Monthly Archives: December 2015

New Year’s Resolution

It’s New Year’s resolution time again. I used not to make resolutions, because I thought they were a sure way to set myself up for failure, but over the last few years, I’ve decided resolutions are a good idea for me. A few years ago I made a resolution that I would be more diligent about going to the doctor. I ended up having two surgeries and countless floatplane trips to Kodiak and flights to Anchorage for medical care that year, so since then, I’ve focused my resolutions on my writing. After all, these resolutions are apparently powerful things, and I’d better be careful what I resolve!

Last year I resolved to finish my second novel and to reach the editing process on my wildlife book. I did finish my novel, and it will be re-published in a few weeks, but I didn’t do as well on the wildlife book. That book is hard work, and progress is slow, but I’m getting there. On the other hand, I couldn’t have imagined last January 1st that in one year, I would not only have my website up and running, but that I would have written 40 posts by the end of the year. I hope to continue my weekly blog posts and to begin my monthly mystery newsletter soon.

I plan to set a lofty writing goal again this year. I know it may be unrealistic, but it is where I dream of seeing myself one year from now. I once again hope to have my wildlife book ready for an editor, and I would like to have the first draft of my third novel finished.

Writing goals are easy to set, and in a perfect world, I could reach these goals, but there is more to life than writing. Not only is there my day job, but promoting myself and my books is time-consuming and makes me uncomfortable, and then there is social media!!! An author today must have at least a Facebook and Twitter presence and preferably also accounts on Linked-in, Instagram, and Pinterest at the very least. There’s barely enough hours in the day for all of that, even if you don’t have another job, but it’s overwhelming if you do.

I think the best resolution I can make this year is to prioritize my writing and promotional goals. What do I want? Do I want to be popular and sell a bundle of books, or do I want to finish some projects that make me proud? I’d love to do all the above, but I think, for now, I’ll focus on doing the best job I can on the books I’ve already started. These include not only my next novel and my wildlife book but also a cookbook/history of Munsey’s Bear Camp that I am writing with my friend, Marcia, and my mother-in-law, Pat. As long as I make progress on these three projects this next year, I’ll be happy, and who knows, maybe I’ll learn how to tweet too!

Happy New Year!!! Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter. It is almost ready to go!

Christmas in Amook Pass


Christmas in Amook Pass is a quiet event that sneaks up on me. I was planning to write a post this week about all the whales that died near Kodiak Island this summer and fall, but it occurred to me that I should think of a cheerier topic for a holiday post.

Holidays are interesting when you live in the wilderness. I know city dwellers get tired of the commercialization that goes with Christmas, and every time you walk into a shopping mall from Halloween to Christmas, you are bombarded with holiday music and holiday sales. I’m sure you even get weary of Christmas parties, holiday events, and all the fattening food that is part of the season. I’ve lived in a city during the holidays, and I can remember complaining about the crowds in the stores, endless events, and sometimes even too many family gatherings with all the stress that entails.


Turn off that holiday buzz, and you have my life. We send Christmas cards to our recent guests, and of course we send a few gifts to family and friends, but since our mail plane comes only once a week, we must plan ahead, and we try to ship everything by December 15th. Better yet, we order our presents online and ship them directly to the recipients. We put up a Christmas tree and even some decorations in the yard to amuse ourselves, since no one sees them but us. We wrap gifts to go under the tree, and because we have no children, we buy too many presents for our cats! I play Christmas music to put me in a holiday mood, but unless we pay careful attention to the calendar, it would be easy to let Christmas slip past, since out here, it is a day like every other day.

A no-fuss holiday may or may not sound nice to you. There is no stress, but it can be lonely. Phone communication is nearly impossible here. Skype does not work well with our satellite internet. We have a satellite phone, but it is also spotty, and who wants to stand outside in December on Kodiak Island and make phone calls on a satellite phone? We usually just e-mail our relatives to wish them a Merry Christmas. We turn on Christmas music, open our gifts and do our best to enjoy our quiet holiday. Overall, I like the peace and quiet. I enjoy Christmas cards from friends and family, and each card is read and reread. Of course with only one mail plane a week and slow mail service to this part of the world, the majority of our cards arrive after the holidays, but that’s okay, they are still a joy.


