Day 1 – July 30th. After overnighting in Seattle we arrive Petersburg at midday. We have a free afternoon to unwind and to explore the town. Several people find bald eagles to photograph on the edge of town.
Day 2 – July 31st. The whole group took part in an extra, pre-arranged, private hire whale watching trip with a local boat to get a feel for what was to come. We had a 14 seater boat for 8 of us and saw approximately 40 whales. Everybody managed to capture at least a couple of whales breaching on their first day’s whale watching experience. The whales were generally behaving in a manner I had not seen before. The krill was just inches below the surface of the sea and they were “side lunging”. Instead of lunging out of the water vertically with mouths wide open they were doing it horizontally. The whales were a little more nervous of this smaller boat than they would have been of our yacht but we had a spectacular introduction to whale watching. An excellent start.
Day 3 – August 1st. Free morning. After lunch in town we depart Petersburg at 2pm to begin our cruise. Approximately 3 hours to our “hunting grounds”. Each person has a photography review session and tuition during that time. Plenty of whales to photograph at our destination. Lots of diving and tail flukes plus side lunging, breaching and spy hopping. Some whales came very close to our yacht. The whole group were amazed that they would actually approach us rather than the other way around. A second photography review session in the evening, and hopefully everyone is now understanding the most appropriate camera settings to use for the rest of the trip.
Day 4 – August 2nd. We begin with a session shooting from the skiffs which offer photography from less than two feet above sea level. Again the whales are a little wary of the smaller boats. We see a lot of breaching in the distance and manage to capture two sessions of breaching fairly close to our boats. Most of the whales are “logging”. This is when they sleep on the surface of the water. Two whales creep up on two that are asleep. They lunge vertically only inches from them. The whales that were asleep are startled and the jump out of the water and hastily disappear. The two that completed the surprise celebrate with a series of breaches. Some were double breaches (two together). We watch another whale tail slapping. The noise of its tail crashing onto the water is really loud and it echoes all around us. Things then quieten down and we return to the yacht. The whales seem to love our yacht and regularly come to check us out. After several wonderful experiences we switch off our engines and let them come to us. A mother and calf circle our yacht and she leaves her calf (just under a year old) to play with us. We are treated to the most amazing spectacle that you could imagine. Almost an hour of serial breeching, pec slapping, spouting and spy hopping all around the boat. It regularly dives under the boat and emerges the other side just a few feet away. Breach after breach after breach. Everyone comes down to the lower deck to get the closest viewpoint. It is so repetitive that some people put down their cameras and just enjoy the spectacle. Everybody’s face is a picture and they are grinning from ear to ear. The calf does one amazing breach right in front of us not more than ten feet away. Awesome. Our itinerary is fluid and the captain and I decide to abandon what he calls “whale soup” (there are whales everywhere) and head for the bubble netting group which are almost a day’s travelling from our current position. Rain is forecast for tomorrow morning so we thought that would be a good time to travel. We set off but are soon delayed by a pod of almost 40 resident Orcas. We have almost an hour with these guys. Porpoises are playing with them and continually race across their noses trying to provoke a reaction. We even see a few breaches by the Orcas, which is quite a rare event. Resident Orcas only eat fish, so the porpoises are safe. They would not be safe if Transient Orcas were around. We leave them and continue our journey. Later we come across three Transient Orcas. We follow these guys for about twenty minutes. They actually turn round and check us out, swimming only feet from the boat. They swim the bow wave just as porpoises/dolphins do. We leave them and continue to our overnight anchorage point.
