Visiting Benjamin and North Islands

so much to discover!

By sheer good luck, our little kayak excursion to Benjamin and North islands happened to coincide with the only three consecutive days of sunshine in late-mid July. Sometimes happiness is sun, flat water, good company, and no pesky bugs. Really! No bugs!

There were three of us, all taking much pleasure in poking around on shores and in forest, just looking to see what we could see. And there was plenty for curious naturalists to find and contemplate.

Humpback whales were cruising around on all sides, and the whoosh of their breathing was a frequent backdrop. Sometimes there was a honking sound along with the breath, and we wondered if that was some kind of communication or if it was inadvertent, like a snore. A small group of juvenile sea lions attended us, popping up in close-packed unison on one side and then on the other, staring and snorting, apparently very curious. There was only one sea lion on the traditional haulout rock; it looked rather thin and unwell. A little pod of orcas foraged around a rocky point, and we were pleased to see two very small babies, along with two females and a ‘teenager’.

guillemot
Pigeon guillemot. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Adult pigeon guillemots were common, floating and diving, and making short flights that showed off their flashy red feet. We saw no juveniles, however, so the chicks were presumably still lurking in their cliff-crevice nests. A few marbled murrelets, including one juvenile, whistled and dove, and we also tentatively identified an ancient murrelet.

Pink salmon were jumping, and an unwary pink was lugged by a parent eagle to a nest, where noisy nestlings expressed their appreciation. Another eagle caught a large, unidentified fish, breast-stroked with it to a rock, stood on the still-flopping fish for a while, and eventually toted it off into the forest.

Choruses of shrieking oystercatchers indicated their frequent displeasure at some disturbance—by others of the same species, or by an overhead eagle, or whatever. One pair of oystercatchers dive-bombed a rock-perched eagle, bedeviling it until it gave up and retreated to the trees. Another pair of oystercatchers guarded two big, fuzzy chicks that made themselves ‘invisible’ by creeping in between shoreside boulders.

A rocky ledge held a crowd of gulls of various sorts, among which we spotted several black-legged kittiwakes, perhaps wandering over from Glacier Bay. Their short, black legs and long, black-tipped wings made them readily distinguishable from the ordinary gulls. Scattered along the mussel beds we saw several black turnstones, already headed south, apparently, and a lesser yellowlegs. Squadrons of harlequin ducks scuttled along the rocky shores, getting away from us as fast as possible without flying. Most of these were in female plumage and might have been some of this year’s young.

Patches of bright yellow-green seaweed caught our eye; they were especially vivid when seen through sunglasses. These turned out to be ‘sea-sacs’, hollow, finger-like algae at about the mid intertidal level. We later learned that, although this species is technically a red alga, it turns eye-smiting yellow-green when mature. Water oozes in and out of a small hole at the tip. Sometimes amphipods chew holes at one end of the tube and crawl into a ready-made protective house.

We hauled out on a beach for a snack and a stretch, and amused ourselves for a while by sorting pebbles. Here is a pile of the pretty-colored ones, or the super-smooth ones, or the ones with especially nice patterns or shapes. Just like kindergartners! But it got too hot in the sun–even the stones were distinctly hot to the touch—so we retreated to our boats and to more mature considerations, such as Should we have afternoon tea now or later?

Our camp was in a well-used site above a wide beach. Considering how much use this place gets, there was very little trash left lying about; we only filled about half of a big, yellow litter bag. However, there are limits to what we’ll pick up, and we were sorry to see that some recent campers clearly had no idea about proper camp sanitation and courtesy to subsequent campers.

Among the found objects on the beach was part of the well-cleaned head of a fish—probably a flatfish of some sort. Only a lower jaw and some flat plates were still linked together, and the jaw had several rows of small, curved teeth and a little bony spur at the front end. All three of us are profoundly ignorant about the functional anatomy of fishes, but we enjoyed our small deductive exercise in arriving at a guess that it came from a halibut.

Perhaps it doesn’t take much to engage the attentions of curious-minded folks! But what fun!

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