In a way, I guess our holidays are like everyone else’s. They aren’t perfect, but we look forward to them each year, and we celebrate in our own way. Wherever you are during the holidays and however you celebrate, I wish you all the best!

I’ll have the first installment of my Mystery Newsletter ready to go soon, so if you haven’t already done so, sign up on my home page.

Whale Behavior

This week, I want to take a closer look at whale behavior. Over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned various behaviors, and while the reason for some behaviors seems obvious,others are not so easily explained.

Fin Whales
Fin Whales

Blowing or spouting: This is how whales breathe, so there is no mystery why whales blow. The spray of water is of course not from the whale’s lungs, but it is water that is blasted from the top of the blowhole when the whale exhales. What is interesting is that whales can sometimes be identified by their blow. If all I see is an exhalation and very little of the body, I can usually tell whether I’m looking at a humpback or a fin whale, the two most common whales in Uyak Bay. A fin whale’s blow is very tall and column-shaped while a humpback has a shorter, bushy blow.


Fluking: Some species commonly raise their tail flukes in the air before a deep dive, and others do not. A humpback often raises its tail, while a fin whale seldom does. Why? I don’t know. Humpbacks are more acrobatic than fin whales, and this may have something to do with it.

DSC_0080 (2)

Breaching: This is when a whale propels its body upwards until at least 40% of it is clear ofDSC_0077 (2) the water. Adult blue whales rarely, if ever, breach, because they are too heavy. Fin whales are also very heavy and rarely breach, but when they do, it’s impressive! Humpbacks breach fairly often, and like most large whales, a humpback breaches by raising 90% of its body clear of the water surface and then twisting and crashing down with a large smack and a torrent of spray. Killer whales are capable of acrobatic leaps and somersaults. Scientists have offered many explanations as to why

Minke Whale
Minke Whale

whales breach, and it is probable they breach for a variety of reasons, including mating display, annoyance, aggression, a show of strength, a means of stunning prey, or removing parasites. I suspect one of the main reasons whales breach is because it’s fun. Wouldn’t you do that if you could?



Slapping: This category includes flipper slapping, tail slapping, dorsal fin slapping, DSC_0650lobtailing or tail lobbing, and head slapping. Possible explanations for this behavior include a display, aggression, communication, or a means of stunning prey. Humpbacks often lobtail and flipper slap, and both actions make a very loud noise, so it would be an DSC_0642effective means of communication.



Spyhopping: This is simply when a whale sticks its head out of the water and

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

looks around. By doing this, it can locate a passing vessel or find escape holes or channels in pack ice. Whales may also spyhop to look at people on a boat. Since visibility is better in air than it is in water, it only makes sense that a whale might want to stick its head out of the water to get a better look.


DSC_0072Flipper Waving: Whales sometimes float on their backs and wave their fins in the air. No one knows why, but it looks fun.

Sleeping: One of our brilliant summer guests (I’m talking about you, Karin!) asked me how whales sleep. I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know, so I checked and was quite surprised by the answer. Since whales are mammals, they must breathe air, so how do they sleep without drowning? Research has shown that they either sleep while swimming slowly next to another animal, or they rest vertically or horizontally in the water. Scientists believe that when a whale or dolphin sleeps, it shuts down only half of its brain, and the other half stay awake. The side that is awake watches for predators or other dangers and also signals the animal to rise to the surface and take a breath of air every few minutes. After approximately two hours, the whale shuts down the active portion of its brain and the other side wakes up and takes over.  To read more about this amazing behavior, check out this article.

