This is a detailed report from our 2021 Katmai Bear Photo Tour in Alaska. By the way, all these photos were captured during the actual trip - I didn't stack it with images from the past with one exception that is noted.
Well this trip got off to a unique start thanks to a Covid flare up in the small town of Kodiak. Normally the trip begins with a night in a nice hotel and a nice welcome dinner. Long story short, we ended up going from the airport straight to the boat to minimize any chances of infection. No one was complaining as this meant a whole extra day in Katmai for no extra cost! Janine scrambled around to come up with a surprisingly good dinner from a restaurant in town, and we all got settled in for the night.
Day 1. After a quick breakfast, we threw lines and headed out to sea. The scenery along the community of Kodiak, and the island is really nice, lots to see. Within a couple of hours of departure we encountered our first group of fin whales. This is the second largest animal in the world behind only the blue whale! They are a treat to see, but a challenge to photograph since they don’t breach or even tail fluke like humpbacks. We were treated to some close encounters.
Later in the afternoon we spent some time with a large raft of sea otters, while keeping a constant eye out for numerous bird species. We had a couple really keen wildlife observers on board including a biologist, so we decided to keep a species list. I’m glad we did, by the end of the trip the list was impressive. Finally, we were joined by a group of dahl's porpoise who swam along riding the pressure wave of the bow.
Thanks to some incoming inclimate weather, we made the choice to push all the way to the Katmai Coast this first day with our target set on Kukak Bay. We arrived late, after 10:00 p.m., but through the darkness we could make out a number of bears on the beach, so things were encouraging! And to think, normally we would still be in town this night.
Day 2. We were anchored out of sight of the main viewing river at Kukak, but even so, we saw a couple of bears during breakfast including a sow with cubs walking the beach near our vessel. After eating, we loaded up the landing craft and headed to shore. Like a lot of the Katmai coast, landing can be challenging, especially at low tide thanks to the huge tide swings, and flat nature of the beaches. It took a little searching, but we found a nice route and set up along the river. We could see a few bears off in the distance and decided to wait for them. The previous year at this same location began the same way but ended with an amazing show as we were surrounded by three huge boars as they worked the river around our island pulling out salmon after salmon.
Unfortunately, to be frank, this year Kukak was a bust as none of the bears came close, so we headed back to the boat for lunch. By now, the expected storm was arriving and the winds really started to blow. We decided to pull anchor and head to Devil’s Cove. This cove is not only really protected, but has a pretty waterfall. A dead whale earlier in the summer had been attracting a lot of bears.
The dead whale was pretty much picked over, but Devil’s Cove was very scenic. We launched two skiffs so everyone would have a lot of elbow room. There were lots of eagles, salmon and shorebirds that kept us occupied and out of the wind, however no bears.
Day 3 Hallo Bay. The reason we went to Kukak, not only was it amazing last year, but it also puts us within easy striking distance of the famous bear viewing area of Hallo Bay. Fortunately we got an early start as we were immediately distracted by a large pod of orcas! A nice pre breakfast photo opportunity.
As soon as we arrived at Hallo, we launched skiffs as we could see numerous bears on the shore. We spent some time with them, they were mostly just watching for salmon, but it was nice to be photographing bears! After a bit, someone spotted a wolf! It was a ways down the beach, but heading our way. We got set up, but it never reappeared. No photos, but cool sighting. We saw and photographed a wolf here last year as well.
One of the things I love about Hallo Bay is the huge fields of flowers along with a stunning mountain glacier backdrop. As the tide came in, we moved up along the river. We saw some bears chase and catch salmon, and a few bears passed by fairly close, however the highlight of the day was a sow with 4 spring cubs! Four is fairly rare, and it was a treat to be so close. I think in total we counted 15 to 20 bears. That, plus the amazing scenery and variety of wildlife kept us very busy. In fact, no one wanted to miss out on the bears for lunch so we stayed on shore all the way until 3:00 in the afternoon! Definitely a longer than normal landing, but well worth it!
This is the second year in a row we have had Hallo Bay all to ourselves! Since we had such a good day at Hallo, we decided to pull anchor and look for new photo opportunities. We used the evening to head down the coast to a new location as it would be hard to top our experience.
Day 4 Kuliak Bay. I have never been to Kuliak Bay so it was a treat to see a new location. Kuliak Bay isn’t a place for big numbers of bears, but it contains a really scenic stream and waterfall that can make for some great bear images. There were bears on shore last night when we arrived, and again this morning.
Due to the unfavorable low tide, we launched both skiffs and explored both coves of Kuliak Bay. The setting is really photogenic, and the wildlife extremely plentiful, especially the birds. Once we had a little higher tide, we could make our way into the lagoon and up to the little waterfall. We had some very close bear activity, and watched one bear catch numerous salmon. Wouldn’t you know it after a couple of stormy days, we now had full sunshine and were battling harsh sunlight - us photographers always want it all!
