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GYRE Expedition – Departure (Friday, June 7)

 From Seward, we left Resurrection Bay, past Rugged Island, and felt the full roll of an ocean swell addressing us broadside from the southeast, rolling us as we plowed forward.

Around us, some of the world’s most spectacular coast. Sheer shores spired by eagle-topped spruces rising to snowy peaks that gleamed in the afternoon. In the waters, clown-colored Tufted Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, the pretty little gulls called Black-footed Kittiwakes. A small pod of husky Dall’s Porpoises seemed to appreciate less than did we the small pod of enormous killer whales we passed. The male’s fin startling as the sudden sighting of a pirate flag in a telescope was so high it dropped my jaw. They fell behind in our wake.

Beaches Between Cliffs Photo: Carl Safina
Beaches Between Cliffs
Photo: Carl Safina

Overheard: “How many acres is Alaska?” That’s artists for you. If you superimpose Alaska on a map of the continental U.S., it’s panhandle touches Florida, the Aleutians reach California, and its mainland covers the map from Missouri to Minnesota, from Illinois to west Kansas. That’s how many acres.  Half a million square miles.

The whole shoreline is contoured like a jigsaw puzzle. There are almost no straight stretches. Everything that shows is the peaks of drowned mountains, and everything that meets the water are the corrugated shoulders and slopes of land forms brutalized by thousands of years of glaciers and earthquakes. Even without the cold, it’s rugged as hell.

There had been people here, somewhere, though it’s hard to imagine how or where they lived. They are called Alutiiq.

It’s easier to see how this coast, so incomprehensibly vast and forbidding, could isolate peoples who survived here-to the extent they did–using only stone-age technologies, living by spears and kayaks. Dark months of winters must have sat on their sparse villages like cast iron. Though I try, I cannot imagine.

One way to think of how these coasts look is that there are two kinds of shores here, vertical and beachy. Almost all the shore is vertical. Nothing collects along the narrow, rocky beach-strips of those vertical shores; anything that lands there gets scoured by winter storms. But at the heads of many coves are little beaches, and these funnel what floats. These scooped-out coves collect piles of logs and other driftwood, and the driftwood is colorfully hung with trash.

Fin Whales and Fulmar Photo: Carl Safina
Fin Whales and Fulmar
Photo: Carl Safina

Around 10 p.m. on our first evening we went into the Pye Islands. Two Humpback Whales stalked in and out of a deep, fjordlike cove, poking around for herring schools like cats hunting mice. We dropped anchor in a place called Morning Cove and spent the night aboard.