On Sunday, Steve Backshall, Matt Baker and Liz Bonnin will report live from Alaska as hundreds of bears, eagles, wolves and whales gather for the great summer feast. They tell us what they hope to see.
In this three-part special you’re opening a window on the pristine landscape of Alaska. What’s it like, and can anyone go there?
The scale of Alaska is simply impossible to convey. It really is one of the last great wildernesses – some of their national parks are bigger than our country. Whale watching is one of the biggest things in Alaska and at places like Brooks Falls, tourists can observe bears hunting during the salmon run. The country is so vast it isn’t going to be spoiled by tourism.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m hoping that we’ll be able to show live coverage of humpback whales feeding on herring. Humpbacks are usually solitary animals but when they arrive in Alaska they co-operate with each other in the way they hunt. It’s called “bubble-netting” and to me it’s the number-one wildlife spectacle on the planet. The scale of it is mind-blowing and almost impossible to put into words: as many as 20 whales, each weighing 40 tons, erupting out of the water, herring flying everywhere, seabirds coming in to feed – and I’m 90 per cent confident we’ll get that live.
How can you top that?
Well, I’m hoping to abseil into a glacier through what are known as moulins (shafts). They only form for the summer and we hope to be able explore one live on camera. The ice down there is the deepest blue you’ll see anywhere in nature. They are incredibly special places.
An ice cave underneath Mendenhall Glacier, Tongass National Forest; Steve Backshall will attempt to reach here live on TV
Where will you be based?
I’ll be in a very remote part of the Katmai national park in southern Alaska, which has the highest density of brown bears in north America and is one of the wildest places left on the planet. It’s 800 miles away from Matt in the broadcasting hub and the nearest road is 300 miles away. It’s as remote a place as I have ever been to.
So you’re going on a bear hunt?
Observing rather than hunting. We’re hoping to see about 30 bears on our stretch of the river, including cubs who will be learning how to fish. In the first programme we expect to see them all foraging on the estuary mudflats for things like clams, but once the salmon run starts there will be a feeding frenzy. Millions of salmon arrive in Alaskan rivers at different times and we’re hoping they arrive in our river by the third programme – it’s that precise. Which, given that it’s live, is a bit scary.
Fresh salmon – lucky bears!
Actually, if it’s a good year the bears won’t eat the whole fish. They tend to go for just the entrails, which are rich in protein and nutrition, leaving the flesh for other animals to feast on.
Talking of feasting, aren’t bears dangerous?
Usually on a trip like this, I ask for a tent set up far away from the crew because the boys snore so badly. My soundman in particular snores like you’ve never heard. But this time they told me we’ve all got to be close together in a tight square, with a single electric wire protecting us.
Brown Bear, fishing for salmon, Katmai National Park, Alaska
And you’ve got the biggest bears of them all to observe?
Yes, I’ll be getting close to Kodiak bears, which over generations have become the largest species of brown bear out there. Through natural selection, and the fact that food is in such abundance, they have grown and grown. They are now the biggest bears in the world, towering 10–12 feet above you when standing. So we’ll see how close we get to those.
Are you comfortable under canvas?
I’m from the Durham Dales, I’m never not camping!
Is the Alaskan wilderness the most extreme place you’ve been to?
I have never been to Alaska before, but remember, I had eight years on Blue Peter so there’s no environment I haven’t really been in. I’m all right on that front.
Kodiak Island, Alaska
Three ways to see Alaska
By road: Alaska’s Interior region is the most accessible by car and boasts two of the country’s biggest national parks, Denali and Wrangell. They offer superb wildlife-viewing opportunities.
By sea: Take a cruise from April to September. Most start from Seattle in the USA or Vancouver in Canada, wending through the spectacular Inside Passage – a 400-mile maze of islands, fjords and glaciers populated with bald eagles, sea lions and whales. Excursions include guided hikes, kayak tours and helicopter trips.
By train: The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is a Gold Rush-era railway from Skagway – a characterful boom town and popular stop – into the Yukon, Canada’s westernmost territory. The narrow-gauge trains climb 3,000 feet past glacial rivers, waterfalls and gorges.
Wild Alaska Live is on Sunday 23 July, Wednesday 26 July and Sunday 30 July on BBC1 at 7pm
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