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Humpback heaven in Alaska
Later that day, we spotted another pod of about a dozen humpbacks, and these ones were putting on an even more impressive display – they were bubble-net feeding, a technique unique to humpbacks and minke whales.
The pod locates a shoal of fish and dives deep beneath it. They then rise slowly to the surface, circling around the shoal and blowing bubbles in an upward spiral. The fish are forced to shoal tightly and are driven near to the surface by the wall of bubbles. Then the humpbacks lunge through the school, jaws agape, engulfing fish and water in one massive mouthful.
From our vantage point on deck, we could clearly see the tell-tale ring of bubbles bursting on the water’s surface and a halo of gulls hovering in anticipation. To a concerto of clicking cameras, 15 pointed noses shot skyward, mouths wide open, showing the pink roofs of their mouths, furry baleen and engorged throats. They rested a moment at the surface, then one by one up-ended and dived, flipping their flukes.
We could never predict where the bubbles would appear, and eager eyes scanned the water on all sides of the boat. Sometimes we would only realise that the whales were behind us when a deep breathy exhalation (from lungs larger than a bus) or low groan reminiscent of an elephant’s rumble made us all jump. “You can almost hear them laughing at us,” observed one guest wryly.
We watched for more than an hour as the pod of humpbacks surged to the surface repeatedly. For their final act, the whales surfaced quietly near to the boat – they were so close I could see the pimples on their rostrums, the pale scars and encrusting barnacles on their skin and almost gaze into their tiny eyes – and then, one by one, they dived into the opaque silver depths and were hidden from view.
Alaska Raptor Centre
The next day, we abandoned the Spirit in Sitka, a picturesque fishing town and the Russian capital of Alaska from 1808 to 1867. Here we admired some impressive totem poles and finally got up close to those golfballs in trees – the magnificent and massive bald eagle – at the Alaska Raptor Centre.
The centre rescues about 200 eagles, owls and hawks every year, victims of collisions with electricity wires and windows, fishing tackle and gunshots. Back at sea, we cruised on to Icy Strait, pausing only to watch a lonesome black bear picking its way along a distant shore, flipping over stones hopefully in search of crustaceans.
The following morning, we encountered the drifting sea otters and then went in search of Steller’s sealions, the largest member of the sealion family. Climbing into a small inflatable boat, we motored out toward a rocky island.
As we approached, we were assaulted by a cacophony of hoarse honking and the stink of rotten fish. The rock was a bachelor pad for young males, who began to perk up from their semi-comatosed states as we drew close. Lumbering to the edge of the rocks, they dived ungracefully into the water... where they were magically transformed into whiskery mermaids.
Their powerful, three-metre-long bodies porpoised out of the water as they raced towards our boat, which suddenly seemed very small in comparison to their vast bulks. They caught up easily and snorted indignant fishy breath over us before racing back to the beach, satisfied at having seen us off.
My meeting with the sealions was the last of my journey on the Spirit. The next day, I was prised from my cabin and dropped off at Gustavus to return to my landlubbing life in the UK. But I still dream of Alaska and its whales.
FIVE SPECIES TO SEE IN ALASKA
ID: Black or dark grey body, unique white markings on underside, small dorsal fin, throat pleated, flippers one-third length of body. Length up to 15m (females tend to be larger).
Watch out for: Tail flukes raised before deep dive, which can last up to 45 minutes. Blow bushy or heart-shaped, because it is blown through two nostrils.
When: The humpbacks that spend the summer feeding in south-east Alaska spend the winter calving in Hawaiian and Mexican waters. They depart from August to October.
What else? The spout is not condensation from inside the lungs, but water that rests in a small pool on top of the nostrils.
ID: Stocky, black and white body, diagnostic tall dorsal fin (nearly 2m high in males), large paddle-like pectoral fins, white chin, individually unique grey saddle patch, single nostril. Length up to 9.5m (males larger than females).
Watch out for: Fast, active swimmers often seen in family groups or pods of up to 25.
When: Year round. High concentrations in north-east Pacific Basin, where Canada curves into Alaska.
What else? Orcas favour sealions and seals, but when the Steller sealion population crashed in the late 1980s, they switched to hunting sea otters, causing them to decline.
ID: Largest of the eared seals, the coat is pale yellow to tawny, can be reddish; long whiskers. Males up to 3.3m long, females 2.9m.
When: Mature males defend territories, usually on beaches on isolated islands, from May. Females arrive a few weeks later and pregnant females give birth soon afterwards. In August, many sealions leave for the open seas to forage or for non-breeding haulouts.
What else? Alaskan population has declined by 80 per cent in the past 30 years and was listed as endangered in 1997. Declining fish stocks due to increasing commercial fisheries could be a cause.