Category Archives: Alaska

Below the Surface

Diving in Kodiak water
Kodiak is a diver’s paradise with enchanting kelp forests inhabited by colorful and curious creatures.

I got my PADI diver’s license in 1980 while working on the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Since then, I have explored most of the premier diving sites of the world, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Red Sea, the Andaman Islands south of Burma, the West Indies, and the South Pacific. But few places are as rich in fish, shellfish and other marine wildlife as the coral gardens and kelp forests that surround Kodiak. A calm, sunny day in Kodiak waters is one of the most exciting dives a diver will ever experience.

There are many odd and colorful creatures in the ocean around the Kodiak islands. Besides the five species of salmon, there are several species of cod, herring, halibut, starfish in every color of the rainbow, sea cucumbers, octopi, shellfish, sea otters, several kinds of whales, and the giant salmon shark.

My first dive on Kodiak was off the shores of Fort Abercrombie. After a few minutes in the water, two curious sea lions approached me, poking at my diving equipment. On land sea lions are large and cumbersome animals, but in the water they are elegant and graceful. Their familiarity was both exciting and alarming. One little nibble on my rubber air hose could have had devastating consequences. But they soon decided that I was a rather boring playmate and left me and my equipment without harm.

In the 1940s and 1950s, new radar equipment revealed large hoards of king crabs in the waters around Kodiak. This discovery launched a boom in the fishing industry, and in just five years, Kodiak was transformed from a small fishing community to one of the largest commercial fishing ports in the United States. Annual catches of up to 100 million pounds were pulled from the waters around Kodiak and delivered to the canneries.

Commercial fishing of king crabs continued for 25 years. Then, in the 1970s, the population of king crabs dwindled. By 1982, the catch was so poor that fishing was stopped. No one knows for sure why the king crabs disappeared, but researchers believe that overfishing could be one of the main factors.

Pete Cummiskey, one of my good friends on Kodiak, is a diver and marine biologist who has been working with the king crabs since the mid-80s. I asked him to show me the crab pods. There is protection in numbers, so juvenile crabs group together in giant balls to protect themselves from predators. A large pod can have several thousand crabs.

One gorgeous but cold November day, we went out in Womens Bay in search of crabs. Earlier that year, Pete had tagged several individuals and attached transmitters to their shells. Pete lowered the receiver into the water and soon picked up a signal. We prepared for our dive.

The pod was about 90-120 feet down, engulfed in a dense cloud of sediment churned up by the crabs. It was so thick, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and it took a few minutes to locate the pod. Because of the poor visibility, I had to get really close to the crabs in order to film.

The king crab is an impressive animal with a leg span of up to 6 feet across, and with large powerful claws that could easily snap off a finger. As they get older and larger they are less dependent on the pod, but the crabs in the pod I was filming were still fairly large.

Lying on the bottom, trying to get as close as I could with my camera, I felt the sharp pinch of a claw grabbing on to my arm through my thick diver’s suit. It was so painful I almost dropped the camera. I tried to pull the crab away, but it refused to let go. I realized that the only way to free myself from the monster was to rise to the surface. Halfway up, the crab finally let go and sank to the bottom. I had learned my lesson – Give the king crabs a wide berth!

I did descend again, however, and resumed my filming of the remarkable crab pods on the bottom of Womens Bay, keeping a respectful distance.

We located more pods and made several dives in the bay that day. Through his research, Pete has learned a lot about the king crabs’ environment and their migration along the ocean floor. Hopefully his research will lead to a rejuvenation of the king crab population so that commercial fishing of this wonderful delicacy can resume on Kodiak.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

The Naked Salmon

Stefan Quinth holding a skinned salmon
The salmon refused to give up, even after a nasty encounter with a bear. When I released it back into the water, it swam away quickly.

Five species of salmon return every year to the creeks, rivers and lakes on Kodiak. Having spent 2-4 years swimming all over the Pacific Ocean, they return to the same body of water where they once hatched. The thousands of salmon that spawn in the Connecticut Creek have had to swim several miles through a network of rivers before coming home. It is a journey wrought with danger. Like runners in a gauntlet, the salmon race as fast as they can up the shallow water, while hungry bears wait expectantly on the shore.