After the bear viewing, we pulled anchor with our sights set on my favorite location, Geographic Harbor, where we intended to spend a couple of days. However, Kuliak wasn’t done with us yet as we photographed a humpback whale on our way out of the bay, along with a dramatic sea lion haul-out. Fellow Seward resident, friend and chef Rachel entertained us with her singing and ukulele at the end of the evening.
Day 5. Geographic Harbor. This is the first bay in which we encountered other visitors, however there were so few it was a non-issue. We ate an early breakfast and then headed straight to the beach at first light where we were the first visitors of the day. There was plenty of bear activity in all directions. During the fishing season, we set up in a prime location and for the most part let the bears come to us. This is in contrast to spring bear viewing tours where we do more anticipating and moving.
I could go on and on about all the encounters, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, we saw lots and lots of bears, lots of salmon being caught, and all kinds of encounters and interactions. Everyone was filling cards and draining batteries. Except for a quick lunch break at high tide, we stayed the whole day on shore. The light was perfect, high overcast without rain or wind. An absolutely perfect day with the bears.
There was one interaction worth noting. This is one of those moments in nature I will never forget. We were watching a sow and a young cub fish the water hole in front of us. After a bit, the sow crossed over and fished right next to us, while the cub stayed on the far side. Then, with little warning another bear emerged from the grass on the same side of the river as the cub. This adult took one look at the situation, and then took off after the cub!
In the photo below you see all three of the bears as the mom comes to the cubs rescue. Surprisingly, the sow briefly got distracted by a salmon and actually stopped and turned around before going back to the pursuit. The adult intruder viciously attacked the cub – we thought it was dead. However the sow arrived in time to save the cub which could still walk much to our amazement. The sow and cub sat side by side not moving for a good half hour after the attack. Eventually, the sow and cub came back to the waterhole for more fishing, and the cub hardly had a mark! This had a happy ending, however the events definitely had us rattled for a while.
Rachel had another wonderful dinner waiting for us when we returned to the boat, and as it got dark, we were able to replay some of the phone videos on the tv monitor on the boat as we relived the amazing day.
Day 6 Geographic Harbor. This was another fantastic day of fishing bears! The tide was very low when we arrived on shore, so we spent some time with clamming bears, then on to the fishing. On our way back to the boat for lunch, we had a red fox on the shoreline. Seeing these beautiful animals is always a nice bonus.
After lunch we filled more cards with the non-stop activity! The highlight had to be a sow with 3 spring cubs who fished right in front of us. At one point, the sow had caught a salmon and brought it to shore very near us until one of the little cubs grabbed the salmon and took off with it, with mom and siblings following closely behind!
We stayed on shore until the high tide pretty much eliminated the remaining beach for fishing activity. What another great day. As we ate dinner, Andy relocated the boat to a scenic area on the outer part of the harbor. Here, some folks choose to relax on the boat, a few went for a kayak, and a few went with Jordan to a beach she knew of with agates. On our return, we watched a nice sunset from the back deck where a few guests enjoyed a cold beer or glass of wine as we reminisced about another great day.
The plan was to head across Shelikof Strait in the morning, however an updated weather report showed a pretty big storm moving in. So Captain Andy decided we should pull the anchor and motor overnight to beat the storm. So by 10:00 p.m. as most of us were heading to bed, Andy and Jordan began the trip across the Strait.
Day 7. Dry Spruce Bay, Kodiak Island. We arrived here at about 3:30 a.m. It was nice to beat the storm as by the morning the wind was blowing very hard even in our protected harbor. We launched two skiffs and made a visit to the old historic Port Baily Cannery. Fascinating place, with lots to photograph. From there we explored the bay - this is a great place to photograph sea otters. The wind made it a bit challenging, but we got nice and close to a couple of mom’s with pups.
In the afternoon we pulled anchor and made our way along Kodiak Island. Our destination for the evening is Anton Larson Bay. Last year here was my best puffin photography experience ever, so I was excited to go back. As we arrived and anchored for the evening, I was even more excited to see lots of puffins on shore around the rocks. It was too dark for photography, but it looked good for the morning.
Day 8 We were in both skiffs before breakfast at first light. Unfortunately, most of the puffin were gone. This can happen; when conditions are favorable they will all head out to feed. It was still a pretty morning, and we saw numerous other birds rounding out an incredible species list with a total of 66 species for the week long trip. The puffin photo below is from the same location the previous year.
We headed back to the boat for breakfast, and pulled anchor for the trip back to the town of Kodiak. The wildlife photography wasn’t done as we encountered more fin whales, and another pod of orcas not far from the town of Kodiak.
By the time we hit town and had our last lunch on the boat, the wind had died down and the sun had come out for a beautiful sunny day. We all flew out that afternoon, and folks sitting on the left side of the plane had a great view of the vast, diverse and stunning country we had just spent the past week exploring.