One week down, One week to go

I’m sitting in a little coffee shop in Sitka, waiting for my latte. It’s grey outside and there’s a light drizzle coming down. We just finished a trip from Juneau to Sitka and it was one of the best wildlife trips I’ve been on in Alaska. We started with the orca hunting a baby porpoise (which you can now see a video of here), then while we were at Fox Creek, I discovered (while taking a “nature break” in the woods) an entire brown bear skeleton that hadn’t been scavenged at all. You could see its skull and teeth, all its vertebrate, matted fur scattered around, and each individual bone in its paw. Another gruesome, but impressive sight. It was impossible to tell how the bear died, but the naturalists guessed that it had been wounded in some way, perhaps by a bullet, and had escaped its tormentor, but was too injured to survive. Brown bear hunting in Alaska is an extremely controversial affair because nobody eats brown bear meat. Thus all brown bears that are hunted are simply shot for trophy souvenirs. So why isn’t brown bear meat eaten while black bear meat is? There is a rumor that it doesn’t taste good, but no one is willing to try it, so all the animals that are shot are left to die and decompose for no other reason than procuring a bear skin pelt.

Moving on… At the Inian Islands, which are always a good place to see spectacular wildlife, we were rewarded by a pod of humpbacks feeding on fish in the swirling Pacific waters. I was onboard watching them, but there were four Zodiacs full of guests who got to see the humpbacks up close – probably no farther than 20 or 30 feet. If that wasn’t enough, one humpback decided to breach several times for the enjoyment of those in the Zodiacs as well as onboard the Sea Lion.

The salmon are still in their staging phase – not quite ready to begin their journey upstream, but congregating in the bays and streams. In Pavlof Harbor we watched as hundreds of the fish jumped repeatedly out of the water for no apparent reason other than to show themselves off to the kayakers. At the waterfall, the hikers were rewarded with a brown bear ambling across the water with a large salmon between his teeth. The bears need to put on a lot of weight to sustain themselves over the long winter, so when the fish begin to amass in the rivers, they become salmon-eating machines.

Orca, porpoises (including the few that joined us at the bow for some bow-surfing), bears, salmon… what else could nature throw at us this week? It was a grey, dreary day in Glacier Bay and we spent the entire morning and early afternoon searching the shores and waters for wildlife to no avail. Most people had retreated inside when we pulled up to humpback whale carcass that has been slowly decomposing for several months. The guests who did remain outside on the bow, however, were rewarded with a brief glimpse of two adult wolves and their five pups! Unfortunately I was in the middle of giving a massage, so I missed them, but it’s still incredible to know that they’re out there!

As you can see, it was a great week for us on the Sea Lion. I have one more week to go and I hope it’s just as exciting!

Killing Killer Whales

I’ve seen a lot of amazing things while working on the ships, but this morning was by far one of the best wildlife sightings I’ve seen yet. One of our naturalists spotted a pod of killer whales just before breakfast and we slowly made our way over towards them. I was in the middle of my stretch class when I saw a huge black dorsal fin right off the starboard side, so I abruptly dismissed everyone and we all hurried to the bow to get a better look at the orca. Humpbacks are common and we see them every trip, but killer whales are so elusive that weeks may go by before seeing another pod.

There were four killer whales in the pod we were following and it wasn’t long before we saw them turn their attention to a small Dall’s porpoise they had separated away from its pod. For an hour and a half we watched the orca chase, nudge, hit, bite, and play with the Dall’s porpoise before they finally (and mercifully) ended the hunt. It sounds gruesome, especially coming from a vegetarian, but it was incredible. So incredible, even, that I didn’t want to run down to get my camera in fear that I would miss something. Killer whales are incredibly smart and just watching them hunt gave me goosebumps.

I haven’t written since I got back on board, but everything is going well. It sort of feels like I never left. Only a week and a half left, then I’m back home to do some more mountain biking and head up to Portland to visit Will.

Time to go… we have humpbacks off our bow.

Wellness Specialist in Training

So I’ve been back on board for a few days now, and I’m starting to fall into the rhythm of the wellness specialists daily schedule, which is a 180* change from being a steward. I get up around 6:15, have my tea in the lounge, then head up to the bridge deck with Susan (my wellness specialist mentor) to lead a stretch class at 7. I haven’t led any yet, just watched and participated so I can learn and see what kind of stretches and exercises work. Next week I’ll be on my own, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to lead stretch classes then! We’ve had a pretty good turn out and the guests all seem to enjoy it, even though I’m sure many of them haven’t stretched their hamstrings in the past decade.

After the stretch class, we hand out the smoothie brought up by a steward (usually vegan for me!), then head down to breakfast and a quick staff meeting to decide what everyone will being doing that day. Susan and I usually lead a faster paced, or aerobic, hike for those who aren’t as interested in learning about the natural environment and history (which is what the naturalists discuss on their walks). I also help out with kayaking – getting guests in and out of the kayaks (which can be quite challenging), making sure the kayaks don’t float away, and racking them back up at the end of the day. A couple of days ago I went out with a guest in a double and we paddled along the coastline and saw a natural arch with snowcapped mountains shining through the opening.

When there is no kayaking or hiking and no one has signed up for a massage, I’m pretty much free to do what I want. We were at the Inian Islands a few days ago and I went for a zodiac cruise where we saw a lot of Stellar sea lions and a humpback whale that surfaced a few hundred yards away from our zodiac. Later, when everyone was back on board, we spotted a pod of orca among the humpback blows and even a Minke whale, which are rare in South East Alaska.

Yesterday we were in Glacier Bay National Park where we’re not allowed to get off the ship, so everyone gathered on the bow to look at the mountains and glaciers. We’ve had relatively good weather so far, so being outside for a long time is manageable with frequent trips to the lounge to refill coffee/tea mugs. En route to Marjorie Glacier we saw a mama bear with her two cubs, a couple of mountain goats and as we were leaving, there was a dead whale carcass on the shore with a grizzly bear on top, feeding on the meat. It was gruesome, but pretty incredible at the same time. Later in the afternoon while Susan was giving massages (I’ll start next week), I set up the massage chair in the lounge and gave free 10 minute massage to guests and a few crew. They all loved it!

This morning I gave Susan a facial and back massage in return for the one she gave me yesterday. I’m getting familiar with the spa – where everything is and how everything is set up. There’s a towel warmer, a number of different oils, lotions, masks, scrubs, etc… that I can use for each treatment. I think it’ll take me a week or so to get everything memorized, but I can already tell that I’m going to love it!

We also had a presentation by a National Geographic scientist later in the morning about her work with the Critter Cam. Her team attaches the camera onto the backs of different animals such as whales, sharks, penguins, seals, and sea lions to study their behaviors and movements. She showed a video of the footage they’ve captured and it’s amazing! There’s one segment of a critter cam on a baby humpback and he’s on the bottom of the ocean looking up at the rest of his pod bubble net feeding at the surface. That’s never been documented before, so it was incredible to see, especially since we see the bubble net feeders from the surface on the ship, but never what is going on down below. You can check out some of the videos here.

Later today I’ll be going for another hike at Pavlov Harbor and hopefully we’ll see some more bears!