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Thursday, January 1, 2004

The Inside Passage


Southeastern Alaska offers intrepid photographers unparalleled opportunities. An expert gives some insight on how to get the shots.

Late in the afternoon, after cruising back down the fjord, passing waterfall after waterfall, the ship anchored in a quiet bay perfect for paddling around in the sea kayaks. Luckily, a number of icebergs were grounded in the bay. The setting was ideal for photographing a well-placed kayak in front of an ice sculpture. "Cue the red kayak!" The next morning found us cruising in Chatham Strait along the rocky shores of Chichagof Island. In our mind's eyes were humpback whales, and it didn't take long to find them. Just after sunrise, the captain spotted the unmistakable bushy blows of humpback whales a mile or two ahead of the ship. There would be no time for sleeping in today.

Lined up along the rail on the ship's bow, we waited for the whales to surface. Silently, the ship slowly drifted closer to shore. The sea was like glass, and broken clouds provided a mixture of direct sun and bright overcast light—ideal conditions for whale photography. The fundamental challenges of photographing whales are being ready and predicting where the whales will surface. Resting your long lens on a beanbag draped across the ship's rail steadies your camera and also helps you rest during periods of inactivity.

Our patience was rewarded. All at once, a group of more than a dozen whales lunged to the surface, their mouths agape, turning the calm surface of the sea into a churning mass of foam. These whales were cooperatively feeding on schools of herring in a behavior that marine biologists call "bubble-net feeding." The humpback whales of southeastern Alaska are well known for this behavior, where they swim together beneath the surface in a tight spiral, with the lead whale blowing bubbles to herd the fish. By following the movement of gulls attracted to the bubbles coming to the surface, we could pre-focus on the right spot and were ready to capture the action as the whales lunged in unison. To witness and photograph this event is one few photographers have experienced. And again, our captain did a remarkable job of positioning the ship for the best light and composition.

After maximizing our time with the feeding humpbacks, the ship sailed to a protected anchorage nearby. We went ashore after lunch to stretch our legs, walking in the rain forest on Chichagof Island.

As we stepped out in our fashionable rubber boots, little did we know that just around the bend two brown bears were feasting on spawning salmon in a cascading stream. The bears were backlit by the late-afternoon light, splashing back and forth across the stream just below a waterfall as they chased dinner.

Thankfully, the bears were interested only in their catch and ignored us completely. We lined the banks of the stream and photographed them at close range, never in any danger. I experimented with slower shutter speeds, panning with my tripod-mounted camera to blur the motion.

The climax of any southeastern Alaska voyage is a full day exploring Glacier Bay. When Captain George Vancouver visited this area just over 200 years ago, Glacier Bay was completely choked by glaciers and not navigable by ship. Today, it's possible to sail more than 60 miles to the far end of the fjord where Johns Hopkins and Margerie Glaciers lie in the shadow of Mount Fairweather, the highest mountain in southeastern Alaska, rising more than 15,000 above the sea.


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