Whales and Sitka

We were on our way to Sitka for a few days to catch up on laundry, groceries and errands, and as we approached the entrance to Peril Strait (which is not particularly perilous) we spotted some whale blows.  Of course we headed towards them to investigate.  There were at least several whales, and as we approached the area it got very quiet, until the gaping mouths of about 7-8 whales exploded from the water – they were bubble net feeding!Humpbacks find a school of small fish, dive underneath them and then one of the whales will blow a “net” of bubbles around the school to pack them in tight.  Once the fish are corralled, the whales swim up through the center of the bubble net with mouths agape.  It’s quite a sight to witness.You can see the distended under-jaw of a whale in the photo above, filled with water and fish.  The whale will use his tongue to push the water out, filtering the fish through his baleen – a comb-like structure on the inside of his jaw made of the same type of material as our fingernails (keratin).

We noticed another boat nearby acting as a support vessel for these guys in a RIB.  I wonder what specifically they were studying.We kept a respectful distance from the whales and the researchers, though the whales were moving in the same direction that we were, so we could watch several cycles of diving and feeding.  What a treat!

Entering Peril Strait we waved at the sea lions draped over the buoy, and the pelagic cormorants resting on top.  I don’t think there are many (or any) buoys in the region that aren’t covered in napping sea lions all the time.Sitka is a town of about 8000 people – about three times the size of Petersburg.  Most summer days it’s visited by a cruise ship, and some of the smaller cruise ships use it as a turnaround point since Sitka has direct air service from Seattle.  There are five harbors in town, a thriving fishing fleet of seiners, gillnetters and trollers, and two fish processing plants. The Coast Guard has a helicopter and an ocean-going buoy tender based here, and the channel in front of the harbors also serves as a runway for float planes.  This one waited for us to pass so he could take off.The summer cruising season in southeast Alaska is a special experience, with so much wildlife and fantastic salmon and halibut fishing.  People from all over the world come here to tour and fish, and some big yachts – both private and charter – come up for the summer season.I had to laugh because seeing this line of 100’+ yachts reminded me a little of cruising through Fort Lauderdale or Miami, Florida, though the south Florida yacht population is far greater, and the sizes are too.  I must confess that I hate all the charter boats and big yachts clogging up our quiet anchorages, and it’s nice when summer is over and the tourist boats have headed south again.  A good Alaskan anchorage is one where you’re all alone.

The harbor is always a fascinating place with working boats coming and going at all hours.  There’s an ebb and flow to the harbor as the various fisheries go through openings and closings.  One minute the huge harbor is nearly empty, and the next minute it’s packed and the dock is busy with crews fetching groceries and making repairs.

A sea otter seems to have made the harbor home, which surprised me because they’re normally very shy.  But this one is content and lazy, floating and napping right off the main float pretty often.Despite the very rainy weather, we picked up some groceries, ran a few errands, and even did a little shopping.  We spotted a poster for “Coffee and Quarks” – an informal talk and Q&A with some visiting young physicists at the Science Center.  Over 50 of us jammed the little coffee shop and we could have listened to the panel talk for hours and hours!  Afterwards we spent a little time in the wonderful Totem Park run by the National Park Service.

The totem poles are all replicas of poles by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian natives from around the region, arranged along a meandering trail through the woods and along the shoreline… sublime.We ran into Petersburg friends who happened to be in the harbor, and it was great to share a glass of wine and catch up about our respective summer adventures.  But it was time to move on and for us to explore some new territory to the south, along the ocean coast of Baranof Island.

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