Eagles, Salmon, and Whales, Oh My!
“If you talk to the animals they will talk with you
and you will know each other.
If you do not talk to them you will not know them,
and what you do not know you will fear.
What one fears one destroys.”
Chief Dan George was a Native actor, poet, and a very influential speaker. He believed in learning about and protecting nature and all its creatures. While in Alaska, we had the opportunity to see some amazing animals like eagles, salmon, and whales and learned a lot about them.
When we went off the ship, we saw lots of bald eagles flying around and perched in trees all over Hoonah and Juneau. In fact, there are about 40,000 bald eagles living in Alaska! They are very beautiful and have majestic wings, which can reach up to 7 1/2 feet, making this bird the biggest bird of prey in Alaska. Bald eagles usually fly at the speed of 30-40 mph (miles per hour), but when diving, they can reach speeds up to 100 mph! These birds were adopted by the Continental Congress of USA as the nation’s symbol in 1782.
We learned a lot about these fish when we visited the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Juneau. In the past, salmon were becoming extinct due to overfishing, so the hatchery was created to increase the amount of salmon in the wild. This hatchery raises the five types of salmon:
– Sockeye/Red ( the best one to eat)
– King/Chinook (the biggest)
Most of the salmon life cycle takes place at the hatchery inside their facility.
Salmon return to their spawning place 2-5 years after they have left. Eggs are collected from the female salmon and sperm from the males. They are put into buckets with water and left to hatch.
Between September and November depending on when the eggs are fertilized, alevins (the first stage of salmon) are born. They have a yolk sack on their front so they don’t have to worry about food for a while. Once the yolk sack is empty, the alevins are called salmon fry. Some types of salmon need longer to mature than others. They are put into pens made out of fine netting in the ocean so they can imprint. Imprinting is where salmon memorize different things about the area they were spawned.
After 9 to 12 weeks, the small salmon are released into the wild. Although many are released, only 2-10% of them will return due to other animals and humans hunting them. After 2-5 years, they will return to the stream where they were spawned and the whole process will start all over again.
While visiting Hoonah, we stopped at a local restaurant to get a milkshake and were talking to the locals. One of the men there was the captain of a whale watching ship, Captain Russell, who told us all about the amazing things we could see. We ended up going with him and his boat!
We had the chance to see some awesome aquatic animals doing neat things.
At the beginning of our boat ride, we came across a big pod of orcas. We saw them blowing water out of their blowholes and emerging from the water. We learned the female orcas have a smaller moon shaped dorsal fin while the males have long straight dorsal fins and are much bigger than the females.
These animals are part of the dolphin family because they have teeth instead of baleen like other whales.
While sailing out to our next destination, we were looking over the edge of the boat and saw two sea lions. They were either playing or fighting, but we saw one of them open its mouth really wide! Later on, there was another sea lion which was curious and trying to play with our boat. It performed a big jump out of the water and then disappeared. But later on, we saw it chasing after our boat, probably wondering where its playmate was going. 🙂
Sea lions can be distinguished from seals because sea lions have external ears while seals only have small holes as ears.
While in Hoonah, Captain Russell was telling us about something called “bubble net feeding”. We had never heard of this before, so we were interested in learning more. This is a communal feeding technique used by the humpback whales in Alaska and is the only time whales will hunt in a group. The whales will dive underneath a school of herring and one will blow lots of bubbles while swimming around the school of fish. This acts as a net and forces the herring to the surface. Then the whales open their mouths as wide as they can (which is big enough to fit a small car), burst out of the water, and swallow as many fish as possible.
Since most of this process takes place underwater, it’s hard to know where the whales are going to come up. A couple ways to find out above water are to watch for a ring of bubbles and look for a big flock of seagulls which wait around to try and eat some of the herring. Another way is to use a hydrophone which goes in the water and allows you to hear if any whales are making noises. During the bubble net feeding, communication between the whales is important if they want to succeed, so they always sing which gets louder as they near the surface of the water.
We were very excited by this and hoped to have the chance to watch this in action. We were incredibly lucky and saw it happen 5 times! I thought it would only be once, but it happened about every 20 minutes. This is really special because bubble net feeding only happens 3 weeks out of the year exclusively in Alaska.
This whale watching trip was an awesome time and has definitely made it onto our list of great experiences. We have gone whale watching before at home and have never seen anything like this spectacle. I have a feeling we won’t be going on any more whale watching trips because this was incomparable.
All of our experiences with these Alaskan animals have been really neat and have taught us a lot. Seeing them in their natural habitats has been great and every time I see one of these animals and other animals out of captivity, I always feel so lucky to be at the right spot at the right time which is what makes each encounter so special.