North AmericaScubaSightseeing

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 – Icy Strait

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 – Icy Strait

Zodiac Tour #1 (Memorable Moment #2)

Shannon and I got up bright and early to make the first round of zodiac touring, ready to take advantage of the early-morning ocean activity – and we certainly weren’t disappointed. A hundred feet away from the boat we found a sea lion in the misty water playing with a salmon it had caught in its mouth. Seconds later a whale spout shot behind it and two humpbacks surfaced in a perfect picture moment.

Sea lion and a humpback

Sea lion eating a salmon

Shannon’s amazing pic of all three: the salmon, the sea lion, and the whale tail
Pic by Shannon

“The only thing that would be better,” Dave joked, “Is if an orca jumped out of the ocean and ate the sea lion.”

The passage was a busy place early in the morning. Just sitting where we were, five minutes from the boat, five whales swam by. Rush hour in the Icy Strait.

Those two little dots on the bottom are sea lions
A few minutes later we left the strait and headed toward Sea Lion Rock. There we spotted a whale rolling around in the water, lunge feeding. I should explain that most whale sightings are when a whale surfaces for air and swims back underwater; it involves looking for a spout of water above the surface followed by a large black back and – if you’re lucky – a tail. The tail means that the whale is diving deep and we probably won’t see it again for anywhere between 5-20 minutes and then who knows where it will surface? But if there’s no tail then the whale is coursing through the water and you can often predict where it will surface again within the next hundred feet.

A whale lunge feeding isn’t exactly rare, but it’s a lucky treat for those of us who aren’t around whales all the time because it keeps the whale rolling around the surface for long periods, doing all sorts of silly things with their fins and providing countless photographic moments. Dan got us comfortably close where we could take quality pictures but still not bother the whale (or endanger the zodiac).

Whale tail

Whale fin

Shannon, going for the National Geographic shot (and it shows how close we were)

We watched it for ages until we’d sated ourselves with photos and the current naturally separated us from the whale; then we headed toward Sea Lion Rock. The current was kinder than the day before so we could get a bit closer to the rock and observe the sea lions. Many of them dove into the water to see what was going on – they are big, curious critters – and soon we were surrounded by sleek bodies swimming through the waves and sometimes poking their heads above the surface to check us out.

Dave and the sea lions

Curious little (big, actually) guys

Next were the puffins, around the corner from sea lion rock near the dive site from the day before. By watching the little puffins fly overhead we followed them to the place on the cliffs where they rested. It was far in the distance and unfortunately we couldn’t get terribly close because of the thick kelp and unpredictable surge (darn that mother nature), but I enjoyed seeing the little guys fly around and land on the water.

Shannon’s killer zoom lens got the little puffins
Pic by Shannon
On our way back to the ship we saw three massive humpbacks out in the ocean but they were far enough away and the water was rougher in the “green” that we satisfied ourselves with distant pictures and were ready to turn in.

Eagle in a tree

40-year-old graffiti

Zodiac Tour #2

When the crew offered another zodiac tour Shannon and I immediately grabbed our cameras and slipped into life vests. It was a smaller boat this time; only Tim, Caroline, Shannon and me, and we went to the bay outside Sea Lion Rock where the last tour had seen a whale hanging out for a while. Sure enough a little guy (“little” still being the size of a subway car) was swimming around the area. We turned off the zodiac motor and just sat, waiting for the noise of his spout to tell us where he surfaced.

Whale Wave
For twenty minutes we happily coasted, occasionally turning on the motor to reposition ourselves for better whale watching vantage points. Sitting quietly and listening to Alaskan nature is truly a wonderful way to spend a morning.

Tim took us over to a sea lion rookery, where dozens of sea lions lolled about the shoreline. We couldn’t get too close because we didn’t want to upset them, so instead a group of them came into the water to see who we were. We drifted with the motor off, thoroughly amused with the heads poking out of the water. At one point I turned around and five sea lions to my right were all lined up in a row, heads at the exact same height, peaking at us and into the zodiac. Then one got spooked and they all dipped down and away.

Curious sea lions

Curious sea lions

Tim wanted to know where to take us next and asked, “What do you want to see?” Caroline, Shannon and I looked at each other and replied, “Well, whatever comes up next!” So we stayed where we were, coasting past the rookery, and of course two whales showed up

Sea Lions checking us out

Just passing by

Dive, dive, dive…

Dive #1 – Inian Rock (Memorable Moment #3)

Our first dive of the day was just outside Sea Lion Rock, which is only diveable during “slack tide” at certain times during the day. We were suited up in the skiff before slack tide so we would be ready to roll for the short hour of diving we could get in. While we waited we watched a few humpbacks cruise by us. Two of them gave us a beautiful moment when they both dove at the same second – both tails coming full out of the water for a gorgeous second before disappearing deep below. Of course no one had a camera ready, since we were strapped in to our BCDs and fully suited up. Dave joked from his scuba tanked seat, “I’d like an orca. Right here, breaching straight out of the water. Think they can produce that?” Me: “Why not? They’ve done everything else.”

The dive site was across the channel from Sea Lion Rock so, naturally, it was full of playful, curious sea lions who appeared in masse and then disappeared just as quickly throughout the dive. One minute we’d be focused on managing a dive through the strong current of the channel, and the next minute we’d be surrounded by large, slippery beasts who – while awkward on land – are smooth, slick, and graceful underwater. I turned around to look at the melee and found one with its nose in the back of Anat’s neck. Another time I turned and saw a sea lion with its mouth open and teeth displayed in over my head. The sea lion way of “getting a feel” for something is to do so with its mouth and teeth – we’d been briefed before about this form of sea lion interaction so I was aware. Not really prepared, though. Is anyone every prepared for sea lion teeth near your head?

Between the sea lions and the current, we lost Anat in the craziness and knew she’d be fine so we continued the dive with a final “climb” through kelp to our safety stop.

I wish I had pictures to show you, but they wouldn’t have been any good with the current and the craziness.

Dive #2 – Susan’s Hooters

We returned to Susan’s Hooters for our second dive, which was a treat since I skipped this dive the day before. It was a peaceful dive so I took my camera down. Clearly my buoyancy is off with this dry suit since almost all my pictures were blurry and unrecognizable except for the one that Dave lit using his flashlight.

Just for kicks, here’s how my camera takes pics underwater:

No flash

Anemones, with flash

I’m pretty sure this is a rockfish, but more importantly it’s what the world looks like when lit by Dave’s flashlight. Much better than my dinky flash (seen in pic above)

But the dive was lovely and fun and concluded with myself, Dave and Anat on the surface making jokes. My lips were so numb from the cold that I could barely form words correctly.

Anat, waiting for our pickup

Dave, post dive

Back on the skiff, as I disassembled my gear I noticed a teeny tiny shrimp on my bootie. Andrew and I studied it for a while and then threw it back into the ocean.

Immediately after the dive I met Peter, Robin, and Dave in the hot tub where we warmed up with beer and hot chocolate with Bailey’s Irish Crème. Despite the clouds and chill, there really isn’t a better way to end a day of cold diving: sitting in a hot tub watching humpbacks blow spouts of water in the distance.