Andy Rogan is a globetrotting marine mammal biologist who originally hails from London. Andy spent the summer volunteering at the Center for Coastal Conservation where he assisted with a wide range of projects including sperm whale tracking and developing a songbird monitoring protocol. As the summer comes to a close Andy shares his initial impressions of Southeast Alaska and reflects on the research potential of this uniquely wild region.
In both my professional and personal life I’ve been lucky to have travelled widely. While doing so, I have found that each place is unique in terms of its culture, history, and biodiversity (and often whales!). Yet they all seem to have one thing in common, one constant: the presence of humanity.
Naively, perhaps, I have always found this commonality surprising, particularly given my line of work. It would appear to be a rare privilege to visit a place where this presence isn’t felt. After spending six weeks this summer at the Alaska Whale Foundation’s Center for Coastal Conservation, I realize that Southeast Alaska is one of the last remaining places where this constant does not hold true.
Our first view of the extraordinary wilderness that is Southeast Alaska came on the floatplane that carried us from Sitka to the Center in Warm Springs Bay. Scattered below us were islands blanketed in thick forest; dark, nutrient-rich waters that sharply contrast the jagged cliffs jutting their way into the interior; draped over the landscape in varying degrees of thickness were low-lying clouds. We had hoped for an uninterrupted view of Chatham Strait, the body of water where we knew we would spend much of our summer, but thick fog persisted all the way to the dock in Warm Springs Bay. A clearer view of the unique nature of Southeast Alaska would have to wait, though not for long.
Day 1 was an acoustic survey for sperm whales. Sperm whales have recently begun depredating the commercial longline fishery in Chatham Strait, and Alaska Whale Foundation, together with several universities, fisheries and research groups have come together to learn more about this interaction. Twice weekly we would be charged with heading out into Chatham Strait to deploy hydrophones and listen for the sperm whales as they echolocated in search of food. But with some extra time on our first day while traveling between ‘listening stations’, we ducked into a small bay, leaving the tumultuous seas of Chatham Strait through a small opening between vast cliffs that rose vertically from the water.
As we navigated further into the fjord it opened into a myriad of bays, inlets and lagoons. The waves soon disappeared leaving the surface of the bay to resemble a mirror reflecting the giant cliffs and impenetrable forest surrounding us on all sides. We couldn’t help but feel as though no one had ever been here before and laid eyes upon this hidden, enchanted fjord. That constant human presence was broken. Here was a place seemingly unchanged from the time before Russian and European/American traders first arrived, even before the first waves of Indigenous peoples came over from Siberia sometime within the last 20,000 years.
Generally, as humans move into new areas the apex predators – animals at the top of the food chain –disappear; yet they remain abundant in Southeast Alaska. Everywhere we could see bald eagles, one of the largest aerial predators on the planet, perched on the loftiest branches of the abundant Sitka spruce trees. Back in Chatham Strait, we encountered several lunge-feeding humpback whales. And as we returned to Warm Springs Bay the unmistakable dorsal fins of the ocean’s super-predator sliced through the waves - orca. All this on a survey for sperm whales, one of the largest toothed predators to have ever lived on this planet. All in one day.
Southeast Alaska is unlike any place I have visited despite several years of studying marine mammals around the planet. It is many things: a high-functioning ecosystem; a pristine temperate rainforest; a haven for wildlife; and, one of the last remaining places on the planet where we can find such an abundance of apex predators. In this remote location on the north-west coast of the Americas, Alaska Whale Foundation and their research station are pioneers on the front lines of researching and protecting this extraordinary wilderness. It was a professional privilege to help Alaska Whale Foundation protect it, and a personal privilege to be a fleeting visitor.