Sunday, April 21, 2013

Denizens of the Sea Plane Float

Last autumn I took my first ride on one of the Alaska Marine Highway’s newest ferries, a 235-foot catamaran, the Fairweather.  Previously I’ve only seen it sailing into and out of Petersburg where, from our living room window. the space-age craft looks like something you’d more likely see at an airport in Dubai.  It certainly doesn’t fit in with the classic lines of the older ships in the fleet. 

My prejudice against the Fairweather changed somewhat during that ride.  Cruising over placid seas at 42-miles per hour the usual eight-hour ride to Juneau slipped by in just four hours.  The trip felt as smooth as a snooze on our living room couch.  Sadly it was a money losing proposition for the state since I counted just seven fellow travelers on the ship built to carry 250 passengers.

I pulled myself away from the cafeteria long enough to savor the passing scene -- the necklace of deep green forests wrapped like ribbons around rocky crags, glaciers and fields of snow as they flashed by the wrap-around windows.  We passed pods of orcas, the dorsal fins of big males rising like ship masts over the sea; feeding humpback whales with waterfalls pouring off their tails as they dove into the depths and one group of marine mammals I could share with Karen.  Pulling away from the pier I spied a handful of sea lions lazing around on Petersburg’s sea plane float.  Karen got the first call on our new cell phone.  “You have a photo op, sweetheart.”  I was sure she wouldn’t miss them since a mature male Steller’s sea lion can weigh over a ton and reach up to 10 feet (3.25 meters) in length.   While females are considerably smaller, if one sat on your foot you’d need to see a podiatrist. 

For our local sea lions Petersburg harbors are their version of McDonald’s.  Close to schools of herring, cod and Dolly Varden char, to name but a few of our marine residents and the carcasses of newly cleaned halibut, rock ish and salmon tossed into the harbor by local sport fishers, they’ve found a culinary paradise.  And, of course, the sea plane float is far more comfortable then a pile of rocks out in Frederick Sound, not to mention the shorter commuting distance to “McDonald’s.”

While we relish sharing our corner of the world with these denizens of the sea, local commercial fishers do not.  It’s their mutual fondness for salmon.  Say a commercial troller dragging a small fleet of hooks for hours on end finally latches on to a king salmon worth hundreds of dollars, a paycheck for many hours at sea.  All too often that potential infusion of cash into the troller's coffers becomes a dinner bell for sea lions.  The fisherman ends up with just a head or less.  No -- sea lions are not popular in Alaska commercial fishing ports.

For that matter, I don’t suppose pilots who tie their planes up at the seaplane float particularly like sharing the “airport” with these smelly over-stuffed sacks of blubber either.  Sea lions are not house (or dock) broken.  They’ve made the end of the float slippery and smell worse than a landfill on a hot summer day.  I suspect that end of the dock is now reserved for it’s maritime residents -- a bonus provided for tourists by the state.

And, for photographers and artists like Karen these flour-sack shaped behemoths of the sea are one more bonus for living in this remote corner of the world.  I can just hear Karen softly cooing to them as she crawls just a wee bit closer.


                      Mildly Unassuming    8 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches    Watercolor

                                                     Total Comfort

                                               The regal king of the float

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