Deckhand Diary: Cordova’s Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival

“No amount of reference materials will prepare you for the unexpected,” David Sibley told a packed auditorium at the Cordova Center during this year’s Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. Nothing could better sum up the weekend that I spent with Major Marine Tours during the festival, where the unexpected took the form of hummingbirds above busy decks, blue-sky glaciers, more eagles than I’ve ever seen, and an extremely unusual sighting of a once-in-a-lifetime whale.

When I heard that Major Marine Tours offered round-trip transportation to Cordova for the shorebird festival, my first thought was that this might be my only chance to visit Cordova. I knew almost nothing about Cordova except that it was near Valdez in Prince William Sound and that, having no roads in or out, the only chance to get there was by plane or by boat. With Major Marine Tours the “boat” category became much more pleasant, with a shorter crossing for less money than the ferry, and the flexibility to watch any wildlife we happened to find along the way.

Next came the second unknown: the shorebird festival itself. A Google search helped me there. Cordova, I learned, was the gateway to the Copper River Delta, a major stopover for migrating bird species. Beside attracting vast numbers of shorebirds, Cordova had also managed to attract someone very special: David Sibley, author and illustrator of The Sibley Guide to Birds, one of the most widely used field guides in North America. What was it about this small town, I wondered, that had the power to attract one of the most famous ornithologists in the nation.

There was only one way to find out. Friday morning, I boarded the Fairweather Express II in Whittier with some fellow Major Marine crew, thrilled to discover an entirely new section of Prince William Sound. The weather was deliriously beautiful, blue skies bending around mountains still heavy beneath their winter snows. Sunshine glossed the water, scattering wide enough to settle into warmth on my skin. We were thrilled like children, spoiled by beauty. We watched goats pick their way above the kittiwake rookery, humpback blows rising from the water only a few miles later.

Prince William Sound was a wonderland, and I ate up the views like candy. Islands rose with steep-sided peaks, while others sat mounded beneath forests hung with moss. Each new mile brought a discovery. It felt entirely expected when Captain Laura veered toward a distant spout and so I glanced up, assuming a humpback blow and hence, for the moment at least, seeing one.

But something felt off. I stood up without realizing it, my eyes on the sunlit shape a mile away. Was that rounded triangle behind the blow the bent edge of pectoral fin, I wondered? We must be approaching from an odd angle, I thought, to make that blow look so sideways. The other possibility, that what I was seeing was not a humpback or a fin whale or a gray whale but something very, very different, did not seem possible.

I felt the angle of that blow in the questioning tilt of our heads as, one by one, the crew stopped talking and stepped forward silently. It felt uncomfortable, almost, this moment of balancing just over the edge of the familiar. “I’m hesitant to say it yet,” Captain Ian spoke slowly over the microphone, “but I think that may be a sperm whale.”

He was right. As soon as the words became solid I saw the classic sideways blow, the lumpy dorsal fin, the way the whale lay heavy just at the surface of the water. Each blow brought with it an angled cloud of sunshine and I stood in shock, breathless, in total awe of the jewel-like rarity of this moment. Never in the entire history of our company had Major Marine Tours encountered a living sperm whale, and this was one of a very few number of sperm whales I had even heard of in Prince William Sound. He breathed in the sun, the closest thing to an alien I’ll ever see, a creature perfectly adapted for a deep ocean world as foreign as our planet can be.

And then he fluked, his body a straight line down towards the dark deep.

Barriers fell away between passengers as we made our ways through the boat in a daze, learning stories and sharing facts, all of us gathered together in awe. But the boat continued through Prince William Sound, and we slowly settled back into our separate selves, rising when Ian called out a sea of loons or a distant group of Brant geese.

Cordova appeared as a sparkle of boats between the white mountains and the water capped with light. The fishing boats here had character, and I could see at a glance that the town had taught pride to their owners. We docked and said goodbye to our passengers, confident that we would see them again in a few hours at the festival, then sat for a moment on the second deck in the sun. Around us, eagles toyed through a sky sculpted by the pulleys of fishing boats. The mountains glistened above the town. I could see a taco stand.

