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Wolves are fascinating animals: beautiful, mysterious, and impressive. While these animals are often depicted as inland forest dwellers, there is a unique ecotype of the grey wolf, Canis lupus, known as the sea wolf. The Pacific Ocean provides the main source of food for these wolves who live and hunt along coastal regions of Alaska and western Canada.
We sat down with Esther Gossweiler and Buck Wilde, two talented wildlife photographers who became fascinated by sea wolves and their stories. We found this unique experience and adventure too interesting to pass up.
Buck: While filming Great Bear Stakeout (BBC, Discovery) on the Alaska Peninsula, I became intrigued by the coastal wolves in the distance. To tell their untold story seemed like the ultimate challenge. Then a few years later while filming Grizzly Empire: National Geographic in the same location, I met Esther.
Esther: We heard wolves howling at night, right outside of our tents! That gave us the idea that I thought to be impossible - the opportunity to film a pack of wolves in the wild. When Buck asked if I’d like to join him in a wolf project, of course, I said, yes!
Buck: We started filming early summer of 2018 with the goal of documenting coastal wolves fishing for salmon and hoped to capture enough footage for a modest short film by the end of the following summer.
Esther: Wolves reflect the epitome of the wilderness like no other animal, and I longed to see one in the wild for the first time.
Buck: Most nature enthusiasts aren’t aware that coastal wolves have different diets than inland wolves. Since their diet is mostly salmon and other marine life and less than 3% moose, their story seemed quite unique. We had no idea that we would soon discover another aspect of their behavior that’s even more interesting. Coastal wolves have adapted to their environment with tawny coats that blend into the light sandy beaches. This treeless habitat with nowhere to hide might contribute to their undaunted behavior of chasing bigger grizzly bears.
Esther: To learn what else coastal wolves hunt, we arrived at our remote wilderness location a full month before the salmon were expected in the rivers. We were surprised to encounter wolves so often, so close without aggression. We collected wolf hair and scat samples for mitochondrial DNA analysis. It showed their diet is mostly marine species like salmon and flounders but also includes sea lions. They’re social and live in packs like other wolves but often hunt and fish alone unless the alpha male decides to go after larger prey, like a moose or a bear.
Buck: Alaska’s coastal wolves aren’t quite as wary as other wolves probably due to living in an unforested environment. We’ve been studying two packs living in a difficult-to-access wilderness area that humans rarely visit. This allows us to observe individual personalities and encounter traits. Esther named wolves that approached us. Her favorite is the alpha male she named Mosquito.
Esther: We experienced so many encounter types from wily and curious and playful to prey testing with only one aggressive encounter. But the most touching was when Mosquito laid next to me for the first time and slept. To hear his breath and see him twitch in a dream state was truly magical. Wolf researchers call this hyper-social behavior, common in dogs but rare in wolves “proximity seeking”.
Buck: We didn’t expect the alpha male’s hyper-sociability towards Esther. In some ways, he behaves more like a dog than a wolf. This was an eye-opener!
Esther: Mosquito was not like other wolves in the pack which also came close. He was different in seeking my proximity in an obviously friendly and trustful way. Watching him circle around himself as a dog does before laying down was amazing too. But most interesting was to discover his uncommon hyper-social behavior might be attributed to a gene that scientists studying wolf domestication call the “doggie gene”.
Buck: After capturing unprecedented footage in 2018 (but not enough for the story that was beginning to unfold), we searched most of the summer of 2019 without seeing a wolf or hearing them howl. In 2020, the pandemic denied us access to the wilderness. The summer of 2021 began with a desperate search to relocate the wolves, with only a few tracks offering hope to relocate them.
Esther: Getting out of my warm sleeping bag and stepping out into an icy cold morning was always a challenge. So was not knowing if we would find wolves. Deterring bears from breaking into our tents was also very stressful.
Buck: After nine days of tracking farther from the coast, Mosquito emerged from a forest and walked up to Esther like an old friend. Their reunion after a three-year hiatus has made this wolf story something really special.
Esther: Sitting for hours in the cold mud and icy wind, Mosquito sleeping next to me, he got up and vanished back in the forest. Then he reappeared to bring his pups. We could never get greater proof of his trust.
Buck: We plan to complete the post-production of our feature documentary in 2023. Years of observing the coastal wolves has revealed secrets about our next filmmaking project: bears and wolves, competition and coexistence.
Esther: We collected Mosquito’s hair from the tundra for DNA analysis to learn how uncommon hyper-social behavior like his might have contributed to wolf domestication over 20,000 years ago. We hope our documentary will provide a lens to see the wolf in our dogs, and our oldest companion in wild wolves.
Buck: I live in the SPYFIRE® Hoody and new KUHL BURR™ Lined Jackets and REBEL™ Pants are tough for our fieldwork and fit us perfectly into a rugged Alaska fishing community between wilderness outings to film the sea wolves. They’re popular with bush pilots and commercial fishermen too.
Esther: I love THE ONE™ SHELL Rain jacket and the KOPENHAGEN™ INSULATED SHELL. The CELESTE™ LINED HOODY is warm, comfy, and great for “in the between cold and very cold weather.“ The hoody embraces nicely my head and keeps it warm. The lining is so cozy! As a photographer, I need trousers which are strong, stretchy and comfy and have good strong pockets. As Alaskans say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” KÜHL makes the best!”
Head over to the wild2c.com website to learn more about these incredible experiences and documentaries Buck and Esther have been working on for years now.
Buck and Esther’s wolf images are protected by copyright laws.
Rick Brandt and Werner Kreisi photographed them wearing latest KUHL clothes.
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