Paddling my kayak through the stillness of yet another fjord, a humpback whale’s signature “pfffft” catches my attention from miles away. Even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, the sound gives me hope that the whales will let me into their world, if only to glimpse their tail flukes as they dive.
Here in southeast Alaska, we’re connected not only to the land, but to the water. Our 45-degree waters hold more dissolved oxygen and allow more nutrients from the deep ocean to rise up to the surface than those in the warmer tropics. This combination means plankton, the base of the ocean food chain, can flourish and feed all of our iconic marine animals. That’s why the whales are here.
The sea lions tend to be a bit more curious about me and my kayak though, to the point where I’m nervous that I might be going for a surprise polar plunge. While that hasn’t yet happened, I did once get a flipper to the face. I’m the only kayak in view, surrounded by an epic landscape above while looking down to the kelp forest below, where harbor seals lounge on the shore, seabirds plop below the waterline, and that “pfffft” gets a bit closer.
But that’s only half the story.
After signaling “OK” to my buddy, I put my hand over my mask and regulator and let the weight of my gear—more than 100 pounds of it—pull my body backwards into the dark, icy water. I’ve never become used to that first shock of entering the water but once I’ve descended 40, 60, 80 feet below the surface, I’m reminded why Alaska is my favorite place in the world to SCUBA dive.
Everything about our landscape is related to the glaciers that covered Southeast thousands of years ago, and that’s no different underwater. The steep sides of the fjords continue below the waterline, meaning I can dive a short swim from shore in hundreds of feet of water. The colors are what I find most endearing: In a place known for gloomy and dark days, the life under the water is surprisingly colorful. Every inch is covered in the closest thing to alien life we know, populated by animals that don’t even look like animals. I’m only a visitor to this world for an hour or so. In fact, I take longer preparing for the dive than I spend underwater—but that time beneath is nothing less than spectacular.
Based in Juneau, Kim Nesbitt is a marine biologist, professional SCUBA diver, and adventure photographer. Working on expedition ships, she acts as a bridge to the amazing underwater world of southeast Alaska through photography and videography to show the public a lesser-known side of the state. When not aboard ships, she spends time paragliding, hiking, kayaking, and skiing. Follow her work at kimnesbittphoto.com or on Instagram @nesbittphotography.