Marine Debris and Unforgettable Humpbacks in Wonder Bay

Credit: Nick Mallos/Ocean Conservancy

One of the most amazing experiences from my time with the GYRE Expedition occurred in Wonder Bay—a name that each locale in Alaska is rightly deserving of as the beauty and tranquility of the landscape here never ceases. Although Wonder Bay is aptly named, the debris problem here was much bigger than we expected considering its relatively small wrack line roughly 100 meters from the tide line, much higher than the other beaches we’ve surveyed.

My morning objective was to search for bottle caps along the wrack lines of each of the three pocket beaches lining Wonder Bay. I plucked 227 caps from the three beaches, some requiring far greater effort than others to collect.

A red bottle cap sticking out of a dense area of sedge grass quickly revealed another eight PET bottles, each with a colorful cap. With only a quick glance none of these items were visible, causing me to ponder how many other bottles and caps were hidden among the grasses or tucked into the various crevices among the rocks.

Beyond the beach’s berm was a small patch of wetland followed by a forest that rises quickly in elevation. Outfitted with my indestructible knee-high boots, I made my way through the quicksand-esque mud to take a look at the tree line of the forest.

To my amazement, I came across another large foam aquaculture float washed in by the tsunami. These floats have become a staple debris item on each beach we visit. The float was nestled behind a massive Sitka spruce some 200 meters from the tideline, and it serves as yet another reminder of the powerful wave and tidal action that influences these remote shorelines.

Nearby the degrading foam, a massive bundle of black plastic strapping bands intertwined with a clump of sedges. The strapping bands were unused and likely lost during transport years ago. The sedges hid most of the synthetic strips, causing several of us to contemplate whether at some point these items stop being pollution and become part of the environment. Ultimately, I think the answer depends on what demonstrable impacts those plastics have.

We departed Wonder Bay’s protection after several hours in the field and all on board the Norseman prepared to enter the legendary Shelikof Strait, which is notorious for delivering massive waves, high winds and all-around discomfort to those individuals who have not yet acquired their “sea legs.” But instead of tumultuous waters and uneasy stomachs, we were graced with the most magical wildlife encounter of my life.

Shortly after leaving Wonder Bay, Carl reported a breaching humpback several hundred meters off the bow. Such a report sends the team into frenzy, and within seconds the bow of the Norseman was full of people, cameras in hand. As we motored into the Strait, spouts increasingly appeared on the horizon in all directions. Fifty whales would not be an exaggeration.

Transfixed by the sights, our excitement grew into pure amazement when a large humpback completely exited the water some 200 meters from the boat. Her re-entry from breach sent a thunderous crash of water into the air. This miraculous evening encounter alone would have been sufficient but the show was not even close to complete.

Moments later, a mother humpback—the one we believe performed the aerial—appeared no more than 30 meters from our vessel, her calf alongside. Captain Paul immediately cut the engines to avoid disturbing or injuring the marine mammals.

My teammates and I stood hypnotized by the close encounter, and although it was not my first such encounter, it might as well have been. The sound of a spouting whale is indescribable—almost spiritual—and from our close proximity, we could feel the power of each exhalation. The mother and child remained close, and the calf fumbled about on the surface, still working to master its surface behavior. After gracing us with 30 minutes of their time, the calf signed off with the most resplendent farewell: a full breach only meters from the boat.

We each stood on the Norseman’s bow. Mirrored images of the Katmai Mountains and setting sun made it difficult to discern where reality started and reflections began. Camera clicks ceased, and no words were spoken. At a time like this, no words or pictures suffice. The best thing to do is simply cherish the moment, as most mariners spend their lifetimes on the sea and do not experience such an encounter.

So there we were, a strange mélange of people from around the world sitting calmly on waters that by all accounts should be turbulent and unforgiving, sharing a moment that will likely be our only in this lifetime.

Alaska. Wow!

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