Thursday, August 18, 2022

Whale Watching in Alaska

I've been away from blogland due to a fabulous trip my hubby and I recently took to southeast Alaska.  We returned a week ago, but I captured so many images it's taken a fair amount of time to sort, cull and edit them all.  But I'm now ready to share - beginning with the whale watching trip I took on the second day.

The "Taz" my tour boat for the day

My hubby recently celebrated a milestone birthday.  In our family, important birthdays are celebrated with big trips.  Since hubby loves fishing in Alaska I knew that was on the agenda.  But I was hoping to also include a National Park visit.  Then through a Facebook page called "Travelers of the US National Parks" I discovered Glacier Bay National Park.  Located in SE Alaska near the tiny town of Gustavus, not only did the place offer wildlife and glacier viewing, there was also lots of charter fishing tours available.  Perfect!  I found lodging, purchased airline tickets, and we excitedly counted down the days.

Gustavus harbor

Our first day in Gustavus I went halibut fishing with my hubby (I'll cover that trip in a future post.)  But on the second day, I let my hubby go fishing without me because I wanted to do some wildlife viewing.  So I signed up for a whale watching cruise.

Fledgling pigeon guillemots

While fishing we saw many whale spouts from a distance.  A couple of whales even swam relatively close by, arching their backs and slapping their tails on the water.  Our boat captain pooh-poohed the idea of me going on a separate whale watching trip stating "You can see just as many whales coming fishing with me."  But since I'm terrible at doing two things at once, I wanted to concentrate on just taking photos and not trying to fish at the same time.  

Thar she blows!

So the next day I boarded a ship called "The Taz" captained by a man named Todd.  At first I was skeptical.  The boat looked a little worse for wear and the captain seemed to match his boat.  But as I was about to find out, this man knew his stuff.

It was fun to watch the whales spouting

Glacier Bay is known for it's summer populations of Humpback whales.  The whales spend winters in Hawaii where they mate and have their babies.  During this time the whales do not eat at all.  Once summer rolls around, the whales return to Glacier Bay for food.  Having fasted all winter in the tropics, these large mammals arrive hungry.  The Humpbacks gorge themselves on the plentiful schools of small fish that concentrate in the ocean's cold waters.  They eat up to 22 hours a day in order to store enough fat reserves to make it through the next breeding season.

I got tons of tail photos every time a whale dived

It took a bit of time for our boat to travel to the area where the whales were last spotted.  But soon on the horizon we all began to see the tell-tale white mist of a spouting whale.

Some whales had white tails

There appeared to be a pod of about 8 whales.  It was really neat to watch them all spout at once, their white columns of vaporized air rising from the water's surface.  You could hear the air exiting the blowholes in a loud "whoosh."

Splashy, splashy

I assumed this was as close as we'd get.  But Captain Todd had other plans and steered the boat towards the pod.  Soon, we could clearly make out the whale's broad backs and watch them arch upwards before diving into the water.  (We were told that's why they are called humpbacks)  The last thing we'd see before a whale disappeared was it's tail.  So impressive to watch!

Then the sun came out!

Although the boat did get much closer, it was still required to keep a minimum distance from the Humpbacks, which the captain respected.  Oh boy, was I glad I'd packed my large 100-500 zoom lens and 1.4x extender.  Those came in mighty handy to zoom in and get some close-up shots of all this whale activity.  

This whale looked white and spotted

It was fun to watch the dives and spouts.  Every once and awhile a whale would stick his fins above water.  But that was all we saw of these humungous critters.  Well - until the entire pod started bubble-net feeding.

The pod bubble-net feeding

The first time it happened everyone on the boat was stunned.  The entire pod surfaced at once, their noses in the air and mouths open.  A splashing frenzy ensued for a moment before all the whales sunk back into the water.

The bubble-net feeding was so cool to watch!

