My adventure in Alaska

It’s impossible not to be stunned by your first visit to Alaska. Its glorious mountains, breathtaking glaciers, endlessly braided rivers, scenic roads and unique wildlife guarantee its place on every explorer’s bucket list.

I will never forget the overwhelming feeling when my plane was approaching Anchorage. As a wildlife photographer, I’m drawn to remote places, where human influence is minimal and rare, magnificent animals can roam freely and live their lives with as little disruption as our planet can offer.

So there I was—after many years of dreaming about this unique part of the world, finally about to embark on a journey unlike anything else I had dared before.

Although I’m not a city person, Anchorage with its mountainous surroundings instantly won my heart. I was tempted to stay there for a day or two and immerse myself in the local culture, but I knew it would only delay reaching my true, final destination. So after two long days of traveling, and never-ending hours spent in uncomfortable plane seats, I got on yet another flight heading to the Island of Saint Paul, also known as the Galapagos of the North, owing its name to the high diversity of bird species inhabiting it.

Saint Paul is the largest of the Pribilof Islands, a small, sub-Arctic archipelago just under 500 km from the Alaskan coast, and every year, from mid May till September, photographers from all over the world venture in its cold, unforgiving territory in search for rare, migrant, Asian shorebirds, auks, ducks and passerines.

Personally, I was there for the most unique and charismatic birds ever—puffins. Their striking body colours, amusing voices, and nearly theatrical, adorable clumsiness… it really was love at first sight. And although it was an Atlantic puffin I first saw years ago, I knew that, if need be, I would cross the world to find and spend some quality time with its 2 distant cousins—the tufted and horned puffin.

And guess what? While researching their habitats, I realised it would have to be a very literal world–crossing, since the best place to see them was, in fact, the very land I was finally standing on—Pribilof Islands. Me and my luck… Nothing like an expedition to the end of the world. I’m quite certain some of my friends seriously considered intervention because at that point my determination might have had resembled mental instability. I simply couldn’t hide my excitement about the prospect of such a trip!

Anyway, enough of these retrospections. Let’s get back to Alaska.

I met my guide Cory upon arrival at Saint Paul’s airport, which, as it happens, is also the only hotel on the island—a very cozy and small place indeed. It was late afternoon, and I was getting worried—would it be bright enough to safely go out and seek my little friends? I shortly realised that my concerns were unfounded and also Cory seemed to have read my mind and told me to leave my luggage and let him take me to meet a few of his winged friends.

I always try to look all composed and professional in these situations, and yet somehow I consistently fail at achieving just that—my animal lover side coming out stronger and louder. Literally louder. By the end of the trip everybody knew who to call if they spotted a puffin… The crazy lady.

That very evening we headed to the southern edge of the island—the Ridge Wall cliff. When I first scanned that impressive cliff with my binoculars, I could tell the following few days would be most exciting—that place was genuinely crawling with horned puffins, northern fulmars, kittiwakes, a lonely tufted puffin far away, and a couple of the, not so common, red-legged kittiwake. Just having the possibility to watch my first horned puffins—a couple resting on the rocks, before going back to the sea—made my heart pound as never before.

When standing on top of the Ridge Wall I also realised how much of a challenge this expedition would be—treacherous cliffs, dreadful weather, strong winds, and, unfortunately, all the birds too far away for my 400mm lens. To make it even trickier, all the seabirds nests were built in crevices between the rocks, making it complicated to get a good photography angle. I knew I would have to work really hard to capture Saint Paul’s birds in their full glory.

Summer is short in Alaska, but the days are long, granting us many hours of sunlight to spend birding and enjoying every wild piece of land of that remote and captivating island. With that in mind, we decided to explore the island a bit more.

Eventually, we arrived at the Reef Point—another excellent spot for seabird photography, which, by the end of the expedition, had become my favourite place in Saint Paul. I found it dazzling from the moment I got there and laid my eyes on a few tufted puffins. There they were, standing on the cliff, their glorious tufts being blown by the wind (which, by the way, instantly put all shampoo commercials to shame), watching the rocks being endlessly hammered by the waves below. Simply magnificent.

