Sitkoh Bay and Morris Reef

Sep 01, 2018 - National Geographic Quest


It is early morning on National Geographic Quest, and the rising sun is sending beams of light across the sky. We are sailing for Sitkoh Bay on Chichagof Island for a morning of adventure. By now we are old hands at this. We don our gear and take our places in Zodiacs for the short ride to the beach, rolling out like pros. Some set off for hikes while others go kayaking. Today our walks take us along a broad trail, past towering hemlocks and spruces. Along the way there are places we can look out at the bay, catching sight of brightly colored kayaks. There are ripe thimbleberries and brilliant orange shelving mushrooms, and everywhere the dense moss carpeting and leaves in every shade of green. Bears have been using this trail too, leaving their scat with its clues about what they have been eating—berries, sedges, and even the broken-up shells of barnacles. We find mottled banana slugs easing along, taking their time, as banana slugs do, on trails of slime.  Long hikers cross the beach meadow estuary and see salmon in a stream completing their journeys and their lives. Crows, gulls, and eagles come to take advantage. One group sees a river otter, another a bear. The summer is turning to fall today, with leaves falling from alder trees, but it is still full of life.

And this day isn’t done with us yet. Back aboard after the briefest of swims (there is a reason they call it a ‘polar plunge’), we sail out of the bay and almost immediately come across whales. Humpback whales. Their breaths mist up, their flukes dive down and then it happens: a mountain of whales rises from the water as they lunge side by side through a school of herring. They are cooperating down there, one whale blowing bubbles to encircle the fish they want to eat, while another voices a loud, herring-terrifying call. Then all come up together, mouths agape, streaming seawater as they gulp their catch. For them it is a way of getting the most herring possible; to witness it is spectacular. Usually between sets they surface in a working-whale way, but once they breach instead, three at once, as a fellow slaps his tail and another trumpets through his blowhole. It’s a symphony of whales, a contra dance where every partner weighs 40 tons.  

We’ve got stories to tell when we get home.

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About the Author

Linda Nicklin

Naturalist

After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in biology and anthropology, Linda Nicklin relocated to Alaska, where she fell in love with the state while spending summers in remote wilderness camps doing botanical surveys for the U.S. Forest Service.  She has lived in Juneau for twenty-four years.  

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