We made our way through town, sitting on patio after patio in the sun, until it was finally time for the event that had brought us all here: the main speakers of the festival, including David Sibley. We walked to the Cordova Center, where I admired local art beneath the high glass windows as I sampled some wine and cheese, and then we filed into our seats to hear the speakers. Instantly I was impressed by the lineup: Lisa Kennedy started us off with an engaging discussion of the birds of the arctic tundra, showing the startling effect that increased populations of snow geese had on nesting birds. Joan Walsh followed with a story of the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society that had the audience laughing along with stories of past and present conservation, all of which, Walsh said, began with “scientific evidence that there [were] a lot of birds on hats.”

Next, David Sibley took the stage with the idea that our perception of the world involves more interpretation than we might like to admit. With an honesty impressive for a man of his talent, he started in with a list of his mistakes. Confidence is a feeling, he quoted, as well as a key to misdirection, and I thought back to how slow I had been to recognize the sperm whale earlier that day. The talk ended with a call to a stepwise process of identifying birds, and I left grateful for a rare glimpse into a world more complicated than our eyes might believe.

The next day was likewise unbelievable, dawning once more with weather to good to be anticipated. Together with Major Marine crew and a friend living in Cordova I drove down to Hartney Bay, one of the best places to see the shorebirds, and followed tracks and beak-marks through the rich mud. I made my way back to the truck, and in the absence of binoculars we sat in the bed in the sun and watched the people as they watched the birds. But the birds would not accept our apparent indifference, and as we sat between the sea and mountains a small orange body zipped back and forth through the hemlocks: a Rufous hummingbird, as bright as sun.

With some time to kill before the cocktail cruise we took a road towards Sheridan glacier, and as we passed a boardwalk and community center I thought again about how proud this town felt to be itself, and how special that made this space. I could see why – driving out of town the road opened up into the beginning of the Copper River Delta, an incredibly rich network of rivers and wetlands alive with wildlife. I watched swans appear as twin spots of white beneath distant glaciers as my friend described brown bear tracks in the wet mud. We reached the glacier and the view even from the carpark was so bright against the blue sky that it hurt my senses, drowned me in beauty. This was a home, I realized, and knew why Cordova had such heart. This place was wild but sweet, and the town matched.

We had to hurry back, though, in time for the Major Marine Tours Cocktail Cruise aboard the Fairweather Express. We boarded between flurries of excited guests from the festival, and as I took a seat I watched the groups begin to converse in snatches. By the time the boat had made its way out of the harbor people were flowing throughout the boat, talking of new birds over appetizers and drinks. The food, catered by a local company, was delicious, and I knew enough to know that Major Marine Tours cocktails rarely disappoint. It was beautiful to watch how everyone moved together into their shared experiences, and when a lunge-feeding humpback and a black bear appeared, and a hummingbird decided to make the second deck his home, I felt these shared sights mold a community within this beautiful space.

As everyone left that night, and we traveled back to Whittier the next morning, I thought about how lucky I had been to be a part of an experience as unique as this festival. Cordova was a town with a soul, and it had shared itself so seamlessly with those of us who had come to visit. This weekend wasn’t just about the birds, or the sperm whale, or the drinks, or the glacier, but was about what it means to come together to a place and share its riches. It was a secret that the the birds who returned each year had known all along.

And that is why next year, along with Major Marine Tours, I shall return with the birds.

 

Tamara Lang is a returning deckhand with Major Marine Tours in Seward. She is a writer of creative nonfiction and the author of “Upstream: A Written and Photographic Journey up the Los Angeles River.” Her writing and her travels can both can be followed on Facebook at Tamara Lang Writes, or at tamaralang.com.

Sperm whale and western sandpiper photos courtesy of Eric Chandler.

Departing Whittier
Departing Whittier on a bluebird day.
Sperm Whale
Sperm whale. Photo by Eric Chandler www.ericchandler.me
Sperm whale fluke. Photo by Eric Chandler www.ericchandler.me
Cordova
Cordova
Birding at Hartney Bay.
Birding at Hartney Bay.
Western sandpipers at Hartney Bay
Western sandpipers at Hartney Bay. Photo by Eric Chandler www.ericchandler.me
Boarding the Major Marine Tours Cocktail Cruise
Boarding the Major Marine Tours Cocktail Cruise. Photo by Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival