A Tern A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

Visiting glaciers is one of the most special and remarkable experiences for both Alaskan locals and tourists alike. No two glaciers are the same, and neither are any two days visiting them. What most people don't realize is how active the wildlife near many glaciers can be, most impressively the mountain goats, harbor seals, and sea birds. Of these birds, the one I find most fascinating is the arctic tern. These terns are relatively common in most of the glaciated valleys of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska during the early summer months, but then begin the world's longest migration to the southern areas of Argentina.

Because their lifecycle is so intensive, and they can only breed when in Alaska, they are extremely protective of their eggs and young. In Juneau, at Mendenhall Glacier, I've witnessed full-fledged warfare between the terns and bald eagles. The eagles took a fighting formation and synchronously dive upon the terns, which in tern rise up and use their agility and speed to pluck at and injure the eagles. It's magnificent to watch. These birds are so protective, that they've been known to dive on hikers and rangers when they feel their breeding grounds have been encroached upon.

For all these reasons, it's rare to get a really good look at these beautiful birds. Their red beaks and crowned heads go unnoticed by most as they dart through the air or hide away in their nesting grounds.

And then there's this one time at South Sawyer Glacier. As usual, we launched our kayaks and began to explore the field of icebergs and waterfalls in front of the glacier. I noticed a group of terns sitting on an iceberg nearby, and decided to investigate. I paddled towards them slowly, with my camera out, and each stroke closer made sure to snap some more shots, knowing I might spook them at any moment. For this same reason, I neglected to alert my guests of this sighting, knowing they'd inevitably speed towards the terns and scare them off. I kept moving closer, snapping some photos, and repeating the process. Eventually, I even was able to get picky, positioning myself where the background and glacier looked the best, but making sure to keep my eyes focused through my lens and finger constantly on the shutter.

I took a few hundred photos before realizing something spectacular. The bow of my kayak was touching their bergy-bit (Yes, this is REALLY the term for a mini iceberg), and my zoom setting was at zero. I finally took my camera away from my face and marveled in the beauty of the creatures around me. In a million years I never thought I'd be this close to these birds, let alone at sea level with them and able to photograph their beauty. Eventually I had to get back to my guests, and go upon our way exploring the glacier, but I will always remember this moment.

It truly changed my life, both introspectively, and also as a photographer. I realized how much beauty is in the things we take for granted or are sometimes too small to notice or take note of. Taking pictures of their antics, and learning to think like a whale all summer was an unbeatable experience. But learning the very intricate details of such an expansive place in Southeast Alaska was what made my summer so special.

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