Day 5 – August 3rd. We make an early departure (7am) for the bubble netting area. En route we have another photography review and tuition session. Everyone has used the correct settings and everyone, without exception, has incredible photographs from the day before. Everybody is still buzzing and nobody can believe what their first full day on the boat produced. All have now become quite proficient at using manual camera settings. This makes life much easier when dealing with the changing backdrops behind our whales. We anticipate being in the area where the bubble netters operate by 2 pm. We sit down for lunch at 1 pm and our captain comes down and informs us that he can see our whales in the distance. We can barely believe our luck as we expected to spend at least two to three hours searching for these guys. We spend about three hours with seven whales bubble netting up and down the shore-line. These whales are group hunting without releasing bubbles. They are lunge feeding about every 10 minutes, but they are difficult to focus on as there is no prior warning as to where they will surface. We know that there should be another group nearby so we leave our group of seven and look for the other group. We see a single whale, two whales and then three more. They all meet up and immediately start bubble netting – complete with a ring of bubbles before surfacing. We don’t spot the bubbles every time, but when we do, photographing the entire sequence of events is easy. We stay with these six guys until 9pm and get some wonderful photographs. We all retire to the lounge and discuss our amazing experiences with wine/gin and tonics in hand. There are less than fifty whales in the world that adopt this phenomenon as a way of feeding, and we have seen a third of them in our first afternoon. It was an incredible privilege to have seen such an amazing event that only the tiniest percentage of people in the world will have witnessed. A number of people on the boat were brought to tears while watching these whales perform. It rained for most of the first session until 6pm, but the second session was rain-free. This was the only rain we experienced until the final day when we were returning to Petersburg.
Day 6 – August 4th. We leave our anchorage at 7am and have found our whales by 7.20am. After a quick breakfast we are photographing bubble net lunge after bubble net lunge. There were initially eight whales but their numbers soon swell into double figures. We are also treated to bow waving by group of twenty or so porpoises. We photograph the whales mainly from the yacht, but also from the skiffs for a while. They fish continually until the tide turns around 12.30pm. Things start to get busier again after 2.30pm and we continue with our bubble net photography. We are back to eight whales for our afternoon session. Four of the whales suddenly decide to do a massive breach one after the other. They jump really high and are well clear of the water. These whales seem bigger than the ones we saw closer to Petersburg. Perhaps they grow bigger on a diet of herring rather than the more commonly consumed krill. They continue bubble netting throughout the afternoon and evening. The light drops a bit about 6.30pm and we concentrate on taking the whales in a landscape setting rather than focusing tight on just the whales. We have muted blues in one direction and a yellow/gold backdrop in the other. We photograph the whales both ways before a final finale at 7.20pm when four whales do full breaches before disappearing away from the fishing area and into the deep water. Time for dinner and drinks.
Day 7 – August 5th. Again we leave our anchorage at 7am. By 8.15 we are with the bubble netting whales. They are performing really well and more regularly than we have previously seen. At 9am it is flat calm and the light is perfectly softened by the thin clouds round the mountain tops. We take to the skiffs in order to get some really low angle bubble netting shots. This only works well if the water is super calm. We are getting some incredible pictures. When working from the smaller boats you need to be further away in case the whales surface next to the boat. We try to always have a good distance between us and the whales. We are usually able to predict the vicinity where they will appear as they typically work in one direction at a time. The whales did not behave typically on one occasion. They doubled back and emerged between twenty and thirty feet from our skiffs. WOW! That series of shots were amazing. I have not seen better images anywhere. The detail we captured was amazing and from our low angle and the tops of the whales’ mouths were almost as high as the mountain tops behind. After they have submerged we just sat, grinned and looked at each other in amazement. If we had engineered the whole thing we could not have done better. We would not have changed a thing. That was one of those wildlife moments that only happens once in a lifetime. We stay with the whales for two hours, still shooting bubble netting from the skiffs. It is difficult to believe the opportunities we were presented with. As a finale we get one massive breach – once again his head is almost as tall as the mountain behind, before they vacate our bay in search of new hunting grounds. It is, without doubt, one of the most rewarding wildlife photography sessions I have ever experienced in my life. We return to our yacht for lunch and begin our return journey to the Petersburg area. At 2pm we come across a pod of ten or so orcas. We stay with these guys for half an hour before continuing on our way. Less than an hour later we come across a second pod of four orcas. This group have just circled and isolated a sea lion. We watch them continually harassing their prey. They seem to be playing with it rather than trying to kill it. There are three adult orcas and one smaller one. The three bigger ones appear to be training the youngster to attack the sea lion. Nature is cruel sometimes, and this group are behaving like cats with a mouse. After almost half an hour of half breaching right next to the sea lion their game becomes more intense. One orca slams into the seal with its nose and tosses it into the air. They then take it in turns trying to slap it with their tail. The sea lion soon becomes less mobile. Another orca semi breaches and drops on top of it. Another gets beneath it and hurls it skywards with its tail. The sea lion becomes motionless. Two orcas come right up to it and touch it with their noses. It does not respond and one of the orcas opens its mouth and takes it below the surface. All is quiet for a few minutes before two orcas celebrate their kill with full breaches. It is now 5.30 and we continue on our way once more. People have mixed emotions over what they witnessed, but some wildlife behaviour can be difficult to watch at times. The sea lion’s fate was sealed long before we arrived on the scene. A sea lion is capable of doing immense damage to another creature and the orcas are very wary of them. A sea lion’s skull is very similar to that of a grizzly bear. It has almost identical canines and similar power in its bite. We reach our mooring at 7pm and after dinner we have a bald eagle take a fish a few feet from the boat. A little while later a female brown bear with a tiny cub comb the sea shore and pass by our boat less than 50 feet away. A truly remarkable day that will be etched in our memories forever.
