I did see was several of the curvy humps moving through the water, and it kinda reminded me of the legends of the Loch Ness Monster.  What I saw of the whale sounds like what others saw of Nessie.

Contented with my whale sighting, I contented myself with a few more scenic photos.  We saw some porpoises splashing in the distance, some puffins just out of the range of the lens I had, and a very handsome rugged looking man with a camera very similar to mine, making the scenery in the boat pretty decent as well.

We headed towards the glacier, which allowed time for a boxed lunch on board the boat.  We met a really neat group from the lower 48 who had been touring Alaska for 2 weeks and had a lot of great adventures so far.  I need to get as well travelled in Alaska as the average tourist.  I have much work to do!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Home on the Range

 Oh give me a home... where the buffalo roam... where the deer and the antelope play.  That classic tune is followed by another adage --Ask and you shall receive.  So I find myself right amid the age old desires of mankind expressed in that song.  Alaska is my new range and I am happy to see all the critters that also call it home.  AND... just when you think it can't get better... it's baby animal season!!
Technically this mom and baby are not Buffalo, but Wood Bison.  I don't really know how to tell them apart, but I do know woolly adorableness when I see it.  Here's a separate mom and baby in the herd.
Look at that little face!!!
For other animals, it's time to nourish something other than babies... like antlers.... which they need to battle for the right to make babies.  This moose was just losing its antlers last month.  The new ones are growing quickly!!!

There are also some pretty views for both me and the critters.  Seldom is heard a discouraging word about these vistas.  Even when the skies are slightly cloudy and grey.