The Aleutians

It’s not often that a guy gets a job because he rowed lifeguard surfboats through the waves, and rafted many whitewater rivers. Alaska Maritime Expeditions needed someone to drive an inflatable skiff to take marine biologists from the 72’ steel hull Puk Uk to stellar sea lion rookeries in the Aleutian Islands. I was recommended for the job, and though I have more hours in oared boats than in motorized, I got the job.

I flew to Dutch Harbor, where we began a 900 mile round-about sojourn back to Homer, visiting rookeries and haul-outs along the way so that the biologists could track the many animals that they had branded.

See video on GAP facebook page:


I have surfed beside stellar sea lions out on the wild coast of Northern California, so being close to these beasts was to be nothing new, but I was hoping to photograph the fantastic volcanoes of the archipelago, and maybe I’d get the thrill of seeing a walrus.

The Aleutians sit on the downstream side of a tectonic subduction zone; the Aleutian Trench–a 2400’ deep arching crease in the floor of the North Pacific. Here the sea floor is being thrust Northward and slides under the floor of the Bearing Sea. Once down in the Earth’s boiler room, some of the crust boils back up to the surface to form cones of basalt. These are the chain of islands; a necklace of volcanoes in various states of erosion. Those in the Eastern half of the chain are sitting on top of the continental shelf–relatively shallow water

But the wild waters of the two seas (North Pacific and Bearing) do not honor this boundary of trench and volcanoes. The waters mix, and they mix violently. I have never seen such intense currents, especially the tidal currents between islands. Running the skiff was often more similar to running on a river than on the ocean, with tall standing waves in a current of 8 knots or more. We had to time our travel with the tides to avoid wasting time and fuel by fighting the current.




P1010046 2sm

For 16 days we did this, and unfortunately, in high winds and  rough seas. But my problem was that the skies were almost always cloud-covered, and often socked-in with a low dark ceiling. I only had two opportunities to see a volcano, and both times I saw the same one, Mt Shishaldin, once from the West, once from the East, each time through a hole in the clouds.

sheshalden east


These mixing waters stir up lots of nutrients in the waters and they are rich with fish, bringing many whales to feed. We saw more than 50 humpbacks, sometimes very close to the boat. There are rafts of northern fulmars numbering in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of birds; birds on the water every in direction as far as you can see.


Immense flocks of tufted puffins–ten thousand swirling over the water like starlings in tight formation. There were frequent flocks of storm petrels, auklets, murres, and then there were the occasional loners: the laysan albatross, with an 8’ wing span passing by, hugging the contours of the waves, the parasitic jaeger in a direct flight, a few red-necked phalaropes bobbing.

As we traveled Eastward towards the Akmak Island rookery, we passed near the southernmost enclave of walrus. Off the bow I saw what looked like a whale, but it was rust-colored. Immediately I grabbed the binoculars, and during brief window of sunshine, a big walrus rose up from the water and looked right at me; tusks, whiskers and all.


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