I was wading up the middle of Connecticut Creek one day, when several salmon swam past my feet. This was not an unusual occurrence, as the stream was often full of fish, but one of them looked odd. On closer inspection, I saw to my surprise, that it was naked! It had apparently just escaped after a close encounter with a bear, leaving behind the skin off its back.

Striding through the water, I chased after the naked salmon, wanting to get a picture of the fish that wouldn’t give up, despite incredible adversity. I caught up with it at the next bend and managed to coax it up on the sand. Carefully, I lifted the salmon in my hands to take its picture. It was stripped of skin from head to tail. Such a tenacious character, giving all it had for the next generation! I released the salmon back into the river, and as soon as it felt the cool water, it took off with a powerful swish of its tail, probably very much aware that time was of the essence.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q)

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

A Playful Bear Cub

The young bear clowned around outside my tent, keeping one eye on me to see if I was paying attention. He kept me company for over a weeks
The young bear clowned around outside my tent, keeping one eye on me to see if I was paying attention. He kept me company for over a weeks.

My first visit to South Frazer on Kodiak Island was in late August. Although it was quiet and deserted, evidence of the summer’s activities could be seen everywhere. The grass lay trampled and dotted with bear scat. Piles of rotting salmon lined the riverbanks below the waterfall.

I set up my tent by the lake, just north of the outlet. The fishing was great, and I lived like a king on freshly caught trout.

Waking early one morning, I opened the tent flap to find a young bear watching me from a few yards away. He studied me carefully. Then, after a minute or two, began rolling around in the grass, turning somersaults, and playing with his back paws, keeping an eye on me the whole time. He seemed to want to play … with me! Is it possible to play with a 300-pound bear cub?

The cub had dark fur, like most males. About 20 yards away, there was another cub, this one lighter in color, probably the sister of the cub near my tent. Sows, ready to mate again, usually abandon their cubs during their third summer. Left alone, not really knowing how to act, the cubs are most vulnerable. Bears are very social animals, and abandoned cubs often seek the company and security of other creatures, even humans. I’d been “adopted” before by cubs on Kodiak. While a great honor, it’s not entirely without risk.

I had plenty of opportunities to film and photograph the playful cub that stayed near me the whole time I was there. When I went down to the lake, he followed me, and when I went to bed, he laid down just outside my tent. His sister, the lighter bear cub, kept her distance.

Since then, I’ve returned to South Frazer many times and have often wondered what happened to my little friend. Maybe he is one of the giant bears that roam the mountaintops. Hopefully, he’s learned to be a little more cautious and keep his distance from dangerous humans.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Kodiak, Alaska

Kodiak, Alaska

Alaska! What is it about this great, unspoiled wilderness that is so alluring to some people? It is a destination that often requires a challenging and costly journey, with accommodations lacking creature comforts like hot water and dry socks, swarming with mosquitoes and other bloodthirsty critters, and completely cut off from communication with the outside world. Why are we willing to go to great expense and difficulty for the opportunity to abstain from comforts we strived for generations to obtain? Is it a longing for a simpler life, a desire to escape from city noises, smog-laden air and bumper-to-bumper traffic or simply a challenge to see how much we can handle? I would like to take you on an exciting adventure to the Kodiak islands in the Gulf of Alaska, a place laden with history and hidden secrets.

It’s a little known fact that most of the natives on the island are descendants of a group of Scandinavian men who arrived on Kodiak about 100 years ago, married Sugpiaq women, and raised large families. This explains why so many of the natives have names like Olson, Gustavson, Haakanson and Svenson. With its high mountains, clothed in emerald green and cut through with deep blue fjords, Kodiak has many similarities to the Scandinavian Peninsula.

I first came to Kodiak more than 25 years ago to film the Kodiak bear, the largest land carnivore on earth, but I found the islands so intriguing that I have returned year after year. For a documentary filmmaker, there is a never-ending source of inspiration in the dramatic landscapes, unique wildlife, and rich cultural history.  I would like to share some of my adventures in the wilderness, my experiences with the great bear, and my encounters with history through sunken ships and archeological digs.  I found a multitude of film projects on Kodiak, and I also developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Every time I return to Kodiak it feels like I’ve come home.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.