GYRE Expedition, Day 2 – morning (Sunday, June 9)

 I wake to find us motoring off the Kenai Peninsula. We have passed the Chugash Islands, passed the Barren Islands.

We are headed south toward Shuyak, which looms large far ahead. Islands are so high here that some are visible from distances of up to 100 miles. Afognak rises behind Shuyak (it hides the next island, the legendary Kodiak, home of some of the world’s largest brown bears). To the west rises the awesome, awe-inspiring massif of Mt. Douglas, dreamily robed in gleaming pink-hued snows.

The waters here among these islands of drowned mountains roil with powerful currents and surface rips. Such enormously productive subsea contours bring hordes of seabirds and mammals. And we see them.

Netting on Shuyak Photo: Carl Safina
Netting on Shuyak
Photo: Carl Safina

Humpback and finback whales hunt along drop-offs  where drowned mountain shoulders slope to dizzying depths. They are looking for massive concentrations of herring and teeming swarms of tiny invertebrates totaling many tons.  Difficult to imagine.  But they’re here; we see the schools and the swarms on the sonar.

On the surface, we see whales blowing, the gusts of their breath rising like flags of truce, wafting away on the breeze like prayer in the air. Above the whales zoom gulls and fulmars and puffins.

People say no one comes here. These beings live here. They are who come here. They need this place. The place needs them. We need them. I certainly need them. They help make the world tolerable. They wage no wars, launch no theater of terror, don’t like to themselves. They show us how to be better humans.

For long minutes we dally as black-and-white Dall’s porpoises play on our bow, swift but surprisingly pudgy. They must eat well here.

On the vast shorelines, spruce trees intersperse with large open grassy areas. We get into the landing boat and head toward shore. Along the shores, huge fronds and floats of Bull Kelp form big mats that clog our outboard intakes, causing our engines to continually overheat. We keep stopping to clean them, then proceed.

The first cove has a smooth black sand beach and is loaded with drift logs. An eagle lifts from the shore before we land. Even as Bald Eagles go, Alaska’s are impressively large. Three black oyster catchers, coal black with crimson bills, call nervously at us, suggesting that they belong here but perhaps we don’t. The beach has taken the imprinted tracks of two fawns. The bear trail shows no bears. Just inland from the beach berm, ducks called Greater Scaup, their heads beautifully iridescent, are paired up on a small pond, the males pursuing and guarding females, the females acting coy but staying on the water, not flying away.

Bale of Packing Straps Photo: Carl Safina
Bale of Packing Straps
Photo: Carl Safina

There isn’t much trash, relatively speaking, but there is some trash just about everywhere your eye lands all along the beach. Pam Longobardi finds a bale of packing straps. A whole bale.  I once caught a blue shark that had swum through a packing strap. As it had grown, it’s flesh was bulging over the strap. For most sharks, getting caught isn’t much fun. For that one, my catching it was probably the best day of its life; we cut the strap and removed the hook and set the shark free.