Day 8 – August 6th. Today is going to be a quieter day. It is essentially a travel day with the idea of getting us back to the prime whale viewing area by 3pm. We shoot a couple of subjects from our anchorage location before we leave. We get three dives from the bald eagles for fish. We then see 3 brown bears –a mum and two cubs on the shoreline and a single black bear checking out the shallows where a stream meets the sea. This is a really pretty shot, and quite close too. We then get underway and spend 45 minutes at a small islet where hundreds of sea lions are hauled out. These are a non-breeding group, consisting mostly of immature males. As well as close-ups there are some great landscape shots with the sea lions on the point of the island and snow-capped mountains behind. The tide is with us and we reach our destination early and begin photography straight after lunch. We are treated to a cleaning display by a lone sea otter for almost half an hour. He is lying on his back and licking every part of his body. We have a dozen whales bubble feeding. Most are doing it individually and there is one group of three. We focus on the bubble ring and a whale’s nose appears in the middle. I wish all photography was this easy! One whale breaches six times from the same spot. Everybody gets perfect breaching shots. Then the whales move to an area near a big kelp bed. The water is almost pink with krill. They are like very tiny prawns floating in the water. There are a few Herring gulls, a considerable number of Glaucous gulls and hundreds of juvenile Bonaparte gulls perched on the floating kelp gobbling up the tiny crustaceans. We stop the boat on the edge of the kelp and photograph the gulls. Then the whales come over to where we are. More and more whales arrive. There are now 40 whales doing shallow dives and lunging every couple of minutes or so. Whales are breaching in all directions, in front of us and to both sides. It is impossible to know which way to point the camera. Most people come down to the back of the boat to get a really low angle. It is non-stop action for an hour and a half. Several people have taken more than a thousand shots in that time. There are two things that we are targeting. The baleen in the upper jaw and the pink stripes that are visible only when the pouch on the lower jaw is fully expanded. The captain described our experience on day 2 as “whale soup”. This was “whale stew”! The tide changed and the krill were swept towards the shore a mile away. The whales moved with them (so did we) and we photographed the backlit whales spouting with the dark shade of the mountain behind them. We had a late dinner to maximize our opportunities and another fabulous day was almost over. While we were dining black tailed Sitka deer emerged from the woodland and grazed the fertile grass near the shoreline. On the captain’s advice most of the group got up a little before midnight to enjoy a display of northern lights. This was an unexpected treat and was a first time experience for several of the group.
Day 9 – August 7th. This is our last full day on the yacht. We plan to fill in any gaps in our photographic experiences. The whales are less active than they were yesterday. I assume their bellies are bulging with krill and they are just enjoying the sun. We find the occasional whale bubble feeding and shoot tail flukes with beautiful soft and muted colours behind. The sea is flat calm so we take to the skiffs. The eagles do not want to play and the whales are less tolerant than if we were in the yacht. We get some good whale shots and then work around one of the many islets. We photograph harbour seals, a couple of sea lions, turnstones and some really cute sea otters in perfect light. We spend a while watching a small commercial boat that is long-line fishing for halibut. The lines can be up to 5 miles long and have a hook every 15 feet or so. The hooks are almost circular with only a small barb and they retain the fish well. The advantage of circular type is that the smaller fish can easily be released from these hooks without ripping their mouths. Many of the halibut are undersized and are dropped back into the sea unharmed. The larger fish are gaffed and pulled onto the boat. Some of the larger ones are up to five feet from head to tail. They are stunned, bled out and gutted by another crew member while the line is being pulled in. They are then placed into ice within minutes of being on the boat and are 100% fresh for eating. We return to the yacht for lunch. We again go in search of bald eagles. We get one to fly over our boat, but there are so many easy pickings of salmon available that they are not interested in frozen herring. We find a whale that is serial breeching. He breached between 40 and 50 times. He was captured on camera by everyone many times. Perfect framing and perfect exposures by all. Some of the earlier breaches were a bit distant but after a while it was as if he wanted to impress us. He came closer and closer, virtually filling the frame of our cameras a few times with beautiful mountain backdrops in perfect light. Then we took to the skiffs one last time and photographed sea lions on an island. About twenty of them came right up to us. They were daring each other to be the bravest and get right up to the boat. They started about ten metres away and ended up going beneath the boat and touching it with their tails as the went underneath. Again we got some great shots in beautiful soft light. As we gently made our way to the evening anchorage we had another whale breaching 150 yards from the boat. Some single whales were bubble feeding and we spent time with them until dinner was served.