Todd's assistant, a very nice woman (who's name I've now forgotten) explained this most interesting behavior.  Bubble-net feeding is a cooperative method Humpback whales use to gather large amounts of food.  Using vocalizations to coordinate the pod, whales will circle a school of small fish and begin exhaling out their blowholes to disorient and corral the fish into a "net" of bubbles.  Once the net has captured enough fish, one whale will sound the call and the entire pod surfaces with their mouths open to catch the trapped fish.

Sinking back into the water

Per Wikipedia: "As the whales swim up to the surface to feed they can hold up to 15,000 gallons of sea water in their mouths.  Humpback whales have 14 to 35 throat grooves that run from the top of the chin all the way down to the navel.  These grooves allow the mouth to expand.  When they swallow they stream the water out through their baleen as they ingest the fish.  The fish that they ingest are also a source of hydration for them."

A fishing boat watching the whales

From Wikipedia I also learned that bubble-net feeding does not occur everywhere.  Alaska is conducive to the activity due to it's cold waters and the high amount of summer sun.  These factors are perfect conditions for producing large quantities of the fish Humpback whales prefer.


More tail action

Although I tried to get photos of the first feeding frenzy, it happened so fast I only got a few out-of-focus images.  After that I tried to keep a closer watch on the horizon.  But once the all the whales dived there was no way to guess where the pod would resurface.  The only clue was watching the flocks of seagulls circling overhead.  Readying to pick any uneaten fish out of the water, those birds seemed to have a sense of where the whales might reappear.

Just cruisin'

Lucky for us, the whales continued their bubble feeding frenzy.  The next time they all resurfaced, I was ready.  This time I managed to get some action images that were in focus.  Yeah!

Another feeding frenzy

Since the boat captain and his assistant did two tours a day throughout the summer, they were very familiar with the whales.  The assistant even pointed out that one of the whales was a calf.  I don't know how she could tell - their backs and tails looked the same to me - all ginormous!

A calm moment

At one point the calf swam very close to the boat.  Unfortunately for me, I had too much lens to capture such a point-blank image.  But I did manage to get one very interesting picture - an extreme close-up of the whale's blowhole spewing water everywhere.

I could've watched the feeding all day!

The other thing that was fun to photograph was the whale's tails right before they dived.  The tail would pop out of the water, and if you caught it just right you could freeze-frame the rivulets of water that streamed from the tail.  I must've taken hundreds of images of just whale tails!

This whale got so close to the boat he filled my lens

To our delight, the pod kept bubble feeding.  This kept everyone on their toes, trying to guess where the whales would pop up next.  It was such fun to watch, no one wanted to leave.  Our captain kept saying: "Folks we really have to turn back soon.  But we'll wait for one more before we do."  And then the whales would surface and he'd say "Okay, one more."

I loved how the water ran from their tails

Captain Todd was very patient and allowed us to view these magnificent creatures for probably longer than usual.  It had been such a wonderful day of whale activity that no one wanted to leave, even him.

Everyone up!

As the captain was starting to prepare for departure, two whales poked their backs out of the water so I zoomed my camera in on them.  Then I heard everyone on the boat gasp.  I turned my camera to the right and there in my lens was a whale breaching!  I hurriedly pressed the shutter and managed to capture two images before the enormous creature hit the water in a huge splash.  Oh my goodness what a cool thing to witness!

Even better, one of the images I captured was actually in focus!  Here it is for you all to enjoy.

A lucky photo of a breach

It was a wonderful way to end what was the best day of wildlife viewing I've had in awhile.  I was so glad I'd decided to go on this whale watching cruise instead of another day of fishing.  I saw much more than I would've had I sat in a fishing boat.

Waving goodbye

As we were heading back to the dock, Captain Todd chatted with me.  I learned he'd been conducting whale watching tours out of Gustavus for 17 years.  With so many years of experience, Todd knew where to find the whales and how to tell if they were going to breach, dive, or bubble-feed.  He remarked that this cruise would spoil me for future whale watching tours.  I think he's right!  If you're ever in Gustavus I highly recommend The Taz Whale Watching Tours.  They really do know their whales.

