Pavlof Harbor, Morris Reef

Jun 06, 2019 - National Geographic Venture

Woah. Just…woah. That is the only possible reaction after some days—some epic days—in Southeast Alaska. We woke this morning just outside of our anchorage in Pavlof Harbor to skies studded with light clouds, calm water, and gorgeous green coastline. While we all are prepared for, and have experienced a bit of the genuine rainforest, it’s hard to deny that we were glad for the bright promise of the day.

A brown bear on shore as the staff were preparing kayaks and paddleboards awoke us all to this rich harbor’s possibilities.  As soon as possible, we set out.  Kayakers, divers, stand-up paddleboarders, walkers—Pavlof’s sweet bowl of a harbor welcomed us all.  I can’t speak to the adventures experienced by those afloat, as I took the three-hour walk around the lake at the top of the falls, and it was a delight.

We scrambled up rocks to reach a view across sedge meadows and still water studded by trumpeter swans and goldeneyes to see high, jagged peaks. In the meadows, sedges were accompanied by violets, marigolds, and, in the boggier places, even some bog cranberry, round-leaved sundew, and buckbean.  Walking on animal trails is a humbling experience.  How do those deer and bears and beavers scramble and amble up such varied terrain?  We held back branches for each other, helped each other over boot-sucking mud, and handed each other across rivers. Kayakers and some hikers had the opportunity to watch a brown bear grazing on sedges by the shore.  It was glorious.

After leaving Pavlof Harbor, we tucked into bays and inlets searching for wildlife. We saw Dall’s porpoise screaming along and the high spout of a humpback whale here and there, but at Morris Reef, a shallow spot at the intersection of Peril and Chatham Straits, the sea erupted.

Seven humpback whales were surfacing and diving in unison—the classic mark of cooperative feeders. After a trip of seeing whales moving independently from place to place, we were thrilled to see a group of humpbacks rising and diving together. What was going on under the water?

We assumed that the whales were feeding, but when we dropped a hydrophone into the water, we could not hear a thing. The whales kept diving together and surfacing together—then suddenly instead of seven, there were nine! We drifted, circled, watched, and wondered at what was going on.

Time outside, wondering and watching, is after all why we are here. The wind picked up, the light shifted, we wandered in and out of attention, and still the immense, wild world continued beyond us. We were grateful to sense that vast presence and to feel, for a brief time, like we were a part of it.

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About the Author

Liz Bradfield


Liz splits her time between the worlds of biology and literature. At home on Cape Cod, she does field work with whales and seals. The author of four collections of poetry, Liz also brings with her an interest in how literature and art can enliven science and enrich our connections to places. She has had work published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Orion, and is a professor of creative writing at Brandeis University.

About the Videographer

Matthew Ritenour

Video Chronicler

Matthew grew up on the Gulf of Mexico, where a love of geography, culture and history were instilled at a young age. He studied anthropology at California State University, Chico, and soon began working at the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA), a documentary production studio that focuses on sharing the results of anthropological research with the public. As a cinematographer and editor at ALVA, he documented research on everything from the effects of drought in California, to looted petroglyphs in the Sierra Nevada high desert, and the global trade in emeralds.

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