Our journey on the Northwest Coast began with an extraordinary spectacle. At dawn, off the shore of Chicagof Island, we found bubble-net feeding humpback whales. This tool-using co-operative feeding technique is all but unique in the animal world. In order to capture fleet and wily herring, several humpbacks swim to the depths to scare up schooling fish, presumably using their huge pectoral flippers to corral their finny prey. Meanwhile, nearer the surface, a whale swims in a circle while blowing bubbles. This creates an effervescent cylinder into which the herring are chased. Unwilling to cross the bubble barrier, most of the fish are doomed. A whale begins an eerie scream calculated to terrify the fish into an extra-tight school. And at last, the whales pursue their prey up to the surface, where they erupt in a tangle of open maws. Observing this scene of carnage was really exciting. Our hydrophone would pick up the vocalizations of the whales, giving us a bit of warning. Then the circling gulls would veer toward the waves, just preceding a blubbery explosion of gaping jaws and waving flippers. Next came a period of choo-choo train puffing, a sequence of descending tail flukes, and the process would repeat. We followed the whales for hours, and saw the bubble-net eruption dozens of times.
After breakfast we went ashore on Chichagof Island. We walked, kayaked and motored to a short river that was thick with spawning salmon. Dead fish floated by and lay along the river bottom, and a fermented reek filled the air. This was nature at its best – sex and death liberally mingled! We hoped to see bears at the river, but alas, they stayed out of sight. But their sign was everywhere. Huge paw prints marked our trail. Torn salmon were scattered around the rocks. They also were scattered through the forest, along with bear “digestive product.” Though, through its prodigious quantity, all of this seemed a bit yucky, it is actually hugely important to forest ecology. Together, salmon and their bears supply crucial nitrogen, perhaps assimilated among the Aleutian Islands, to fertilize the trees. Thus, the whole north Pacific region is laced together by these remarkable – and tasty! – creatures.
After all of this excitement we took a break during the afternoon. We heard lectures on photographic technique and salmon as we headed north toward the famed Glacier Bay.