Humpback whale

A humpback whale breaches, putting on an aerial show.

KODIAK — At this time of the year, Kodiak always seems to be buzzing. Everyone is busy rushing around and getting ready for something. It’s a different kind of busy than the business around Christmas time; this is more existential rather than social. Outdoor activities have sprung into full action, school is revving up into the home stretch before summer break, fishing is either happening or about to start, the first cruise ships have come and more are on their way, and there are months of summer ahead with many plans and activities.

What drives all this craze when spring is in the air? Of course, the increase in daylight has profound effects on our bodies and makes us more active and the increase in temperatures gets us stirring outside, but there is more to this stirring of life. Nature has switched from its dormant to its productive mode. You see it in the greening of Kodiak’s mountain slopes and the young red cones-to-be on the spruce trees — it is also going on in the ocean all around. A couple of weeks ago, when taking a group of students out on a boat ride, I took along a phytoplankton net. Phytoplankton are algae, microscopic in size and drifting in the currents. It does not take much effort to net a few billion of these tiny, plant like organisms and pull up a cup of what looks like spinach soup or a wheatgrass shot. Using the daylight energy, the nutrient rich waters and some carbon dioxide from the water, these cells are the producers, the bottom of the food web, the base of our fisheries and the livelihood for every animal the people who come here from all over the world enjoy watching.

We have all heard this before: the algae get eaten by the tiny animals in the plankton, which get eaten by the little fish, which then get eaten by the bigger fish and so on and on. To really see it in action is still a fascinating experience and one that few people get to see up close; it is like the difference between reading the program of a theater show and being witness to the real thing. When the plankton starts growing, the copepods, which are the biggest players in the community of tiny animals in the plankton, ascend from deep water to feed on them. They attract the herring schools to come close to shore for a feeding. Just outside cannery row in Kodiak, schools of beautiful, silvery herring flit through the water eating zooplankton. Almost every animal you see when looking around likes to eat those lipid-rich and delicious herring. The gulls and the puffins, the cormorants and the eagles, the seals and sea lions, and also the humpback whales.

With food abundant, every animal begins to take care of the serious business of ensuring their species survival: the eagles are sitting on eggs, the kittiwakes likewise and even the oyster catchers are screaming at intruders who walk too close to the little dip on the upper reaches of the beach, which they call their nest. A male and female sea otter in the harbor were engaged in activities that made me suggest they should get a room!

Not only the herring, but also other small forage fishes follow the call of the plankton soup. Candlefish, hooligan or sand lance are different names for the same small, elongated and very fatty little fish, which are another important link between the zooplankton and the bigger fish. There are cod in the area and we had a few of them in the icebox from the previous day of fishing. Most people just take the fish they caught and filet it and throw the whole carcass without the muscle tissue back overboard. When I have an interested (or captive) audience, I like to show what sustains the fish. For this, I get my hands slimy and stinky and cut open the stomach. Earlier meals will have turned to mush, but the more recent meals will still reveal what the fish ate. I had a cod with a stomach containing no less than 10 perfectly recognizable little sandlance fish inside. Two weeks ago, there was one that had five little tanner crab inside, and a smaller cod revealed a mixed diet consisting of a crab claw, a sandlance and a nice piece of herring bait.

The last two days were among those memorable experiences that make a soul never want to leave this magical place. Surrounded by very interested and curious people from around the world, I was privileged to observe two humpback whales guiding a humpback calf, just slowly swimming by. I explained to the group that these whales have just returned from a winter in Hawaii, where the cow gave birth to her calf. The baby is the size of a small car when born, and mom feeds it with her milk, which has a fat content of over 40%! She does all this on a diet of near to nothing. When she finally gets back here, it is time to refuel — small feeder fish like sandlance and herring are just the thing to do that. 

On the same day, just two hours later, we stood cajoling as another humpback whale performed aerial acrobatics: Three times it breached, then rolled on its back waving its long flippers as if to tell us how good it is to be back in Kodiak, where the food is rich and the living is good. Standing on the beach of Woody Island a day earlier, my friend gazed at the sea surface and Kodiak’s outline and sighed: we really are lucky to live in such an amazing place! I couldn’t agree more.

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