After a long Alaska winter, Berners Bay is an explosion of life in the spring. Every year in late April or early May, millions of hooligan arrive to spawn in the glacial rivers that feed the bay. For a few short weeks, tens of thousands of predators are drawn to the bay to prey on the oily, nutritious fish. Scientists have counted as many as 1,000 eagles, 800 seals and sea lions and 50,000 gulls in the bay during the hooligan run.
Berners Bay is about 40 miles north of downtown Juneau. In late April, photographer Michael Penn paddled from Echo Cove at the end of Glacier Highway to document the phenomenon. Penn watched Steller sea lions hunting together shoulder-to-shoulder in enormous packs. Leaping out of the water, roaring, diving and surfacing, the curious sea lions surrounded his wooden kayak at times, Penn said.
Most of the time, however, their attention was focused beneath the surface. Scientists using underwater cameras have seen vast blankets of hooligan lying above the bottom of the bay near the mouth of Berners River. Estimates range from 10 million to 20 million fish.
From September to May, 300 to 600 sea lions use a haulout on Benjamin Island, about 10 miles south of Berners Bay. As many as 1,000 sea lions have been counted at a haulout at Grand Point near the Katzehin River, about 40 miles north of Berners Bay. Biologists suspect that animals from these and other smaller haulouts up and down Lynn Canal are the ones gathering in Berners Bay for the hooligan run.
The slim, 7-inch-long fish provide much-needed fuel for young sea lions still learning to hunt and for adults preparing to breed. Adult males fast while guarding their harems and breeding, and females build their reserves for lactating, their most energy-intensive time. After leaving the bay, sea lions head to the outer coast to breed and have their pups.
The hooligan also fuel migrating Thayer's gulls headed to their nesting ground in arctic Canada. Migrating red-breasted mergansers gather in the bay, as do ducks such as mallards, pintail, and green-wing teal. Harbor seals and humpback whales also are drawn to the bay.
For the brief period of the run, Berners Bay is the location of one of the greatest concentrations of bald eagles in Southeast Alaska. Some nest in the bay, but most come from throughout northern Southeast to feed, crowding on sandbars, stumps and flotsam grounded by the shifting tides.
The run lasts only a couple of weeks. Dead hooligan wash up along the riverbanks and are scavenged by crows, ravens, songbirds and eagles. But like a rite of passage, the activity marks the onset of spring.