As we start to look forward to our 2020 photographic safaris I thought I'd share some of my highlights from last year, starting with our epic Absolute Alaska! trip.
Our safari begins with a night in Anchorage. Even if you’re jet lagged and here just for a couple of hours it’s worth heading to the Glacier Brewhouse for a true Alaskan culinary experience: wrestling and cracking gigantic Alaskan king crab legs feels like a medieval banquet - deliciously decadent and a lot of fun, especially when washed down with a fine house-brewed Alaskan amber ale or a margarita! (vegetarian alternatives are available!)
From Anchorage we head to Kodiak, where it really starts to feel like we’re at the last frontier. Despite its lack of charm Kodiak is a great window on the wilderness, and an afternoon walk through spectacularly moss-draped forests to the coast yields us some bonus pictures of horned puffins nesting on the sea cliffs, plus tantalising glimpses of humpback whales and sea otters, which bodes well for the coming days.
Early in the day we hop in a tiny private floatplane to Frazer Lake, high in the Kodiak mountains, where the salmon run has enticed grizzly bears to gather and gorge, fattening up before their next Winter sleep. Watching mother bears (sows) teach their cubs to fish, and teenage cubs playing and competing for attention makes for an entertaining and photographically very fulfilling half day trip. The sheer number of salmon fighting their way up the fish ladder is staggering - for the bears it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet!
Later in the day an impromptu kayaking safari proves another highlight of our time here: we spot a sea otter out of the water (extremely rare). They look so funny out of the water - like two different animals welded together!
Then two gargantuan humpback whales carouse around - and even underneath - our kayaks, feeding on a huge bait ball of small fish close to the shore. Having these giants of the deep heave up and down so close to our craft we can almost touch them is, I must admit, initially quite unnerving, but our experienced guide Hal just tells us to gently knock on our canoes to make sure the gentle giants know we are there and don’t come up underneath us by mistake. It is an almighty thrill and a privilege to spend time with such magical creatures, and guide Hal is so delighted by the unusual experience that he extends our 2 hour trip to four hours to make the most of it - thank you Hal!!!
As the whales finally head off to fresh feeding grounds their breath spouts catch the last golden light of the evening.
Days 4 - 8
Before we leave Kodiak next morning we hang out at the harbour for a couple of hours, spotting a family of river otters, a friendly sea lion and a snoozily relaxed sea otter bobbing about amongst the boats - the wildlife just seems to flock to us here!
Then we’re back aboard a sea plane and off to Katmai, our bear-watching base for the next four days. The flight takes us through spectacular mountains and fjords before crossing the 35 mile stretch of open sea to our new home. We spot 8 giant fin whales from the air, their spouts of water pluming into the sky. The size of their giant bodies laid out below us brings home how enormous these creatures are that we floated around and above in just a tiny kayak the night before - it gives me chills of excitement again.
When our floatplane lands we’re met on the beach by Perry and Angela, the charming managers and hosts of Katmai Wilderness Lodge, and their lovely colleagues Jake, Jade and Tom. After a quick intro to the lodge, a fitting for our very fetching hip waders and lunch we board our private boat, captained by Perry, for an afternoon sea safari, just in time to catch the tide. For the next four days this boat is home as we explore all the beaches, bays, inlets, waterfalls and gravel spits of the area searching for bears, wolves, bald eagles, sea otters and whales.
We are lucky enough to see all of these, though the wolf and whale remained quite distant (I doubt we’re ever in our lives going to get that close to a whale again!!!) and the bears are mostly turning the rocky beaches upside down looking for clams and eels. This isn’t the behaviour we expected but is fascinating to watch and photograph, and witnessing just how hard these bears are having to work for a tiny morsel gives me new respect for their industriousness, strength and also deftness.
They are having to work this hard because it is fiercely hot and dry this summer in Alaska (we packed winter clothes but end up in shorts and t-shirts!) so the salmon have not been able to complete their spawning run up these rivers. They are waiting in huge numbers in the bay, tantalisingly out of reach of the hungry bears. And heartbreakingly accessible to an increasing number of trawlers that we watch pulling tonnes out of the sea at a time.
We see one little bear time and time again as he desperately searches every square inch of the beach for food, then flops into the water for respite from the heat. Another bear swims right across the bay, emerging to give a mighty shake and the perfect photo opp as the water droplets fly. We are even able to go ashore and shoot on the ground just a few metres away from a couple of these bears, which brings our experience to a whole other level.
The other unexpected stars of our time here are the sea otters - charmingly charismatic and laid back little surfer dudes who chug about the bays on their backs, munching on crabs and just snoozing the day away. Some are very used to the boat, allowing us close enough to get some terrific water level shots.
Meanwhile bald eagles watch over everyone from their rocky perches.
By night the skies never quite get pitch dark, but in this weather they are clear of cloud, so I get up to try my luck with the stars. Luck is the word: although it was too bright for the milky way and I quickly call it a night, when I look at my test shot the following morning it shows the northern lights - completely unexpected at this time of year - amazing!!! I kick myself for not realising at the time - it wasn’t visible to the naked eye or at a glance in my camera screen - but at least I have a lucky souvenir snap, and next time will pay more attention!
By the time we leave Katmai we have been lucky enough to see bears, sea otters and bald eagles each day. A humpback whale makes an appearance too, giving us a lovely tail fluke shot before heading away to deeper waters.
Days 9 - 10
Today we have one final morning boat safari followed by picnic lunch and a two-hop float plane and aeroplane trip back to Anchorage. The following day is a free day so we climb back aboard bicycles and follow the Tony Knowles Coastal Route from downtown out to Kincaid Park. There are many trails through the woods and on the twenty miles we cycle we encounter both a baby moose and a black bear - a lovely surprise to encounter this different bear after all the brown ones we’ve photographed up to now!
...and we couldn’t be in Anchorage without heading back to the Glacier Brewhouse of an evening to demolish more crabs!
The final leg of our epic Alaska safari sees us boarding the Alaska Coastal Express scenic train - complete with charismatic conductor - for a spectacular journey down the coast and through the mountains and forests to Seward. We have chosen the Gold star option and it was well worth the upgrade as we have a glass-domed roof on the carriage, an outdoor viewing and photography deck, champagne on tap and a luscious breakfast en route. We spot wild sheep and moose along the way and apparently bear and even belugas can sometimes be seen too.
On our two full days of sea safari our luck holds strong and we are treated to calving glaciers and fabulous sightings and photo opportunities of humpback whales, tufted and horned puffins, stellar sea lions, bald eagles, parakeet auklets, sooty shearwater, marbled mirolet and orca.
Our orca experience is extraordinary: the resident families have gathered together into a ‘superpod' of over fifty animals. They are really excited to see each other and when we drop the sonafone into the water and listen in on their conversations the communication between them is mind-blowing - so many different sounds! It turns out that this is the time to make more little orcas, and we are lucky enough to witness them mating as well as fishing and greeting each other. They slap tails, spy hop and even fully breach as we watch in sheer wonder and awe.
It is almost impossible to know where to point our lenses, they are all around us and moving quickly and erratically, but when we do get a shot on target, with the mountains and glaciers as a backdrop, it is exquisite. In fact guest Carla DeDominicis bagged a North American Nature Photography Association award-winning shot!
It is a truly sensational end to our Absolute Alaska safari, and we board the train again on the first leg of our journey home feeling that we have truly experienced all that Alaska has to offer, and been gifted wonderful photographic opportunities along the way - we absolutely couldn’t ask for anything more!
Trai’s next departure to Alaska is 04 - 16 August 2020
For more details and booking information click here