Lots of seabirds follow the whales

Here's a very crude cell phone video I took of the whales bubble-net feeding for your enjoyment.

This whale watching tour was my most favorite activity during my time at Glacier Bay National Park.  But the following day my hubby and I did a boat tour of the park that was a close second.  Coming in my next post, a full recap of that day.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Rhodie Time on Mt Hood

Besides ski season, June is one of my favorite times to visit the Mt Hood area.  Why, you ask?  Because June is when lovely pink rhodies bloom in the forests.  Although the proper name for this flower is "rhododendron" we locals refer to them as "rhodies."

Last year I missed the entire rhodie season after spending June and July in South Dakota recovering from brain surgery.  In 2022, I vowed to make up for those lost flower-viewing opportunities.

The rhodies are blooming!

In mid-June I made an exploratory trip to the lower elevations of the Mt. Hood National Forest.  I found a few pink blooms, but overall things were just getting started.  Two weeks later I returned and although the flowers were beginning to fade down low, in areas above 4000 feet elevation the rhodie bloom was going strong.

Mt Hood view from Trillium Lake

My first stop was Trillium Lake.  This small water body has a killer view of Mt. Hood from it's shores, which is often reflected in the lake during calm weather.  Luck was with me that morning, because I was greeted with glassy waters that mirrored Mt. Hood perfectly on the lake's surface.  A mid-level cloud bank just added to the photo drama.  (I love clouds - I think they make images more interesting.)

Trillium Lake fishing dock

With my early morning arrival I was able to beat the hiking and sightseeing crowd, but not the fishermen.  (Being married to a fisher-guy, I know that they love nothing more than to get up obscenely early to purse their sport.)  But the fishermen weren't any trouble - they were all busy trying to lure the resident trout.  I kind of liked having them in my frames.

My attempt to get lake, mountain and rhodies in one frame

I'd hoped to get a shot of a blooming rhodie bush with the lake and mountain in the background.  But after walking most of the south shore, all I found was one sad bloom.  The one bush actually located along the lakeshore wasn't quite ready to flower.  So the above photo was as close as I got.

I found a big patch near Timothy Lake

Naturally there were tons of rhodie bushes along the road into Trillium Lake.  But these weren't anywhere close to the lake.  Even so, I got lots of good images of the roadside pink blooms.  Too bad one or two couldn't move closer to the lake.  (I considered trying to patch one rhodie bush into a lake image, but I'm not that good at Photoshop!)

Pink goodness

Remembering that nearby Timothy Lake had an abundance of rhodie bushes I decided to head over there.  My family used to camp at Timothy Lake frequently in the 90's.  I have fond memories of fun times with my hubby and kids at this beautiful lake.  Back in those days we could arrive on a Friday in the summer and still get a camping spot for the weekend.  Sadly population growth in the Portland area, coupled with more people discovering outdoor recreation, has made this lake a wildly popular spot.  Nowadays if you don't reserve a site 6 months in advance, forget about camping here.  Spontaneity is a thing of the past.

Even the butterflies like rhodies

At least the rhodies were still around.  I found lots of the gorgeous pink bushes lining the entrance road and at many of the campgrounds.  However, at three of the developed Forest Service campgrounds, I discovered day users weren't allowed to drive in and park anymore.  Naturally there weren't any rhodie bushes at the designated day use area.  Ironically the best displays were along the entrance road, which happened to be under construction.

Bright spots in the forest

Was I about to be skunked again in my rhodie quest?  Luckily I found a pull-out along a stretch of road that wasn't being worked on that happened to have a high concentration of pink blossoms.  Finally - I was able to get my rhodie shots.

Backlit blooms

The Timothy Lake area has lots of great scenery.  I drove past an old guard station, now renovated for overnight use.  In a large swampy clearing, I spotted the ancient cabin my kids and I used to visit while camping nearby.

