If you’ve visited Auke Bay’s Statter Harbor in the last few weeks, you’ve seen a world gone wild.
For the past two weeks, hundreds of common murres, marbled murrelets, common loons, gulls and other birds have called to each other and dived for food around Auke Bay. Pods of sea lions surface in a tight raft just feet from the docks as they chase fish. A humpback whale dives beneath boats. Huge schools of herring cluster just below the surface of the water.
“In my 50-plus years in Juneau, I’ve never seen the abundance of birds that are there now,” said Bob Armstrong, a local naturalist, author and retired biologist.
There have been big gatherings of animals before, Armstrong said, such as a few years ago when long-tailed ducks gathered in the harbor to feed on tube worms. Humpback whales have entered the bay before, and seals and sea lions are regular residents and visitors, though not as active as they are now.
On Wednesday, Armstrong watched a whale dive down beneath docked boats, turn around, and reemerge.
On Monday, a “huge number” of herring gathered near the shore. “They just blackened the water,” Armstrong said.
What those watching the phenomenon don’t know, however, is why this congregation of wildlife is happening now.
“It’s a hot spot for foraging right now, for some reason,” said local ecologist Michelle Ridgway. “I don’t know why we have the aggregations of birds in here, unless this just happens to be where food is most highly aggregated.”
The birds and other animals are being attracted by the herring, pollock, sand lance and capelin. Some may also be targeting mysids (small, shrimp-like creatures) and other crustaceans, Ridgway said.
Ridgway suspects the sea lions, of which there are a mixture of pups, adults and “about a dozen young bucks,” are targeting larger pollock.
Water temperatures don’t seem out of the normal range, she said, and the water is clear.
“I’m not sure (why this gathering is happening), but it’s fantastic to watch, though,” she said, “It’s a very interesting time of year. As the weather changes abruptly, it can turn everything over.”
Earlier this week, Ridgway counted 72 marbled murrelets. “We have a wild kingdom here in Auke Bay,” she said.
Audubon Society member Doug Jones was out earlier this week trying to film common murres and murrelets flying underwater.
“Once you come down once, you’ve got to come back,” Jones said. “This is exceptional.”
Andi Story and her son Ryan were out walking on the docks last week when they saw a whale surface. Story returned with friends Gayle Trivette and Cindy Quisenberry on Wednesday.
Two humpback whales have been visiting the bay almost every day for about two weeks
Steve Gilbertson described the “wall of murres” and other animals at the harbor as “the best wildlife show in town.”
That show will probably last as long as the food does, Armstrong said.
• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.