The Inside Passage

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

The Inside PassageHearing the haunting cries of bald eagles perched along the rocky shore, following bear tracks through the soft quiet of a mossy rain forest or feeling (and smelling) the point-blank blow of a humpback whale—these are rare moments. Of the many thousands of people who travel to southeastern Alaska each summer, most leave without truly experiencing its wildness.

The best way to experience and photograph the wildness of southeastern Alaska is on a small boat or expedition ship. These well-equipped vessels are the ideal platform for photographers. Most are outfitted with inflatable Zodiac landing craft for exploring remote places, and some have sea kayaks for getting an even more intimate look.

Photographing icebergs, with their combination of deep blues and bright white, is a challenge. If your composition is dominated by white highlights, it’s important to fool your camera’s light meter by overexposing the scene by at least one stop, then bracketing another third- or half-stop above that. If you’re shooting digital, tweak your exposure after a quick look at the histogram.

As the ship approached the face of the glacier, the ship’s crew launched the Zodiacs for a closer look. Photographing from a moving boat requires a fast shutter speed to bring back tack-sharp images and for stopping the action when South Sawyer Glacier drops icebergs into the sea. Pushing ISO 100 film to 200 (or switching to the digital equivalent) can help gain the speed you need. Image-stabilized (or vibration-reduction) lenses also can be useful when making tight shots of harbor seals hauled out on the ice floes and for bald eagles perched along the shore.

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.

Glacier Bay also is known for exciting wildlife sightings. Among the possibilities are brown and black bears, moose, mountain goats, stellar sea lions, whales, and noisy seabird colonies where both tufted and horned puffins can be found.

And on this trip, on a far distant shore in a bay too shallow for the ship to navigate, we spied a pair of wolves frolicking with their two pups. We let our cameras lie idle as we enjoyed this sighting through spotting scopes and binoculars. I had heard about the wolves in Glacier Bay for years, but never before was I lucky enough to see them. We didn’t consider this experience a missed photo opportunity, only a good reason to come back.

Southeastern Alaska can be a bonanza for photographers prepared for spontaneous wildlife encounters and the “artistic mist” along the rainforest coast. And “cruisin’ for composition” is the best way to go!

Ralph Lee Hopkins travels to the world’s wild and scenic places leading photo expeditions with Lindblad Expeditions and workshops for Arizona Highways, National Geographic Expeditions and Santa Fe Workshops. His most recent book is Hiking The Southwest’s Geology (The Mountaineers Books, 2002). To view more of his work, visit