Just when I thought this day couldn’t get any better, Cory, looking through his huge binoculars, unexpectedly asked “hey, would you like to see some orcas?”. Remember what I said about trying to maintain some level of composition and professionalism? Let me just say that there may have been some enthusiastic shrieking, a possible teardrop or 2, and lots of gazelle-like running towards him, concluded with a binocular grab that nearly cost him a limb. To be fair, I’ve never seen orcas before, so you can appreciate my state of mind (or its imbalance, rather) when I got to see them breaching far away on the horizon on my first day in Alaska. What an incredible sight!

The following days were full of equally if not more outstanding sights. One time I got surprised by a small gang of incredible cute arctic fox cubs, inhabiting a small den near the village.

I was definitely not expecting to have this close encounter, even though I was warned about such possibility, as Saint Paul had a healthy population of arctic foxes. In fact, they are native to the Pribilofs, together with adorable shrew-mice and lemmings, but sadly, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List—most comprehensive document on biological species status—they are in decline.

Not many people know that there’re two colour variants of the arctic fox. The white one’s fur colour changes to grey mottled with brown during the summer, while the blue’s fur shifts between dark grey and brown during the summer, and grey and black in the winter. The cubs I had the privilege to spend some time with were the latter.

At first, they were playing with each other, cheerfully gnawing on reindeer’s antlers (the owner of which was nowhere to be to found), but shortly they decided such exhausting work required a break, letting me witness the cutest scene of the whole expedition. There I was, in the middle of Alaska, all alone, a couple of meters away from the most adorable little creatures, tightly cuddled, carelessly snoozing balls of blue fur. If that doesn’t convince you how magical this part of the world is, I don’t know what will. I know I was totally mesmerized.

But foxes were obviously not the only species there. Another amusing animal inhabiting Saint Paul, and one of my favourite marine mammals, is the fur seal. The Pribilof Islands are home to roughly half of their global population, over 100.000 of them living in Saint Paul.

However, they were not always protected and admired animals. Instead, they were victims of the fur trade. When the species were first discovered in the 1700s, millions of these poor animals were intensively hunted and skinned, causing a dramatic decrease in their population. Fortunately, acknowledging that the future of the seals was at stake, the hunting was banned, and, as a result, several hundred thousand of seals can safely breed on these islands with little disruption from humans. Unless you count paparazzi biologist with their big cameras, that is.

The seals return to the islands in May. They are mostly older and robust males, known as bulls. They compete for a breeding spot and to establish their harems, often consisting of up to 40 females! Just to be clear—this is not the reason why I like them so much. Men… am I right, ladies?!

The bulls usually stay in the breeding colony—so-called rookery—fasting through the entire breeding season, in order to secure their place as the dominant ones. Rookeries can be quite volatile—brawls and duels happen all the time and without warning, and their fighting beach areas are hard to miss thanks to loud and distinctive roars coming from them. I have goosebumps every time I approach a coastline with seals.

That said, their behaviour amazes me, and I knew I couldn’t leave Alaska without spending at least some time with these crazy animals. The good thing was, from Reef Point I could walk into the seal’s hide, where I was able to see the entire rookery and just enjoy watching them in their natural habitat. There’s no better feeling for a biologist.

The wildlife viewing didn’t stop there, the activities continued until dusk. For so long I wanted to be in Alaska that going back to the hotel early felt wrong, especially once I found out no other Brazilian photographer had taken any photos of certain species found in Saint Paul, like the crested, parakeet and least auklet. But since nothing comes in life easily, I had to circle the island in search for more of my feather friends with no guarantees of coming back with more good memories and pictures.

Unlike other species, the crested auklet was harder to spot while I was on the island. The best time would normally be from mid-June to mid-July and, unfortunately, I was there a few weeks late. Somewhat naively, I was certain I would find their breeding colony. And of course, I… didn’t.

But instead, I got one better—a close encounter. Call it an idiot’s luck.

