The Changing Tides of Amalik Bay

August 19, 2016 Posted by: David Kopshever

Mountain peaks and a waterfall overlook Amalik Bay
Mountains and waterfalls surround Amalik Bay. NPS Photo/D. Kopshever.

Amalik Bay is a world of contrast. Vibrant green islands and bursting waterfalls reminiscent of a tropical paradise clash with bitter rain and gusts of wind at a moments notice. Spiring cliffs rise 3,000 feet from the ocean and into the clouds. At the base of these ocean cliffs, waist deep water stretches for nearly a mile before dropping off to deeper depths. Throughout Amalik Bay, the extremes of nature are present.

At low tide, the shallow water recedes to reveal vast tidal flats. What were small islands at high tide become extensions of the mainland, revealing intricate tide pools and fields of mussels and clams. As the tide goes out, a smorgasbord of food is made available, and lanes of travel open up for land dwelling animals. 

Low tide compared to high tide
A comparison of low tide vs. high tide at the mouth of Geographic Creek. NPS Photo/D. Kopshever.

Along the Brooks River, salmon are the lifeblood of the ecosystem. Here, in Amalik Bay, tides dictate the way of life for all animals along the coast. Each day, a feast of the ocean’s bounty is offered to creatures not built for the world of the sea. This abundance, however, is temporary; in just a few hours, the ocean returns to claim its gifts of life. The animals that depend on them must act quickly to take advantage of a short window of opportunity.

During these brief and essential periods of low tide, bears, wolves and foxes peruse the open beach for an easy meal. They may find the washed up carcass of a flounder, sea otter, or even a humpbacked whale. Gulls and shorebirds, too, fly the coastline looking for marine carrion. While on the lookout for such meals, bears pick through a cafeteria of clams, mussels, and barnacles.

A bear digs for clamsA Bear digs for clams in the intertidal zone. NPS Photo/D. Kopshever.

Like fishing for salmon, bears use different techniques for penetrating the armor of shellfish. Clams must first be sniffed out and dug up from beneath the sand. Some bears use their strong shoulder muscles to stomp and crush the shell, while others delicately pick the clam apart with claws, while still others use powerful jaws to crack open the tightly sealed clam. Some bears have learned to smear barnacles against the rocks with an open paw, then lick up the exposed snail-like animal, like a salty jell-o snack from the sea.

Mussels are abundant during low tide and are easier to break into, making an excellent meal for both bears and smaller predators like foxes and wolves. Sand lance, sculpin and other small fish can also be trapped by the tide, becoming a bite-sized snack for the fox.

A fox picks a small fish out of the sandA red fox picks a small fish from the sand. NPS Photo/M. Cohn.

Bears, however, have larger appetites. Salmon spawn here, too, and the opportunistic brown bear capitalizes. After feasting on shellfish and whatever else is trapped by the low tide, bears move to various creek mouths to intercept salmon riding in the high tide on their migration to spawn. 

Coastal brown bears are solitary animals. A wider variety of available marine food sources and a more open, unconfined terrain allow these bears the space and seclusion they prefer. Still, the biological drive to consume enough food to survive the long winter ahead is strong enough to compel many bears to congregate at predictably productive salmon streams. Five to ten bears can regularly be seen within a mile of Geographic Creek, the largest freshwater inlet into the bay, fishing for chum, pink, and silver salmon. 

A bear cub with a salmon head in its mouthA bear cub runs through the river with a salmon head in its mouth. NPS Photo/D. Kopshever.

Salmon are an extremely important food source for these coastal brown bears, but they do not depend on them in the same way the bears of Brooks River do. If the sockeye salmon run were to suddenly fail, many of the bears we have come to know would not survive. Here, in Amalik Bay and all along the coast of Katmai, a different breed of brown bear exists. Like the inland brown bear, the coastal brown bear is defined by its environment, and adapts accordingly. 

Every day, the tide comes in and forces land dwelling animals to walk more confined lanes of travel and search for more meager meals among thick alders and sharp ocean cliffs. The changing tide, predictably and constantly altering that thin margin between land and sea, is the key force that bears and many other coastal animals depend on for survival in the wild. They eat, sleep and travel according to its cycle, and with our protection of the ecosystem, they will continue to make a living with the changing tides of Katmai.  


Adaption, survival

25 Comments Comments icon

    November 19, 2018 at 05:47

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Thanks for supplying this information.

  2. August 22, 2016 at 10:27

    What a lovely capture of Katmai's coastal life Ranger Dave! Your words make Katmai become alive!

  3. August 22, 2016 at 10:26

    What a lovely capture of Katmai's coastal life Ranger Dave! Your words make Katmai become alive!

