Note: All image rights reserved respective of their owners. Contact information and an extended gallery of photographs can be found at the end of this report.
After a few days on the Nautilus Swell during the Wetpixel Alaska Expedition 2011, we wanted to stretch our legs and were curious to explore the local Alaskan villages. We took Inde, our dive tender, to Elfin Cove, a town on Chichagof Island that rarely exceeded 50 people. At 10PM, it was quiet, but one establishment remained open – the bar.
Still waters in the Elfin Cove harbor
Expedition leader Jason Bradley pushed open the door and noticed an unusual bottle showing: ALASKA DISTILLERY. The bottle was filled with a pink liquid, but it was a bar in Alaska and Jason’s interest was piqued. As soon as he asked the barkeep to see the bottle more closely, a well seasoned, bearded old fisherman, already a couple sheets to the wind lifted his head and said, “Oh, you don’t want to drink that. It’s smoked salmon vodka!” We all laughed. Who was going to try smoked salmon vodka? Well, Jason and Andy Wallace did. “That was weird. It tastes like smoked salmon,” Jason said. Should we have been surprised?
The expedition began on June 11, 2011, a sequel to the 2007 trip that Wetpixel publisher Eric Cheng had participated in. Our fare was the Nautilus Swell, a former tugboat converted into spacious dive liveaboard. The cabins are distributed between two decks and each is equipped with a private bathroom, and the back deck is well-equipped for drysuit donning and doffing. The second floor features a hot-tub (!) and covered camera table with electrical outlets and a large fresh-water rinse tank. No one had to worry about finding a spot for their large housing setups or Pelican-style cases.
Path of the Nautilus Swell, from Juneau to Sitka on the Wetpixel Alaska Expedition 2011
We celebrated three birthdays on the trip, including the captain’s, and the desserts were excellent – ice cream cake, Bananas Foster, key lime pie, chocolate mousse, and more. Our chef had been trained in restaurants and brought a gourmet flair to the meals. Continental breakfast was often in the galley by 0730, with a hot breakfast by 0900. Hot or cold drinks were provided by request as we re-boarded the Swell after each dive. Lunch included soup, salad, and entree, and by early afternoon we would smell muffins or cookies from the galley. Dinners included panko-crusted salmon, gnocchi with meatballs, and peppered steak, followed quickly by the aforementioned desserts.
All diving was performed from the Inde, a 38 foot aluminum dive skiff. Dive gear stayed in place for the trip’s duration, and it was only a few steps to the giant stride plunging us into the water. After a quick reach for our cameras from the dive masters, we were off. The Inde made for an extremely stable platform for topside photography. Wildlife included bald eagles (juvenile and adult) that snatched fish from the water, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, puffins, various dolphins and porpoises, and humpback whales. The humpbacks were plentiful and demonstrated pectoral slaps, tail splashes, spy-hops, breaches, and even playful interactions with sea lions.
We had excellent weather, with temperatures ranging from low 50s at night to low 70s during the day. Mixed in with bright skies was the occasional rainstorm, common to coastal Alaska in late spring and early summer. It’s advisable to pack a waterproof jacket or water-resistant windbreaker for the topside explorations, and make the same consideration for your camera gear. Warm gloves will break the wind-chill while waiting for that split-second shot of a breaching whale.
Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) presented photographic opportunities both above and below water. As we watched eagles, we also noticed sea lions streaking through the currents. Every few minutes, a sea lion would burst through the surface jerking its head violently. In its mouth, a fish suddenly torn into pieces and swallowed. Bold sea gulls snatched the leftovers like bandits.
As we prepared for our dives in the area, the crew explained to us that these sea lions use their mouths to “feel out” new items, whether dome port, housing, or person. A popular move by the sea lions involves opening their mouth around a diver’s head to show dominance. At 8-10 ft in length and up to 650 lbs for females, or nearly 2500 lbs for males, Steller sea lions may play like young dogs, but this endangered species has the capability to chase you out of the water.
Bull male Steller sea lion and his harem
Self-portrait captures a small female Steller sea lion investigating my mask
My sea lion experience started off innocently enough. We were diving Inian Wall, at the edge of Cross Sound. A few hundred yards away was the sea lion rookery, and the pinnipeds had splashed into the water on our arrival. It was near the ebb (outgoing tide), and visibility was limited to less than 25 ft. We had realized the flood (incoming tide) would bring clearer water, but the exposed geography of the site meant impossibly strong currents if we waited. The beginning was quiet. I would see the strobe flash of a fellow diver in the distance, but only occasionally caught the dark shadow of a sea lion swimming past.
Halfway through the dive, a group of female Stellers descended on me, darting in and out of camera range. They grew bolder, nibbling on my strobes and fins. Within a minute or two, they were bumping into me and rubbing against the ULCS buoyancy arms as if scratching an itch. These were not the light bumps of California sea lions, but a strong force that would drive you down into the rocky reef. I wasn’t concerned with their proximity until I felt a strong push from the side of my head and my mask flooded completely - a sea lion was trying to knock it off! With my free hand (one was occupied gripping the housing), I grabbed tightly to the frame. Through vision blurred by salt water I could see sea lion shapes twirling around me, but I focused on clearing the mask.
The steller sea lions got more creative. Everyone’s seen a young puppy engaged in a game of tug-of-war - they grab the rope or chew toy and yank while twisting their head side-to-side and playfully growling. When a 500 lb sea lion decides to try this with your drysuit, it’s time to leave. I could deal with the mask, but I wanted no part of a flooded drysuit halfway through the trip!
