Thursday, September 25, 2008

Home Again, Part 4

After Seattle, Glacier Bay, and Juneau, we continued down the Inside Passage and arrived at Sitka, AK. Sitka gets only about 1/4 of the visitors in a year that Juneau does, due to a slightly rougher passage and a shallow harbor that forces everyone to use small boats to tender from the large cruise ships to the pier. We went on two excursions in Sitka: a hike through Tongass Rainforest, and a Marine Life photo safari. Tongass in Sitka was just as amazing as its northern end in Juneau had been, but with more ecosystems. Our hike took us through the forest itself, (sometimes through a tree itself)to tiny coves, an estuary where the pink salmon run was going on, and to the muskeg. Muskeg is a really interesting acidic ecosystem, similar to a peat bog. The soil can hold 15-30 times its weight in water, so stepping on it isn't a good would feel like a sponge, and then you would sink. The soil is so acidic that the few shore pines that can grow in it gain only 5-15 feet in height in 400 years. We have few pictures of the forest, unfortunately, because while we were there it was accumulating some of the more than 200 inches of rain it gets per year. I feared for the camera's safety. Also, if you ever risk being out in the rain for 3 1/2 hours, double check to be sure your coat is waterproof, not just water-resistant...not that I would know anything about that situation...
Eventually we had to leave that amazing forest and head to our next activity, a Marine Life Photo Safari, which was incredibly fruitful. We headed out on a covered catamaran, (protected from the wind, which I was very grateful for) and very soon we saw a group of harbor seals sunning on rocks. Just a little further out, we came across a lone humpback whale feeding in shallow water, surprisingly close to another grouping of rocks. We watched it for a while, and moved on to find a cove that provided the opening to an estuary, where pink salmon were continuing their run, and where a large number of bald eagles were getting their fill. I'd never seen so many eagles in one place before, even in my time working with exotic animals. It was breathtaking. We eventually continued out in the bay, seeing large numbers of various birds on the way, and saw two sea otters wrestling in the water. I was very excited, having been hoping to see an otter or two, so imagine how I felt when the captain announced that we were slowing down to try to creep up on a raft of otters! A raft is a large grouping of sea otters who are just floating together, and I had never even seen a photo of one. They very kindly stayed put for us, and there must have been about 60 otters in the raft, just floating together, interacting, with a few breaking off every now and again to wrestle or swim a bit more energetically. Here are two that were a little separated from the raft, which you can see a little bit of in the top right corner. Look at the belly on the otter on the left!
After marveling at the otters for at least half an hour (I myself would have been happy to stare at them all day) we moved even further out in the bay, and found ourselves with humpback whales on every side. There were probably 4 or 5 out there, casually feeding, ignoring us. Hubband ran up onto the top deck to be sure the photos wouldn't be obscured by the windows, as some earlier shots had been, and caught these two amazing photos:

The whales were beautiful, and brought back memories for me, as every New England schoolchild goes on at least one whale-watching field trip. I hadn't seen a humpback in person in about 15 years, and I was thrilled to see so many. As we moved around, we also saw Steller sea lions, just barely poking their faces out of the water. 
It was a great time, but it had to end, and the catamaran brought us directly back to our cruise ship, where some silly person who was still utterly soaked to the skin finally got to take a hot, hot shower and warm up from that 39 degree air. 

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