Soaring Video Captures the Triumphant Comeback of Alaska’s Bald Eagles

You may know it as Haliaeetus leucocephalus, or perhaps you call it the white-headed sea eagle. But most Americans know it as the bald eagle, a symbol of the U.S. associated with strength, freedom and integrity.

Not everyone was charmed by this magnificent creature, found only in North America, and nowhere more so in the U.S. than Alaska. Its wingspan be much as 8 feet, and its razor-sharp talons are its weapon for hunting and fishing, key to its survival. This bird of prey feasts on fish and small mammals, but it has been known to attack livestock, angering farmers and ranchers.

This raptor, like many other powerful predatory wildlife species, found itself at the center of a love-hate relationship with humankind: beloved yet simultaneously killed, revered and yet facing extinction.

Silversea expedition filmmaker Ross McDonald filmed bald eagles fishing in Sitka, Alaska, handholding his camera as he worked from a Zodiac.

Witnessing their mighty wings spreading and talons reaching toward the water’s surface is to understand the wild magnificence of the bald eagle, which is called the “king of the sky.” His video shows why and captures an unforgettable moment behind the lens.

The fascinating history of a feathered icon

Bald eagles have yellow eyes, beaks and feet./Shutterstock

The majestic bald eagle became America’s national bird in 1782 and was adopted as the emblem of the United States in 1787. It appears on the Great Seal of the USA, a symbol of national identity. Native Americans consider it sacred and consider its feathers to have healing powers.

In the late 1800s, the United States was home to about 100,000 nesting bald eagles, but numbers plummeted in the early 20th century because they threatened wildlife and stock and were targeted for elimination. In 1940, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act became part of the U.S. Code, which made it illegal to possess, sell or hunt bald eagles (including their feathers, nests, eggs and body parts). Alaska was exempt from this, and from 1917 to 1952, more than 100,000 eagles were killed.

By mid-20th-century, the national emblem was almost history. .

Once it was legally protected, the eagle began to recover, but not for long. The agricultural insecticide DDT and its impacts on wildlife, including bald eagles, began to emerge. When the birds ate fish from streams and rivers contaminated with DDT, the eagle’s eggshells became thinner and weaker, causing them to break during incubation.

By 1963, less than 500 mating pairs existed in the United States.

A monumental recovery

A bald eagle takes a break from hunting in Sitka, Alaska./Shutterstock

DDT was banned in 1972 and, coupled with habitat improvement and monumental conservation efforts, bald eagles started to come back.

By 2007, the number of nesting pairs across the country increased to 11,000, and the raptor disappeared from the endangered or threatened species list.

Today, the bald eagle population is more than 300,000 in the lower 48. Alaska’s population is estimated at 30,000, more than three-quarters of the breeding population. You’ll find eagle cams in many states that unobtrusively focus on the eagles, especially as they lay and incubate eggs.

The effort to bring these birds of prey back from the brink of extinction is a point of pride in the conservation and environmental efforts that aided their return.

The bald eagle remains a symbol of strength and resilience, and sighting one on a cruise or elsewhere is a thrill that reminds us the good that comes from uniting for a common goal. But the bald eagle also deserves some credit. “Turbulence,” Canadian author and philosopher Matshona Dhliwayo reminds us, “breaks a tree’s branches but only tickles an eagle’s wings.”