Day 10 – August 8th. This morning it is raining and rain is forecast all day. This is no problem to us as it is purely a travel day. Our photography from the yacht is over and it is almost six hours back to Petersburg harbour. After packing we have a relaxing morning in the lounge discussing the highlights of the trip. There were so many that we flipped from subject to subject. It was certainly more action packed than any of us envisaged. We transfer to the airport for our 20-minute flight to Wrangell. We are told that this is the world’s shortest commercial flight. It is surprising how tired we all are. I think we were working on adrenalin for the last few days. Once you stop tiredness kicks in. We all enjoy the rest and discuss photo techniques specific to black bears with silver fish in their mouths. Potential disaster. Our incoming flight has technical problems and is delayed at Juneau airport. Two and a half hours later we are told that it is not coming to Petersburg. There is only one free hotel room in Petersburg. I use my contacts to get a coach to Banana Point which is three quarters of an hour from Petersburg airport. There we meet a water taxi which has come from Wrangell. We arrive at our hotel at 8pm which is just in time to order dinner. A tricky situation satisfactorily resolved without any real inconvenience to anyone.
Day 11 – August 9th. Bear viewing at Anan. Departed Wrangell at 9am and returned at 5pm. Mainly overcast day which is perfect for black bears. They are always very difficult to photograph in bright sunlight. There was a good number of bears including two small cubs born this year. There were always bears to photograph in each 30-minute session from the hide. Most people had at least 5 sessions in the hide. There were also plenty of good opportunities from outside the hide. There were fewer fish going up the stream this year, but just as many bears. The cubs were the smallest black bears I have ever seen.
Day 12 – August 10th. Visit to the Le Conte Glacier. We had a private boat pick us up at 8am. It was drizzling all day. This was not the weather we would have chosen but it worked well. It made the colours of the icebergs stand out more and they became punchier than they would have been in brighter light. The only negative was that when we were photographing the actual glacier the spots of drizzle were blowing onto our lenses. Constant wiping of the lenses was required. We did, however, see three sizeable carvings in the 30 minutes that we were just in front of the glacier. We spent a good four hours photographing the icebergs that had broken away from the glacier. The shapes and colours within them were absolutely stunning. As they melted, small caverns appeared and the contrasting light on the different angles in and around these crevices was something to behold. It was amazing how much these icebergs melted in two hours and a repeat session offered very different opportunities to those we were initially presented with. I was captivated by the weird shapes we saw. There were many animal and birdlike forms within the ice. It was almost as if creatures were being reborn. It was quite haunting. I selected more than a thousand images to keep from just four hours shooting in the bay. I do not think I have ever kept so many images from such a short time previously. That is a measure of the quality of photography we were presented with. We were back in our hotel by 4pm for a well-earned rest.
Day 13 – August 11th. It is the final photography day of the tour. The group leave Wrangell at 9am for our second visit to the Black bears at Anan. I stay behind at the hotel as I have a mild stomach upset. It is overcast with odd spells of sunshine poking through the clouds. The group report that they had a much more active day than two days previously. There was an incessant flow of fish going up the river and two black bears were fishing constantly. Everyone got multiple shots of the bears catching salmon and they also saw three brown bears near the mouth of the river. They got good bald eagle shots and had a completely rain-free day at the falls. They all returned very happy with their day’s photography.
Day 14 – August 12th. Unfortunately the trip is at its conclusion and we depart from Wrangell for our flights back to the UK.