Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Orcas in the Gulf of Alaska

 Alaska 2014

Day six of our Alaska birding tour was another beauty. Calm winds and blue skies streaked with high white clouds provided the backdrop for snow-capped peaks and rugged granite cliffs covered with spruce. Much like the hike from Rock Harbor to Scoville Point on Isle Royale, everywhere I looked was a breathtaking scene.

Tiny islands dotted the shoreline along the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park.

As we moved down Resurrection Bay towards the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the Harding Icefield became visible.

Many of the regions glaciers no longer make it to the bay, but Bear Glacier is hanging on. Glacial melt in this part of the world is outpacing that of many other areas. You can read about the Harding Icefield at the National Park Service's site.

Bear Glacier and the Harding Icefield

Here's a map of the area showing the location of Bear Glacier, along with the Harding Icefield.

As we approached the mouth of Resurrection Bay, a commotion began off the starboard side. I hurried to the railing as the captain announced...

...that there was a pod of Orcas moving toward us!

Killer whales!

I could not believe our luck! This was a resident pod, meaning they were a family unit that pretty much stayed in the area. They differ from transient pods in a number of ways, including physical attributes such as rounded vs. pointed dorsal fins, as well as a difference in diets. Transients tend to eat marine mammals, while resident pods eat mostly fish. The two types do not intermingle, and on those occasions when they are in the same area they avoid each other.

Killer whales, or orcas, are not whales at all, but members of the dolphin family.

They were clearly a mother and calf. They swam quite close to the boat but I missed them. Someone told me others could be seen from another vantage point, so I ran off, only to have this pair come within 10 feet of where I'd been standing at the rail. By the time I got back I could see them by the boat, but could not get anywhere near the railing due to the crush of people. The boat was actually listing to starboard at this point. So I stood on a bench and watched them swim away.

Orcas in these resident pods are identifiable by the markings on their backs behind their dorsal fins. While I haven't tried to figure out which pod this was, I did find a website that lists each pod in the southern Alaska region, and has an entire photo identification catalog that can be downloaded.

Later that afternoon, on our return trip, we came across the pod again, still busily feeding near the Chiswell Islands. The afternoon sun backlit the mist from their exhalations.

I could have spent all day watching these amazing creatures. But there was a lot to see this day...

...including our next marine mammal, seen here swimming just below the surface.

Harbor seals swim just below the surface--bottom left. I did not see them when I took this photo.

Next: Harbor seals!

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