  4. August 21, 2016 at 11:58

    Well written. The author has a distinctive "voice" and should submit this to travel and nature magazines. He makes this reader feel as if she is THERE...

  5. August 21, 2016 at 04:20

    Such a great article, Ranger Dave. Much as I love the Brooks Falls bears, it's so good to see another view of the bears, how they live, their environment, how they hunt and what they eat. Your description of how they harvest and eat barnacles was so interesting. You're doing a great job in expanding our horizons.

  6. August 21, 2016 at 02:14

    So informative and beautifully written. You keep writing and we will keep learning! The best form of conservation is to educate and you are surely doing your part! Thank you!

  7. August 21, 2016 at 09:57

    Thank you for sharing Ranger David. I found it very interesting and well written and the photos are an added plus. I really enjoy watching the bear cam and your comments.

  8. August 21, 2016 at 07:19

    Ranger Dave, if you haven't written a book, you should! If you have, where can I get it. Fabulous word pictures and photos! Thank you.

  9. Deb
    August 20, 2016 at 08:03

    What a beautifully written article Ranger Dave-thank you! I am new to the explore cams this summer and have spent so many hours watching the cams in Katmai. What an incredible place! Sure glad I am retired! I have learned so much about the bears and am trying hard to identify them, but I have much to learn compared to all the pros! Otis became my favorite before I even realized they had numbers!!! Thanks so much to you and Ranger Daniel for all that you do and for sharing your experiences with us. 🐻🐻💙💙

  10. Pat
    August 20, 2016 at 06:32

    Thank you for the information and the time you spend helping us learn.

  11. Deb
    August 20, 2016 at 06:13

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I am quite impressed with how well written the blogs and posts are. You rangers are not only well suited to your duties in the parks, but have the ability to convey your thoughts and experiences beautifully. I must say that I did not expect this level of ability in writing from our rangers. Fantastic!!

  12. August 20, 2016 at 05:51

    Very interesting article, Ranger Dave. Love your writing and your photos. Thanks for sharing this very remote part of Katmai with us. We all need to know that our world is as fragile as it is hearty.

  13. August 20, 2016 at 04:19

    I enjoyed reading this piece very much! Two years ago, we spent a month in Alaska. We have to come back - there is just so much more to see. Thanks for such an informative article, and great photos!

  14. August 20, 2016 at 04:17

  15. August 20, 2016 at 03:45

    Thanks Dave for this great update on what you are doing in Katmai! If I were a brown bear, this is where I would want to be. In this remote and pristine part of the world.

  16. August 20, 2016 at 03:38

    Ranger Dave yet again I am transfixed by your words and imagery! I feel like I got to make the journey with you seeing through your eyes. I am so appreciative of all the time and knowledge you and Ranger Daniel have shared with us. With so much gratitude....Thank you!

  17. August 20, 2016 at 02:52

    I've been to Brooks 3 times and loved each time. I've wanted to go to other areas of Katmai as well as some of the less traveled areas. Although I'm not into hiking/camping, the wild remote areas really appeal to me. Thank you for the posting as well as pictures. Keep 'em coming so I can live vicariously through your travels.

  18. August 20, 2016 at 01:34

    Thanks for sharing your visit to Amalik Bay with us. Your pictures and words educate while making me feel like I just listened to a friend express the joy of a dream vacation. Thanks so much. Please continue to share your adventures.

  19. August 20, 2016 at 01:00

    @Barbara: It is possible, but generally is more difficult and expensive. Accessing the less-travelled places in the parks generally requires chartering a bush / float plane. To get to Brooks Camp, seat fares are available to purchase through Katmai Air. Along the coast, many visitors arrive on sail boats and yachts.

  20. August 20, 2016 at 12:33

    Iam happy to see you take advantage of all your extra time and then share it with all of us.

  21. August 20, 2016 at 12:29

    Thank you Ranger David, so much to learn!

  22. August 20, 2016 at 12:20

    Ranger David thank you! Excellent article‼️ my hope is that more people read this, especially those with a love of Bears and thirst for knowlege. I also hope that man doesn't intrude their space for survival not today, nor the future. Bears and wildlife can teach us so much including respect and preservation of their lands‼️🐾🐾❤️

  23. August 20, 2016 at 12:12

    Very informative and interesting. The pictures are magnificent. Thank you for taking the time to write it and post it!

  24. August 20, 2016 at 11:04

    Great blog post Ranger David! Is it possible for park visitors to get to the more remote sections of the park?

  25. August 19, 2016 at 09:14

    This is a beautifully written and informative piece. Thank you.

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Last updated: August 19, 2016

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