Old cabin near Timothy Lake

Since it was in the neighborhood, I then decided to drive over the nearby Little Crater Lake.  Situated near another Forest Service campground, this tiny body of water displays a unique blue color, similar to it's larger cousin to the south.

Lupine blooms near Little Crater Lake

From the parking area, visitors hike a short trail to see the lake.  Although there wasn't any rhodies here, the path cut through a large grassy field full of lovely purple lupine flowers.

Little Crater Lake

Here's my favorite photo of Little Crater Lake.  The lake is fed by an underground spring that gives the lake it's unusual blue hue.

Anemone and ladybug

Although not an area known for rhododendrons, for my last stop of the day I decided to swing by Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort and visit Umbrella Falls.  A quarter mile trail from the resort's access road takes hikers to this stunning waterfall.  Along the way, I spotted several different wildflowers blooming (although not rhodies!).  I loved this shot of a deep purple anemone flower with a ladybug hanging out on one of its leaves.

And the waterfall was pretty spectacular too.  Although there were no rhodies in the area, I always enjoy visiting this lovely cascade.

Umbrella Falls

It was a successful rhodie-hunting trip around the mountain.  I love having these beautiful places just a short drive from my home.  

Now to get caught up on the other wildflowers I missed last summer!

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Bandon - The Bonus Pics

As what usually happens, the final day of my Bandon trip dawned with blue skies and sunshine.  After enduring two gray, rainy days this sunlight was most welcome.  I just had to take one last walk on the beach to take advantage of the perfect photography conditions.

Early morning on the beach

The morning was lovely.  My friend Kim and I passed by the seastacks, now illuminated brilliantly, as I tried to capture them with my camera.

Table Rock and some wild iris

From the bluff above the beach, purple wild iris were blooming.  I tried in vain to include these lovely flowers as a foreground in my scenery shots.

Seastack view from the bluff

After walking the bluff path, I suggested to Kim we take the long wooden staircase down to beach level for a final stroll along Elephant Rock.

Wooden staircase

Although the tide was still quite high, we sauntered over to where the Harbor seals were sunning themselves on rocks the prior day.  And then we spotted a scene so cute it had me scrambling to put the zoom lens and extender on my camera.

Mama and baby seal!

A mother and baby seal were playing in the water right in front of us!

Tender moment between mother and child

As soon as I'd attached my lens, the mother-baby duo began swimming away.  I followed at a respectable distance, hoping to get a few more pics.

"Now where did Junior go?"

The seals swam up on a nearby patch of sand.  With my zoom lens, it was close enough range to get some great shots.  

A kiss from momma

The mother and baby appeared to touch noses.  A kiss from momma!  So very sweet!

Just chillin'

This endearing wildlife encounter was a lovely finale.  A perfect way to end what had been a great mini-vacation at one of my favorite places on the Oregon Coast.

Yaquina Bay bridge in Newport

I didn't want to go!  Both Kim and I agreed we wanted to stay longer.  I considered extending our motel reservation, but there were things I needed to do at home.  So in the end, we finally packed my car and headed up Highway 101 for home.  But we did make a stop at Newport for lunch and to get a good look at the lovely Yaquina Bay Bridge.

I'm already plotting a return trip to Bandon Beach in October.  Stay tuned.....

Day one:  Two Days in Bandon

Day two:  Bandon, Day Two

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Bandon, Day Two

Day Two of my Bandon girl's trip dawned.  (If you missed Part one, find it here.)  Since I wake up earlier than my friend Kim, I quietly let myself out of our motel room for an early morning walk on the beach.  Close proximity to the beach was the main reason I'd chosen the motel we were at, and I was pleased with the easy access.  

Morning beach walk

A mere two blocks from the motel was an asphalt path interrupted by a couple of wooden staircases taking visitors down the bluff directly to the sand.  The views were incredible all the way, from the clifftops to beach level.  Because it was early May the surrounding vegetation was a vibrant shade of green.  Just a stunning morning all around!  I was happy to have the beach nearly to myself as I trod past crashing waves and seastacks with many birds perched on top.

