BAM Safari

Discover Alaska – Eagles on Ice

Alaska in the USA was one of the destinations in my safari itinerary list and a place I had not visited until June 2011. This land was originally owned by Russia and sold to the USA in the year 1867 for US $ 7.2 Million. My interest was to discover wildlife in the land and the waters of the southeast of the port of Juneau in the State of Alaska.

Lilani and I along with five friends including Dr Mani, my batch mate from University who now lives in New Jersey, Pem with his wife Buddi, and Rienzie, chartered an 87 feet yacht for seven nights from the 16th of June originating from Port Juneau in Alaska. We arrived in Juneau, the day before the boarding. Captain Ben picked us up from the hotel on the morning of our departure. The yacht was built with five comfortable rooms on the lower deck with toilet facilities and an upper deck with an excellent main saloon together with a dining saloon and kitchen surrounded by a good viewing deck. The yacht staff consisted of a Chef, a Chef’s helper and a Captain’s mate.

By noon we started our journey to discover wildlife in the south east of Alaska. The yacht steered through Gastineau Channel towards Stephens Passage at an average of 7 to 8 knots (One knot = 1.85 kmph). There was sunshine and the weather was good. The surrounding scenery was beautiful with the Greenery Mountains, most of them with snowcapped peaks. Within the first hour of sailing, a Humpback Whale was spotted where it came to the surface to breath from its two blowholes, but it was far away from our cruising path. Whales are divided into two sub groups; namely Baleen Whales and Toothed Whales. Humpbacks are baleen type where food together with water is drawn into their mouths and Toothed Whales are with a set of even-sized teeth that are used to grab and bite the prey. The Orca Whale (Killer Whale) belongs to the latter group and was in my diary as a must see on the Discover Alaska trip.

Our immediate destination was Gilbert Bay in Port Snettisham where we were to spend the night and Captain Ben said the journey takes 4 to 5 hours from Juneau. We had a few good sightings of Humpback Whales as well as Bald Eagles en route to Gilbert Bay. Bald Eagle is the national bird of the USA and it belongs to the Sea and Fish Eagle family with excellent eyesight to catch its prey. Utilizing their acute sense of sight Bald Eagles attack their prey by swooping down and snatching with its powerful talons. It has a lifting power of 1.8 kg.

We reached the Bay around 6 pm and the light was still good due to long daylight hours of almost 19 out of 24 (4 am to 10 pm). The surrounding land was covered with thick jungle and according to the staff Grizzly Bears are often sighted when they come out of the shrubbery to eat grass and drink water on the periphery of the bay. The yacht was anchored and four kayaks and a 20 HP speedboat were lowered on to the water from the top deck. The Captain took two crab pots with Salmon bait in the boat and dipped them in to water at a suitable location where King Crabs were found at a depth of at least 30 feet. For the rest of the evening we enjoyed kayaking which was an experience for all of us, especially to Pem and Buddi.

The following morning by 6 am I came to the upper deck and found Rienzie with his camera taking pictures of a River Otter playing in the water. Suddenly I saw a small brown object moving on the grassland and when viewing through a binocular found it was a baby Grizzly Bear. Acting fast, I was able to take a few shots even though the subject was far away, using my Nikon D3 with 400mm, 2.8 lens with 1.5 converter, and when the Bear was moving towards the undergrowth, the mother Bear appeared for a few seconds and later both disappeared from our sight. To discover more fauna and flora we went on to land. We saw an unspoiled beautiful waterfall and noticed signs of Bear movements during our one-hour of trekking in the woods. Back on board by 9 am with the crab pots catch for a meal (female Crabs were thrown back to the waters), the yacht started moving for our second day of Discover Alaska voyage.

As we cruised towards Snug Cove in Gambier Bay which was going to be our stop for the night, incredible sightings and movements of Humpback Whales were captured with my camera. Captain Ben showed us the Sawyer Glacier in the Tracy Arm located very far. We noticed floating chunks of ice coming from the direction of the glacier. Suddenly what caught my eye left a lasting impression of Alaska. On one of the ice blocks floating on water there were tiny objects and viewing through the binocular they were EAGLES ON ICE. The Captain steered the yacht slowly towards them. I was awestruck. There were adult and juvenile Bald Eagles sitting on ice. The images captured were exceptional. Before we reached our destination all of us had the chance to see the Steller’s Sea Lions. Males have a life span of 20 years while females live up to 30. We reached Snug Cove by 6 pm. During dinner I reminded Captain Ben that the Killer Whales are on our itinerary and his answer was “cannot promise since they are not resident but will try”. So luck plays a big time in wildlife viewing!

Our destination for the third night was Red Bluff Bay at the Baranoff Island. Most of the discoveries on the way were limited to Humpback Whales. We had an hour of fishing from the deck of the yacht and only Dr. Mani had success in catching a 3 kg Halibut. Our friend Rienzie is in the catering business and he is a good cook himself. He prepared a delicious Sri Lankan crab curry for lunch which was more than welcome, as by this time we were yearning for home food. Closer to the anchoring of the yacht at Red Bluff Bay a beautiful waterfall from the Mt Harding was sighted; memories of pictures taken with the fall would last forever! We sighted a Bear feeding on grass at the far end of the bay. Captain Ben was kind enough to take Rienzie and me in his speedboat to land. We walked towards the Bear without it noticing us and at approximately 50 meters from the subject, I was able to take pictures of the Bear eating grass using a 4 kg, 400mm lens that rested on Captain Ben’s shoulder for stability.

On the fourth day of our Discovery Alaska journey, we had more sightings of the Humpback Whales, Bald Eagles and Artic Terns. So far we had enjoyed excellent weather conditions. By this time Dr Mani had to leave us for an official engagement and had to be dropped off in Kake for his flight. Our destination for the night was Eliza Harbor. At dinner, I reminded the Captain again of Killer Whales. No response. We have three more nights. Keeping my fingers crossed!

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