I was taking a short break, eating a rather nice chocolate bar (have I mentioned I have a thing for chocolate?), my mind distant, looking at the horizon, when suddenly this little guy landed next to me! That awkward moment of looking like a chipmunk with half of the bar stuffed into my mouth, while slowly and quietly trying to raise your camera to take a photo… I’m glad there was nobody near to see that. The truth is, crested auklets are simply stunning, and although they look like their hair stylist was closely related to Elvis, I’m counting the days to go back and see them again.

Once my excitement levels dropped (very slightly, mind), we moved to another great location—Antone Wall—a long, rocky beach with big boulders, right next to the magnificent Antone Lake. There I found a big colony of least auklet and completed my Saint Paul’s wish list with the Parakeet Auklet. I finally had the opportunity to get an insight into the lives of these birds and their interactions. They amaze me so much that sometimes I let go my camera and just stay there looking at them, completely hooked up.

That would have been a wonderful way to end my expedition. I was very happy with all I witnessed and photographed, but little did I know what was waiting for me on the last day.

One of the fellow photographers, somehow managed to hire a boat (and let me emphasize: this is not easy, if at all possible, feat), and was kind and generous enough to let me and few other people join him on board and visit Saint George Island—one of the best places for birding in the Pribilofs. Due to the constant, thick fog and bad weather, flights to Saint George often get canceled, so traveling by sea was our only option. It may sound exciting to some, but being prone to seasickness, well… let’s just say I wasn’t sure I could handle a whole day of navigating the Bering Sea and its infamous winds.

The weather seemed reasonable at first, but I knew better—the Bering Sea is known to have a  temper, should be respected and most definitely not taken lightly. Having said that, I didn’t want to miss such a great opportunity, so after taking few seasickness pills, wrapping myself in 3 layers of clothing, and an extra rain cover, I was ready for the scariest ride of my life.

I still remember that day as if it was yesterday. Big, relentless waves shaking our boat to the sounds of Aerosmith (luckily our captain had a great taste for music), and a small group of us in the middle of it all, surrounded by flocks of seabirds occupied by their daily fishing routine, not paying any attention to few green-faced people passing by. We could see puffins, fulmars and guillemots, even few shearwaters honoured us with their presence, but the most spectacular view was yet to come.

A somewhat high–pitch sound of delight came out of my mouth when I first saw the enormous cliff of Saint George. Shrouded in mist, it gave away such a mysterious vibe, easily competing with all Hollywood lost world movie locations out there.

Walking the island was even more special. I can’t really explain it, but I felt a really deep connection with nature, the strongest of all Alaskan places I visited. The piercing, cold wind stubbornly followed me wherever I went, even away from the cliffs where I was listening to the enchanting symphonies of seabirds. And yet the biggest prize came in shape of few horned puffins which cheekily and curiously flew in front of my face and landed nearby to check this awkward looking female human. I quickly realised how much I would miss this place!

It didn’t help that our time in Saint George was soon over. As I mentioned before, the Bering Sea is unpredictable, so we had to return to Saint Paul while it was “reasonably calm”. Our captain was checking the weather forecast at all time, concerned with the possibility of a storm. Fortunately, we were lucky that day, and our way back was as smooth and enjoyable as they get. We even had an amazing view of another Pribilof island—the Otter Island. A perfect way to end my last day in Saint Paul.

Next day I was boarding a plane home, but, to tell you the truth, if you asked me where my home was there and then, I would have likely pointed my fingers towards the cliffs. Going back from an expedition is rarely easy, but going back from Alaska was far too bitter. It is one of those rare places in the world, which when experienced for the first time, remains with you for the rest of your life.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have the opportunity to spend time surrounded by baby arctic foxes, funny looking fur seals, and adorable puffins. I yearned for a place like this, and my trip to the Pribilofs was one of the most productive photography expeditions ever, not only allowing me to capture unique images but also letting me better understand animal behaviour, which will be of great help during future expeditions.

And Saint Paul? Let me just say that despite the cold and the thick layer of clouds dissolving any hope of sunshine, it is definitely THE place to spot animals. A truly magnificent place unlike any other on Earth. A place I will most definitely come back to. A home away from home…