Waves hitting a seastack

After a half hour of roaming, I returned to the motel and roused Kim for a quick morning ramble.  We returned to the beach and had fun wandering around the seastacks.  The tide was still quite high, so we had to climb over one rocky area that formed a choke point.  But it wasn't too hard and it landed us on the beach in front of one of the more famous seastacks nicknamed "Elephant Rock."

Elephant Rock with waves splashing through

A small group of people were gathered in front of Elephant Rock, cell phones in hand, capturing waves crashing through two openings in the rock.  The two openings framed what looked like an elephant's trunk (hence the "elephant rock" name.)  Of course I couldn't resist trying to get some wave images of my own, and in the process we struck up a conversation with the one of the couples.  Turns out they were from Canada, and traveled to Bandon every year to visit relatives.  The man showed me some images on his phone he'd captured during a previous visit of the setting sun streaming through one of the openings in Elephant Rock.  The low angle sunlight illuminated the rock a bright shade of orange.  I learned October was the best month to witness this phenomenon.  Apparently the sun is at the proper angle to shine directly through the hole.  Hmmm....I may just need to plan an October revisit!

Wave action through one of Elephant Rock's holes

After several minutes of photography and pleasant conversation, Kim and I wandered directly north of Elephant Rock.  From previous visits I remembered harbor seals often liked to hang out on the adjacent sea stacks.  Well luck was on our side!  Not only did we find a dozen seals lazing on the rocks, we even spied two babies.

Harbor seals checking us out

Further down the beach I spotted a flock of shorebirds foraging in the sand for food.  Not sure which species they were, but their long, curved bills intrigued me.

Some type of shorebirds

I wanted to show Kim some of the more famous seastacks on Bandon Beach, so we walked south towards the well-photographed "Wizards Hat."

Wizard's Hat and other seastacks on Bandon Beach

Further down the beach, Wizards Hat had a look-alike seastack.  It also had a pointy top, but I thought this seastack more closely resembled a howling dog (as a matter of fact, I believe that's the unofficial name).

Another unusual seastack (I think it's called "Howling Dog")

Our tummies began grumbling for breakfast, so we walked back to the motel to fetch my car.  Since my favorite bakery wasn't open Mondays, we ended up in cute café on Bandon's main drag.  What a find!  The place had great coffee and killer breakfast burritos.  Both Kim and I agreed we'd be returning tomorrow.

Beach view from on top of the bluff

Now fortified, it was time to head back to the beach for low tide.  I'd told Kim about the fantastic tidepools found near the seastacks at low tide and she was game for some exploration.

Wandering Tattler

On the way to the tidepools, we walked by a group of birders.  Seeing my large camera lens one of the ladies pointed out a rare sighting of a seabird known as the "Wandering Tattler."  Apparently this species didn't "wander" over to Bandon very often so she was very excited to spot one.  The lady asked if I'd mind taking some photos of the bird and email her a couple copies.  She wanted to post a report of her findings on a website called "ebird."  Always one to help out a fellow birder, I shot several images and the lady collected my email for future contact.  So now I can say I've seen a Wandering Tattler (and have the photographs to prove it!)

Tidepool life at low tide

On to the tidepools!  At the base of the Wizards Hat and two other prominent seastacks Kim was delighted to find a colorful array of sea creatures.  There were orange and purple seastars and green anemones.  

More colorful sea creatures

Dodging the incoming tide, we crept as close as we could to photograph these strange and beautiful creatures.  

Purple seastar

I think the anemones look like weird one-eyed space monsters, don't you? 

Table Rock

After all that morning walking, my foot and Kim's knee were starting to sound the alarm.  So I grabbed my car and we drove over to Face Rock viewpoint, where I'd photographed sunset the previous evening.  I love the ocean views here.  A bright yellow flower called gorse was blooming on the cliff faces, and although it's horribly invasive, the gorse sure makes for some lovely photos.

