New Life for an Old Friend

Built in a time when large sailing ships and big steamers still plied the waters between Seattle and Juneau, Five Finger Lighthouse stood as a sentinel, guiding all manner of ships carrying men and equipment north to the gold fields and cod and salmon back south. It was the first lighthouse the U.S. government built in Alaska, an indication of it’s importance to navigation in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

It was the last lighthouse to be fully automated, housing full time Coast Guard crews until 1984. In 2004, the U.S. government deeded the lighthouse to the Juneau Lighthouse Association, which has taken responsibility for maintenance of the buildings and stewardship of the property. It is JLA’s mission to make the lighthouse available to visitors and those who would use her for studying and educating others about Alaska’s marine environment.

Today, humpback whale scientists, biologists and lighthouse staff work together to keep the spirit of Five Finger Lighthouse alive and healthy. This website is intended primarily as a blog for work and research being done at the lighthouse starting in June of 2015. My name is Paul Sharpe and I am staying here for over two months this summer and will be largely responsible for this blog.

Paul Sharpe takes a selfie above Wapato Lake in Manson Washington.
Paul Sharpe 2015

For more information about the lighthouse’s history and the association that oversees it, please visit

Plankton at Five Finger Islands

I’ve always been told that the reason for the turbidity in Alaskan waters was the abundance of small organisms, including the euphausiids, such as krill, that feed upon them. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 when I started putting my camera into the shallow waters around Five Finger Lighthouse that I began to see what that meant. I hope you enjoy this look at what it is that brings the humpback whales to Alaska each summer.

Remember, as with any youtube video, you can change the quality settings of the video by clicking on the small gear icon that appears in the lower right corner of the video window once you click the play button. Simply pause your video immediately after clicking play, click on the gear icon, then on the quality tab. You are able to then adjust the video level to the highest possible setting. This is especially important with videos such as this one that have a lot of small moving items in the shots. If your internet speed is slower you can still watch videos at higher quality by clicking on play, then pausing the video to let it buffer for a while then clicking on play again.

It used to be that youtube would buffer the entire video for you and you could watch it without interruptions during playback. Now they have started using a new protocol that doesn’t allow the entire video to buffer which is a pain for people with slower internet connections. There are ways to force youtube to disable the new protocol if you want to have an entire video buffer. Here is one website that shows you how.

Do Humpbacks Laugh?

“If Heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter, that would be a great thing.” -Robin Williams

Humpback whale fluke from Frederick Sound Alaska.
Humback Whale Diving Deep

Do humpback whales laugh? That question had not occurred to me until a few days ago. I was sitting at my computer in the old radio room at Five Finger Lighthouse, listening to sounds of a nearby humpback whale being broadcast live over a speaker and it made a sound that I could only describe as a slow, deep throated chuckle. Was the whale laughing? Just thinking about it makes me smile. Continue reading Do Humpbacks Laugh?

Crow and Eagle

Crow calling on branch at Five Finger Lighthouse Island.
A crow sounds the alarm.

I wake up one morning to a cacophony of agitated crows sounding through my open window. The room is so bright its hard to open my eyes. I prop up on one elbow and squint with one eye at the clock; it reads 5:30AM. I lie back for a moment waiting for the cobwebs to clear from a late night at the computer. There is very little darkness here in Alaska in June. It’s easy to be up 18 hours a day or more.

The crows are still squawking, clearly upset. I sit up and glance out my window. I can see several crows taking turns dive bombing something just below my line of vision down in one of the many ravines in the rock. Whatever it is that is setting them off, they are trying to drive it away. I decide to go have a look.

Aerial view of Five Finger Lighthouse showing entire island.
Five Finger Lighthouse, Alaska

It’s a small, intimate island here at Five Finger Lighthouse, approximately three acres at low tide. Everybody knows everybody else. The crows, the eagles, the song sparrows, all the shore birds, a few harbor seals, and the three humans currently stationed here, we all live together in this tiny, SE Alaska island ecosystem. From intertidal zones to forest canopy there are many forms of flora and fauna coexisting, each in their own niche. It’s the crows however that seem most evident when taking a walk through the forest. Continue reading Crow and Eagle

Setting up the Hydrophone

Dawn Barlow at Five Finger Lighthouse with a hydrophone.
Dawn Barlow deploys a hand held hydrophone.

The day after Fred and I arrive at Five Finger Light, Dawn Barlow comes in by boat from Petersburg. A senior at Pitzer College, Dawn will be analyzing the humpback recordings from our hydrophone for her senior thesis. She is a dedicated lighthouse volunteer as well and we are happy to have her with us. She will be staying with us at the lighthouse until late August.

