Southeast Alaska stars in a new documentary from the Smithsonian Institute, “Alaskan Summer.”
The Mendenhall Glacier and Admiralty Island figure heavy in the 48-minute documentary, shot in the summer of 2016 and released at smithsonianearthtv.com.
Much of the icons of Southeast Alaska make it into the documentary, from bald eagles, Stellar sea lions, brown bears and salmon, to glaciers, sea otters, humpback whales, orcas and ravens.
Director of Photography Ben Hamilton said the film crew wanted to capture the different wildlife behaviors of Southeast’s animal kingdom. But rain over the course of the month spent filming threw a wrench in their plans. The production centered around the frantic growth and feeding from flora and fauna during Alaska’s long summer days. It’s hard to capture that if it’s raining.
“Over the month that we were there, I think 20 days of it were really low clouds and raining,” Hamilton said. “That summer was specifically challenging for that.”
A long filming time — over a month, from July until mid-August — allowed the film crew to wait for its opportunity.
“To have time to be fortunate was a great asset for the shoot,” Hamilton said.
Marine mammals were the most challenging to film, Hamilton said. The film crew got lucky with a close visit from a pod of orcas.
“The hardest thing of all to predict was the marine life,” Hamilton said. “You don’t know at all where they’re going to come up.”
It didn’t make it into the film, but Hamilton said the pod was feeding on a sea lion at the time. The crew, filming the pod from a boat, had access to a hydrophone to hear what was going on underwater.
They could hear the pod chattering incessantly moments before going dead silent, Hamilton said.
“It just went silent and then they went underwater. We had no idea what was going to happen, and then they just started breaching and breaching. After, it was clear they were planning. … That was incredible,” Hamilton said.
In contrast, filming brown bear at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island was easy, Hamilton said. There, bears share the river, hunting for salmon from the shore. Shots of a brown bear with two cubs at Pack Creek bookend “Alaskan Summer.”
“Pack Creek is always fascinating. … Getting to see a mom with young cubs like that and watch that power dynamic, see the difference between her protecting them versus claiming space or leaving, as some one who’s into wildlife, that’s really cool to watch. There’s so few places to go where bears just smell you and they don’t run away,” Hamilton said.