A Calming of the Sea

During our recent trip to Juneau, our host, Rob Murphy, spent considerable time watching the waves on the fjord just past the bay framed by their expansive living room windows. We had dropped crab pots into the surf in about 75 feet of water on our first morning, and on three of the six mornings the surf was too roiled to check the pots. Rob, however, had a bigger goal in mind.

On one side of one of the huge islands distant in the fjord was a sea lion rookery, and the former son of the prairie was intent on showing us a slice of nature we might consider unique. There seemed to be two constants involving their bay and the nearby fjord. Their immense collection of tide chart booklets (along with cell phone aps!), and the continued monitoring of the waves.

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A few hundred of the Steller Sea Lions nestled in a rocky rookery near Juneau.

Yes, we have waves of our bluestem prairies, and some hearty winds. Yet there on the visual fjord white caps ruled the waterways most of the week, and on some days the rollers were rougher than on others. Rarely did we see a sea without white caps. One afternoon we visited a popular beach where we sat to watch the deep rollers of the open fjord as the tide came in, smashing rocks with clarity and purpose, sending spray high in to the air. Earlier we had debated on whether to bring a picnic dinner to the beach, and thought we were wise in eating lunch before we set off for the jaunt up the highway.

On our last morning Rob and I headed into the fjord on calmer seas to check the pots and bring them back to his shop, and we happily caught three “dungy’s” that were of legal size. We would add steamed crab legs to our brunch, with the leftovers going into Kaye’s incredibly delightful and delicious Cioppino, a tomato-based fish stew.

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The sound was incredible, a cross between the loud murmur of a huge ball stadium and, oh, a Nebraska feedlot, with mooing and cooing mixed with barks. 

“I think we can go … if the seas remain calm,” Rob had said as we headed back from collecting the pots. Later in the morning we headed to his workshop to clear the path to his cruiser, which we would ease into the water a few hundred years distant.

Obviously I know so little about the sea. No, there weren’t whitecaps, yet the sea was in constant movement, rolling easily across the horizon. Rob took us on a long boat ride up the coast, bouncing from wave top to wave top, past the little island with the lighthouse, and even the beach where we had watched the rough seas the day before. “Some of this,” he said of the sea, “is residual effects from the roughness yesterday. It takes some time for it to calm down.”

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They were amazing climbers, crawling up the cliff face like legless goats. 

After a while, he turned the boat and headed more westward and away from the mainland before slowing the boat and pointing to the windy side of a steep and wooded island. It took awhile to realize we were not seeing tan and gray rocks. Ah, yes, the rookery. Using a zoom that reached out to 600 mm, it was nearly impossible to focus and shoot. We were rolling, up and down, even lurching at times, and some of my images were of sky, others of water, and yet still enough to have captured some of the Steller Sea Lions. These are more common in the northern waters.

My dear friend, Mary Gafkjen, Rob’s sister, suggested I crawl into the hold and stand up through a deck port for a freer view. We were a few hundred yards out from the steep little island, yet the sounds were incredibly unique, and windblown for a rather eerie effect. A few weeks ago we were in Nebraska to witness the annual Sandhill Crane migration, and the sounds of the birds was simply unforgettable. Years ago I spent a late afternoon and evening in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana and came home with memories of a deep, mental audio imprint. And, now, with the Sea Lions, I witness my third such imprint.

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Their climbing is much like that of a caterpillar, by raising their mid-body up on their front and back fins, then inching forward. 

Not to diminish this experience, but it seemed the overwhelming sound was almost like a cross of a huge Nebraska feedlot, with “mooing” or “cooing,” to the loud murmur of a crowded ballpark, all with intermittent barking. The “barks,” I’m told, were those of the California Sea Lions that have migrated this far north.

Then there was the visual, and especially seeing mammals that seemed so awkward out of the sea, climb so high into the rocks along the steep cliffs of the rookery. Apparently their climb is similar to a caterpillar crawl, where they lift themselves up on the front and rear flippers to scoot forward or up.

Here is some information gleaned from an Alaskan Fish and Game website:

“Steller sea lions use rookeries and haulouts on land to rest and suckle their young. Adult females must continue foraging while nursing their pups, and the pups’ bodies are well-adapted to fast while females are hunting prey during 1-2 day trips. By their first spring, pups are able to reach similar diving depths as adults but do not do so as frequently. As pups grow older, their swimming and diving patterns grow to resemble that of older sea lions. The behavior of older juveniles and adults appears to track the behavior of their prey; for example, deep diving as prey move deeper during daylight, a focus on night-time behavior while prey are shallow and the gathering of many sea lions at places with seasonal runs of forage fish. Foraging trips are usually within a few tens of miles off haulouts, but the longest recorded continuous foraging trip was 550 miles (900 km) into the Bering Sea. Older juvenile sea lions can dive to at least 1500 feet (500 meters) and stay underwater for over 16 minutes. When swimming, Steller sea lions use their front flippers for propulsion and their back flippers to steer. When moving on land, they use a “rolling walk” on all four flippers by pulling their hind flippers under their body. Steller sea lions are capable climbers, often found high above the water on cliff faces.”

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It’s impossible to capture the true magic of the moment, not from the sounds of the Sea Lions nor the roll of the sea.

Fortunately there was ample time for us to simply roll with the waves to watch and listen. The Sea Lions paid no attention to our smallish boat bobbing in the sea. This was truly a remarkable experience, and for me, one that was quite unique. Rob and Mary kept asking if I had captured anything, for focusing and shooting was a complete “crap shoot.” Honestly, I cannot take credit for how the photo imagery turned out, for many of the images were in sharp detail, thanks to advanced modern photography technology.

Sometimes such imagery is magical, and other times the images pale to an actual experience in the field. I can vouch that this was the case, for I cannot capture for an audience all of the true magic. Not from the Sabine. Not from the cranes along the North Platte. Nor from the sounds of the Sea Lions and the roll of the sea. Then, again, who can?

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “A Calming of the Sea

  1. Glad you experienced this, John…What did you think of the “aroma” of a rookery? Maybe not so pronounced in windy,cold weather, but you could navigate with your nose sometimes in summer!

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