North by Northwest
Leaving behind the eerie empty neighborhoods of Adak, my mind wandered forward through the mists of the Bering Sea. The Pukuk steamed Northwest through icy chop. Each wave broken by the broad bow of the 60-foot vessel generated a booming blow, adding a concerning percussion line to the soundtrack of full throttle. Preventative seasickness medicine was passed around like candy, each person eagerly swallowed some sort of pill or ginger product, and then disappeared into their respective state room for the night. Left to my own decisions, I headed to my bunk and curled up under the warm flannel duvet and drifted off into a peaceful rest...
The following morning the crashing waves against the boat's bow woke me from a deep sleep. I lost my balance as I dropped off the top bunk, forgetting that the ground wasn't always in the same place on a boat. I carefully worked on standing up and walking around the ship a bit on my new sea legs. I eagerly ate a big breakfast which was surprisingly gourmet for being prepared on a boat. Nicole, our chef for the trip was busily cooking bacon, and was taking egg orders as birders awoke and emerged from the pill-induced slumber. Some people didn't get up at all, and I didn't see them for several days.
The next two days we steadily made our way out the Aleutian island chain, past volcanic islands bearing names like Gareloi, Kiska, and Semisepochnoi. The steady pace of 6.2 knots wasn't going to win any races, but the slow going was partially due to the stabilizers on which helped minimize the rocking of the boat.
I kept my eyes out for Mottled Petrel- the prized Pterodroma of the trip, but none emerged from the thousands of Northern fulmars, flocks of tiny Least Auklets and the giant glider-winged Laysan albatross. I'd seen only two albatross on my California Pelagic, but up here in the cold winds they were abundant. (I did manage to see and photograph a Mottled Petrel on the return trip)
Curious gulls followed the boat like stray cats, eager for a handout or scrap to appear. They weren't disappointed, as Nicole would emerge mid-afternoon after preparing dinner with trimmings, food scraps, and spoiled bits of produce.
In the afternoons we would gather in the wheelhouse, keeping an eye out for birds. The first day we spotted hundreds of Laysan Albatross, sometimes 100 in an hour! The special bird for the trip out was one juvenile Short-tailed Albatross, the largest sea bird on the North Pacific with a wingspan over 7 feet. This regal seabird nests in Japan, and has already come close to extinction- less than 2500 remain- a surprising 79% increase over the last 76 years! This was a "life bird" for most people on the trip- myself included.
Whale! Off our starboard side, hundreds of yards away I spotted a dark shape breaking the surface of the water. Swarms of birds added to the grandeur of the sight. At a distance, the whale seemed to linger on the surface a little too long. Why wasn't it diving? As we steamed closer and our views improved, the leviathan morphed into a recently-deceased floating island of blubber. Hundreds of fulmars were perched on and around the carcass, and a cloud of birds evaporated as the boat approached. It was a sperm whale- a large, blocky shaped beast drunkedly tipped on one side- a floating island of food for ravenous seabirds. We stuck around long enough to take a few shots and then the smell kicked in. We resumed our forward march towards the distant wall of fog.
I woke up early the third morning, sneaking upstairs to the bridge so I wouldn't wake my bunk mates. Oxana was on watch, the instrument panel in front of her cast a faint glow on her cheeks as she maintained our course against the waning wind. In the faint Arctic twilight, I looked in the distance and could make out a large snow-covered line of jagged peaks on the horizon. emerging from the sea, Attu was reaching toward the sky, beckoning to weary birds and birders to come rest on its black sandy beaches. I closed my eyes and inhaled the salty Aleutian air, and breathed a sigh of relief. I had made it.
Keep reading Christian's account of the story here...
Interested in going to Attu in 2017-2018? There is currently (as of May 25, 2017) a group there RIGHT NOW! The birding has been fantastic so far. View Z Birding Tours upcoming trips!