Seen in the Sea
The Bering Sea is a relatively shallow place. That’s because the North Pacific tectonic plate is sliding under the North American Plate, nudging it ever-upward in some of the busiest volcanic activity on the planet. Notice how the light areas on the map show the extent of this shallow shelf between Alaska and Russia.
This watery world yields an exciting brew of critters! Lots of them are just cruising through seasonally as they migrate while the planet spins and tilts. This makes for great wildlife viewing when a person is lucky enough to spend nearly two weeks steaming across the Bering Sea and up the eastern side of the Alaska Peninsula from the Aleutian Islands. In addition to many mammals, we also saw jellyfish, kelp, and other photogenic moments rising to the surface as well.
What a rare opportunity to linger, watching a group of killer whales teach their young to hunt. Another time, a bachelor sperm whale browsed for a meal, lazily making shallow dives (there wasn’t enough depth for this, the largest toothed predator on earth, to dive straight down). We shared the waters of our journey alongside fin whales, the world’s second-largest whale species, plus hunchbacks and minke and gray and two species of porpoises. Call me a geek, but I couldn’t ever walk away before they swam out of sight.
Stellar sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals appeared to be thriving, at least compared with the dire numbers they were reduced to when they were hunted nearly to extinction. (One of our naturalists reported, though, that their numbers appears to be dwindling again, possibly due to the changing climate.)
Speaking of comebacks, the sea otters, whose numbers were devastated by pelt hunters, are back. The epitome of cute, I was starting to fret that these iconic creatures might not show up...until they did! We watched, rapt, as they floated on their backs, opening clams and other food, showing their young the way to live. Beyond “cute,” though, sea otters are an important keystone species, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp, thus helping to maintain healthy kelp forests which are important habitats for many animals. [source: montereybayaquarium.org].
To see all these critters swimming free in the expanse of the sea yielded in me a sort of peace and gladness. And also a hefty dose of surprise, the day we saw bears swimming!
Being witness to so many species that were once nearly wiped out by human interference was encouraging. Maybe the collective “we” can remember the lessons, and work to preserve the planet not just for ourselves, but for all the creatures, great and small.
For more about our expedition hosts: nationalgeographic.com/expeditions