Sea Otter Population in Glacier Bay

Sea otters have made a huge comeback in recent decades. They were almost wiped out completely by the end of the nineteenth century due to the fur trade. Today, rafts containing several hundred sea otters can be seen around kelp beds behind Drake and Willoughby Island in Glacier Bay. However, populations fluctuate greatly. They are still reclaiming their former range.


In their absence, their food sources, including sea urchins, exploded with dire consequence to kelp forests. This had an impact on the reproduction of small feed fish, which are important to salmon and whales. Due to an unnaturally high abundance of prey, sea otters tend to overharvest an area and move on when little is left, leaving a depleted seabed behind. This pattern of extremes will continue for quite some time until a balance is reached again. The longterm health and productivity of these marine ecosystems benefits greatly from the presence of these playful and endearing creatures.

To read more check out Matthias Breiter’s award-winning book Inside Passage with stunning Alaskan wildlife photography.

Salmon Season for Brown Bears and Black Bears

Taking the Plunge…If push comes to shove, the brown bears are dominant but mostly a fragile truce prevails. [Referring to brown bears and black bears fishing for salmon in the waters of Anan Creek south of Wrangell, Alaska] In times of overabundance, strife over a copious resource is a waste of effort. Still, black bear females, in particular females with young, usually abandon their fishing spot and leave the river or seek shelter up high in a tree when the bruins appear on the scene. Some juvenile brown bears apparently regard it as good sport to chase their smaller cousins. Mature male black bears generally stand their ground against these hooligans.
Taking a Breather
At the peak of the salmon season, between mid-July and mid-August, as many as fifteen bears can be seen fishing along the stream at the same time. Individuals who are skinny at the start of the fish run are often plump by the end of it, adding as much as two pounds of fat to their stocky frame per day. Salmon lie piled up in dense rows in the pools below small waterfalls, waiting for their turn to leap the obstacles in the river. Bears line the river, staring at the water and the promised meal contained within. Fishing techniques vary between individual bears and also between the two bear species. Some hurl themselves into the midst of schools of fish, others dive below waterfalls, again others simply stand midstream hoping for a disoriented fish to get within their reach. Generally the brown bears take a more active role in the pursuit of their prey, leaping into the stream and chasing fish into shallows. Most black bears, possibly as they feel more vulnerable, wait on the water’s edge for the opportunity to quickly grab a fish and retreat back into little caves among the boulders piled up next to the river. Black Bears Fishing at Anan CreekCubs learn from their mothers. Fishing techniques get passed on to the next generation and favorite fishing spots get reused by daughters and sons. Brown bear cubs sit right on the bank of the river while their mother fishes. By comparison, the offspring of a black bear female are more cautious and watch her fishing from high in a tree or sit at the base of one, always ready to scramble up the trunk to safety. The river is a dangerous place for young bears. A lack of caution, a moment of inattentiveness, can have fatal consequences. For cubs, the salmon run is a stressful, scary time of the year, a time when they have to weigh boldness against caution. Sows only feed cubs that demand a meal. A cub that is too shy, won’t get much food; one that is too courageous may not live to see the fall.

From Matthias’s book on bears and Alaskan wildlife – Wild Alaska. View images from the book.


Bear in Camp!

The crash of splintering wood pierces my dreams and rouses me from a sound sleep. Instantly, I am wide awake. Nothing speeds up the circulatory system like a dose of adrenaline. My fingers search for the flashlight. The beam of light cuts through the dark like a knife. 12:30 A.M. As if knowledge of the time mattered and would help me in the least.

I hear a loud crashing, as if a door is being ripped from its hinges and thrown to the ground. I sit in my tent, desperately pondering my options. It is early October and I ma the only person still staying in Brooks Camp near the river. I can yell until I’m blue in the face; nobody will hear me. The pontoon bridge is broken down into segments and pulled ashore, and I don’t have a canoe. I open the tent door and glance outside. The futility of any attempt to assess the situation visually is instantly apparent. I might as well stare at a black velvet cloth. I cannot see a thing. The source of the racket appears to be but a few steps away, yet it must be a least twenty yards. That’s how far away it is to the food cache.

The racket in front of my tent continues unabated. If the noise is any indication, there cannot be much left of the food cache. Occasionally, wildlife photography is blessed with unforgettable moments. This one certainly qualifies as such as well, although not in a positive sense. Finally, at about two o’clock in the morning, the din starts to abate. Yet, sleep is slow in coming. I abstain from counting sheep as they would only turn into bears, leaving me more wakeful than before.

Finally, around eight o’clock in the morning I step out of the tent to inspect the destruction. To my surprise, the food cache is still standing. Even the door is in place. At eye level, two large paw prints smile at me. More cover the backside of the building. Upon rounding the cache, I find the source of last nights pandemonium. Several one-gallon canisters of white gas and a few propane bottles are strewn about on the ground. All show teeth marks. My tattered nerves need a rest – one night like the last is enough.

A true tale from Matthias’s travels. Read more in his book Bears of Katmai.