Dawn Deployment Kayaks
Dawn Barlow during 1st hydrophone Test.

The day she arrives conditions are unusually welcoming- the sun is out, the weather is calm and there are whales swimming nearby. Wow! We are elated by this and decide to deploy our hydrophone for an initial test of the system. We never are able to get a feed from the hydrophone but it is good to do a practice deployment.

Continue reading Setting up the Hydrophone

First Look at the Lighthouse for 2015

Looking south on Five Finger Lighthouse island. Small sitka spruce forest.
A trail runs to the south end of the island.

After jumping off the Connie K into shallow waters on the west side of  the island, Fred and I climb up out of the intertidal zone and into the small Sitka Spruce forest that covers the southern half of the island. I am always struck by how lovely this little forest is. Lichens decorate the trees and there is always a view of the water. We hear song sparrows at the edges and a family of raucous crows sounds the alarm from from farther down the island. We walk north on the path to the lighthouse and through the detritus of 100 years of operation.

Five Finger Lighthouse shot from quadcopter by Paul Sharpe
Aerial view of Five Finger Lighthouse

Five Finger Lighthouse has had a remarkable resurgence since being automated and then shuttered up by the Coast Guard in 1984. This new life for an old gal is largely due to the love and dedication shown it by two people- Jennifer Klein and Ed McIntosh from the Juneau Lighthouse Association. The U.S. government deeded the lighthouse property to JLA in 2004 and their mission it is to make the lighthouse accessible to the public and have it serve as a center for research and education.

View from inside the door on the main floor at five finger lighthouse.
Main living area of lighthouse.

As Fred and I unlock the doors and walk inside,we can see how much work has been put into the place. The refurbished galley and main living area have a nice feel to them. It is welcoming and comfortable, which is no small accomplishment in what was a working platform for isolated men for eighty years.

Photo of old barrels at five finger lighthouse.

There is still lots to be done, plenty of junk has accumulated over the years and sits in piles outside. Obsolete systems fill the lower room where paint hangs from the walls in large peels. Rusting tools lie in jumbled piles on old workbenches. The old gal sorely needs a fresh coat of paint. Nothing insurmountable, all it takes is time, money and people-power.

The lighthouse is subjected to fierce winds and high seas in the winter. Keeping the forces of Nature at bay is a significant undertaking. There is no government stipend to take care of the lighthouse structure, all monies are raised through grants and private donations. Anyone interested in making a donation to JLA can contact them on the primary website, .

Our next blog will be about setting up our hydrophone system, what crazy thing happened after one hour of deployment and a first peek into the eagles nest.

Thanks for reading.

Paul Sharpe


To Five Finger via Baranof

We leave Juneau early morning on May 26. Instead of heading straight south down Stephens Passage to Five Finger Lighthouse, we pass NW around the tipScreen Shot 2015-06-22 at 8.42.10 PM of Admiralty Island and down Chatham (chat-em) Straight. It gets a little lumpy for a while and we are glad to have done a secure tie down of our gear on deck. Once we we get past the water coming in with a long fetch from the west, it calms down.

We plan to stop by the new Coastal Research and Education Center which is being started up by the Alaska Whale Foundation  in the town of Baranof Warm Springs. We will be dropping off supplies, including some bat monitoring gear that AWF will be setting up on behalf of the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. We are also picking up our hydrophone to bring to Five Finger Lighthouse.

Here is a little rough cut footage (not much editing, no narration or music) from just before our arrival at Baranof until we land at dock.


Continue reading To Five Finger via Baranof

Flying in to Juneau

I arrived in Juneau, Alaska on May 22nd, having taken the “milk run” from Seattle that stopped along the way in two of my favorite Southeast Alaska towns, Ketchikan and Sitka.

Looking at Sitka during takeoff.
On the milk run from Seattle to Juneau, climbing out from Sitka.

Most people prefer the direct flights from Seattle to their Alaska destination but I enjoy flying in and out of the small seaside towns, especially in beautiful weather such as we had.

Waiting for me at the Juneau airport was my brother, Fred Sharpe, a preeminent southeast Alaska humpback whale scientist. Our original plan had been to leave the next day for Five Finger Lighthouse but it turned out our shipment of gear from Seattle on Alaska Marine Lines wasn’t arriving for another three days.

Dr. Fred Sharpe working on engine at Marina in Juneau.
Fred troubleshoots engine.

I was actually glad to hear that. That would give us much needed extra time to prepare our vessel for departure, gather food, supplies and assemble an anchoring system for our fixed offshore hydrophone deployment. Continue reading Flying in to Juneau