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

There are many other whale behaviors, including feeding behaviors that I did not cover here. If you have any questions, please ask. Also, if you love mysteries, sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter. I am currently working on the first issue, and I apologize to those of you who have already signed up for it. It is taking me longer than I anticipated to get the first installment ready to go.


Killer Whales

Orca 09-13-09

Killer whales (or orcas) are not really whales but are the largest members of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. With their brilliant black and white markings, they are easy to identify and distinguish from other whales. Killer whales exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females look very different from each other. Adult males in the North Pacific may grow to a length of 27 ft. (8.2 m) and weigh as much as 13,300 lbs. (6,000 kg), while females grow to an average length of 23 ft. (7 m) and weigh about half as much as a large male. Also, a male’s dorsal fin may reach 6 ft. (2 m) in height, while a female’s rarely exceeds 3 ft (1 m).

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

Killer whales are mostly black on their dorsal surface and white on their ventral surface. They have an elliptical white patch on the lateral side of each eye and large white patches that extend from the ventral surface onto the flanks. There is a usually a gray or white saddle area behind the dorsal fin, and this marking varies from one individual to the next, making it useful for identification.

Killer whales are second only to humans as the most widely-distributed species of mammal. They can be found in all oceans and most seas, but they are most common in coastal, temperate waters. They are apex predators and prey on a variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. They are known to prey upon over 140 species, and they are the only cetaceans that routinely prey upon marine mammals, with documented attacks on 50 different species.

Orcas in Amook PassIn the northeastern Pacific, three distinct ecotypes of killer whales have been identified. Resident killer whales mainly eat fish, while transients concentrate on marine mammals. The third type known as offshores have not been well studied, but it is thought they primarily feed on fish, including sharks. All three types are genetically distinct, suggesting there is little or no breeding between the types, and it is possible they should be considered separate subspecies. There are differences in size, coloration and physical appearance between the three types, as well as differences in hunting strategies. Transients forage in smaller groups than residents, and transients travel silently when hunting, while residents produce a variety of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls for echolocation.  Killer whale populations in other regions of the world may also specialize in their feeding habits, but more research is needed to be certain. Killer whales often work together to catch fish or marine mammals, and when preying on large animals such as whales, they may attack as a pack, tearing apart the whale from several angles.DSC_0155

Killer whales are very social and usually travel in groups or pods of up to 20 individuals, and members of a pod are linked to each other by maternal descent. Females become sexually mature at 15 years of age on average, and they may give birth at intervals of three to eight years. Killer whales can breed all year, and the gestation period averages 17 months. Whales in a pod often work together to care for the young, and young females will help mothers care for their babies. It has been estimated that males live at least 50 years on average, while females may live 80 years.

Killer whales are highly vocal and use sound for socialization as well as for echolocation.Scientists have learned that call repertoires of resident pods have features that are distinct to that pod, forming group-specific dialects. A second pod may share some of the call repertoire of the first pod, but other sections will be distinct to the second pod.   The amount of similarity of call repertoires between pods reflects the degree of

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

relatedness between the pods. Killer whales socialize in a number of other ways too, including acrobatic aerial behaviors, such as breaches, spy hops, flipper slaps, tail lobs,and head stands. I’ll discuss more about these various behaviors next week.

Killer whales are always a treat to watch. We only see them a few times a year deep inside Uyak Bay, and it is always exciting. I’ve seen a large group of killer whales herding fish, a small pod trying to catch harbor seals hauled out on an island, and one killer whale with a large octopus in its mouth. Sometimes they want nothing to do with us, and other times, they swim alongside our boat leaping out of the water and diving beneath us. This summer we saw a large bull swimming by himself in water so shallow he couldn’t submerge his tall dorsal fin. He was in an area near a salmon stream, and we assumed he was feeding on salmon.


Have you had any experiences with killer whales? If so, please leave a comment to tell us about it. Also, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask, and for anyone who is a lover of true crime stories, please visit my home page and sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter!