Mid Summer 2014: Predators

I like to imagine that each of our summer seasons has a theme, and that theme may be revealed to me at any point during or after the summer. Sometimes the theme has to do with our guests, and other times it is related to the animals we see or the environment of Kodiak Island. Occasionally the theme is obvious, such as two years ago when we saw whales every day during the summer, but other years, the central theme is more subtle, and I have to reread my journal several times to discover the thread that tied the summer together. This summer, the theme, at least for the first half of our season, came to me in a flash one afternoon as I listened to our guests discuss the unusual and disturbing, yet fascinating events of their day.

Let me back up a bit to the Fourth of July before our summer season even began, when we heard that fishermen on a boat in Shelikof Strait, not far from us, had watched a pod of orcas attack, kill, and eat a 70-ft. Fin whale. I could only imagine the amount of blood and carnage that act must have produced, and I admit thinking that it would have been an incredible sight to see. Two weeks later, early in our summer trips, we cruised by a beach on small island where a group of harbor seals had hauled out. Our guests love seeing the chubby seals with the big eyes and long whiskers curled in a banana pose on the beach. This day, though, we saw three orcas skirting the beach apparently trying to grab a harbor seal for a tasty meal. Meanwhile, nearby, a sea otter bobbed on his back, either unaware or unconcerned that he was in the midst of marauding orcas. We didn’t interfere in this saga but kept our distance and watched it play out. I held my breath, hoping the orcas would not be successful either at dragging a harbor seal off the beach or partaking in a furry sea-otter snack. By the time we left, no blood had been spilled, and the orcas seemed to be moving away from the beach.

Fast forward two weeks when Mike and six bear viewers sat on a river bank and watched a bear chase and eat salmon. The shutters clicked as she caught a few salmon and ate them in front of the group. Next, she walked over to a beaver dam, and they couldn’t tell what she was doing until she lifted her head, and they saw she had a beaver in her powerful jaws. Then came the long, drawn-out, gruesome process of her killing and eating the beaver. The expression on the beaver’s face in the photo is easy to read.

As soon as I picked up our guests on the beach that day, they couldn’t wait to tell me what they had seen. They were obviously upset by what they had witnessed, but they were also fascinated by watching nature uncensored. Mike and I told them they had seen something few other humans would ever see, but secretly I was relieved I hadn’t been with them. The photo is painful enough to look at. Still, it got me thinking about our fascination with predators, especially top-level carnivores.

Who among us hasn’t watched a nature show where a pride of lions attacks a gazelle, or a great white shark devours everything in its path. Even an eagle going in for a kill is fascinating to see, and orcas and bears can certainly be included in this list of predators who are at the top of the food chain. I think it’s interesting that we can watch a bear or orca kill and eat salmon all day long and can’t summon much empathy for the fish, but if the prey is a mammal, worse yet, a mammal with a cute face, that’s a different story. Suddenly that bear or orca almost seems guilty of murder when in fact, he is just eating lunch.

We make our living by showing people the nature and wild animals of Kodiak Island, and everyone enjoys seeing sea otters, seals, deer, and foxes, but it’s those top-level predators, especially the Kodiak brown bear, that everyone hopes to see, and most people want to see a bear chasing and catching salmon. They want to watch a powerful carnivore doing what he or she does. Seeing that same bear pull a beaver out of its home and tear it apart or watching a pod of orcas drag seals off a beach may be too much reality for many people, but I think most of us find uncensored nature fascinating, and it makes us respect those animals at the top of the food chain even a bit more.