Another lovely beach view

Our breakfast café had local artwork displayed on it's walls.  I particularly loved a collection of photographs of the area by a local photographer.  One of my favorite images was that of the nearby Coquille River Lighthouse.  The photograph was sharp, colorful and had interesting clouds in the sky.  I told Kim I wanted to go out the lighthouse to try and get a fantastic image of my own.


Classic Bandon view, with gorse bloom

So after soaking in the gorse-lined cliff views of Face Rock, I pointed my car back to Hwy 101 and Bullards Beach State Park.  The lighthouse was located in this state park near the confluence of the Coquille River and Pacific Ocean.

Coquille River Lighthouse

Constructed in 1896, the Coquille River Lighthouse was decommissioned 1939 in and fell into disrepair.  Finally a group of citizens petitioned Oregon State Parks and Army Corp of Engineers to restore the lighthouse.  It was renovated in 1976 and is now a popular attraction.

Kim and I hung out on the rocks surrounding the Coquille River Lighthouse and I snapped images from a variety of different angles.  But the image posted above was by far my favorite.  I think it rivaled the quality of the coffeehouse photograph.  Maybe I'll get this one enlarged and framed.  

Late evening light and fantastic clouds!

Last night while photographing the sunset I met another photographer, a woman from California.  Returning to the lighthouse parking area, who should we run into but the same person!  We chatted once again and compared notes as to the places we'd photographed that day.  In a tiny beach town like Bandon it really is a small world!

Evening light on the beach and bluff

After an excellent early dinner of halibut fish and chips, Kim and I perused a nearby souvenir shop.  The shop also had a fudge counter.  The fudge was so tempting, but full to the brim from our fish dinner neither of us thought we had room for more food.  But because you can't go to the beach and not buy fudge, we broke down and each purchased a large piece anyway.  (Our bedtime snack I guess!)

Sunset, Day Two

Conditions were looking good for sunset.  The day had been dry and some interesting clouds were floating in the evening sky.  Kim and I walked around the beach adjacent to Coquille Point, but the tide was too high for a good beach sunset.  So we climbed back up the bluff and sauntered around on the paved trails.  We found a good overlook (with a bench!) and I decided this would be my sunset spot.

Sinking sun

As Kim and I were sitting at our chosen vantage, who should walk by but the Canadian couple we'd chatted with that morning!  They again stopped and struck up a conversation with Kim.  I didn't participate much in the discussions because about that time, the sun started to drop and the sky began to turn colors.

Almost down!

Although the previous evening's sunset was good, tonight's was shaping up to be great.  The clouds started glowing orange and the setting sun made a trail of light along the ocean waves.

Kim's great photo of me in action

As the sun sank into a cloud bank at the horizon it produced a sunburst.  The rays flared outward in a lovely explosion of light.  I kept pushing the shutter button.

Pink skies to the north

It's always good to look around and not got too caught up on the sunset show happening right before your eyes.  In this case, I happened to glance northward and caught the skies glowing pink.  I quickly pivoted my tripod head to capture this scene before it faded away.

After the sun dropped, the sky colors got even better

Sometimes the best sky color comes right after the sun sinks below the horizon.  This was the case tonight.  After the sun departed, the clouds continued to glow a bright yellow-orange.  These colors  reflected in the waves below.  Our departure was delayed by several minutes as I kept clicking the shutter over and over again.  Absolutely spectacular!

Amazing end to an amazing day!

Day two had been amazing!  We started out watching waves crash through Elephant Rock, spotted Harbor seals, met some wonderful people, had a delicious breakfast, perused the tidepools, saw a rare bird, captured a interesting lighthouse, had an amazing dinner of halibut, and witnessed an off-the-charts beautiful sunset.  Kim and I returned to our motel tired but happy.  

Now for some of that fudge!

(I've got one final post from my trip which I'll try and get written a bit quicker - I hope!)