At the southernmost tip of Baranof and a short cruise from Port Alexander lies a small pinnacle, Wooden Island. Barely shielding divers from the open northern Pacific Ocean, the dive sites at Wooden experience a constant influx of nutrients that sustain colorful invertebrate-encrusted walls, lingcods, wolf-eels and giant pacific octopus, and shallows filled with fields of kelp.
We dived Wooden Fingers, a quiet inlet with little surge, and discovered a cloud of red-orange creatures writhing in the water column. It wasn’t krill, but the reproductive stage of the Epigamia magna (formerly Autolytus magnus) polychaete, each swimming with as much as 5,000 fertilized eggs in external brood sacs. The two-inch swimming worms would briefly disperse if a diver passed too closely, navigating away from a perceived threat, and quickly reform moments later. Stragglers, isolated from the main cluster, populated the dive site.
A swarm of Epigamia magna polychaetes at Wooden Island, Alaska
We spent two days at Wooden Island, and the group of worms never disappeared. Discussions with Leslie Harris, one of the Wetpixel moderators and a polychaete specialist with the Natural History Museum, revealed that this was the first she had heard of sustained daylight swarming of this species - perhaps a unique trait of the location.
Earlier, we had traveled up Tracy Arm to view the Sawyer Glacier, navigating around harbor seal pups with their tolerant mothers resting on each icy floe. The entire range of lenses was out, from the ultra-wide angle for sunny glacier scenics to super-telephotos for wildlife headshots. Decked out in our drysuits, we stopped on the return trip to climb onto a large iceberg and snorkel its perimeter. A small edge calved under the hot sun and set the iceberg in motion, slowly tilting side-to-side, while group members staked a claim to smaller ‘bergs.
Wetpixel Alaska Expedition 2011 divers and crew fully equipped for iceberg exploration
Each dive site brought unique species and habitats. The well-preserved wrecks of the SS Princess Sophia (at least 343 people lost, and the worst maritime accident in Alaska’s history), SS Princess Kathleen, and SS State of California, ranging in length from 240 ft to 370 ft, were covered in plumose anemones or sheltered decorated warbonnets and prowfish. At Inian and Baranof were walls of sponges, irish lords, nudibranchs, and grunt sculpin, and deep boulder zones with rockfish and free-swimming wolf eels. The water temperature was a comfortable (in drysuit thermals) 45°-50°F, and many of us used dry gloves to maintain dexterity on the 50-60 minute dives.
We knew our time was limited, but the quality of the diving consistently improved as the days passed. Jason led informal image show-off and review sessions which provided a great opportunity to appreciate a well-executed concept or be envious of a rare subject, and allowed for discussions of various Lightroom editing techniques and the benefits of digital asset management. To our dismay, the trip concluded as planned on June 23, 2011. The day before, we were treated to slideshows from both the Nautilus Swell crew and our fellow trip members.
A number of participants have described the Alaskan experience in their own words:
Andy Wallace: Great trip! Eagles and (Sea) Lions and Whales - oh my! 12 days on the Nautilus Swell - great food, great diving, great scenery… couldn’t ask for a better trip!
Colin Lee: Wetpixel Alaska - it was fun, fun, fun from the go! Awesome wildlife - check. Fantastic boat and crew with fab food - check. Fun group - check. All in all, another great Wetpixel trip. Can’t wait till the next one.
Lee Fenner: It was real hard to adjust to fix food for ourselves again. You wake up and there’s no food waiting for you.
The trip was one of superlatives. Too many sea lions, too many humpback whales, too many sea otters, too many bald eagles, too many wolf eels, and too much good food and drink. Best liveaboard trip we’ve been on. A swell experience. Lots of highlights, among the best was diving on two virgin sites the last full day of trip at St. Lazaria island. A unique pinnacle and sheer wall with unbelievably colorful life. The crew provided a fantastic level of service!
Sunshine over Mount Edgecumb on Kruzof Island near Sitka
Robert Rhode: This was my both my first trip to Alaska and my first trip with Wetpixel. The Nautilus Swell and her crew were great, the diving was excellent and the topside scenery awesome! I’ve been on a lot of dive trips and usually I’m one of the few photographers in my group, if not the only one. What was great about this trip was that everyone was a photographer. So there was lots of comparing of gear, techniques, and best of all, the results. You can bet I’ll be doing an Alaska trip on the Nautilus Swell again and that I’ll be doing future Wetpixel trips.
About the authors:
At 25, Matt Segal pursues his dual interests of aerospace engineering and underwater photography while based in Southern California, and has supported Wetpixel since 2006. He enjoys diving the warm waters of the tropical oceans but is equally as interested in capturing images from the icy arctic regions.
Jason Bradley is a nature and underwater photographer based in Monterey, California. His passion for photography extends to all kinds of subjects, but he is happiest and most in his element focusing on coastal habitats and ecosystems. Jason’s work has been published in various books, magazines, calendars, digital media outlets, and elsewhere, and he has worked alongside many conservation groups and scientists. Jason was the charismatic expedition leader for this trip.
Baranof Lake on ice: Jason Bradley enjoys the view before heading to the local hot springs
Images in this report and following gallery were graciously contributed by trip participants:
Lee Fenner and Laura Silverman [www] [contact]
Colin Lee [www] [contact]
Jim McDonald [www] [contact]
Mikko Varpiola [www] [contact]
Andy Wallace [www]
Wetpixel Alaska Expedition 2011 assorted images: