Humpback heaven in Alaska

Alaska, the big country, has huge appeal for nature-lovers with its magnificent wildlife and vast landscapes

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Alaska, the big country, has huge appeal for nature-lovers with its magnificent, generously-proportioned wildlife and spectacularly vast landscapes.

“Good morning Spirit of Discovery.” Megan’s silky tones slipped into my cabin at some ungodly hour of the morning. OK, it was actually 7am, but after a princess-and-the-pea night on a slimline bed, it felt earlier. Pulling the covers over my head in a vain attempt to block out the 20-hour-a-day sunlight, I resolved to forgo the gourmet breakfast that was undoubtedly waiting for me.

But not for long. The exploration team leader’s next words had me scrambling out of bed, reaching simultaneously for my binoculars and camera. “We have sea otters close to the boat at nine o’clock” she purred calmly. Nine o’clock meant portside – and that meant directly outside my cabin window.

Dragging open the thick, sunlight-defying curtain, I was just in time to catch a raft of about six sleepy otters floating past. Most of them had adopted the traditional laid-back drifting pose – on their backs, chins tucked into furry chests, over-large back feet raised aloft like sails, looking as if they were bathing in a hot spring rather than swimming in water so cold it had icebergs in it.

Floating furballs

Sea otters try to keep their noses and feet out of the chilly water as much as possible – these extremities do not have the same fur density as the rest of their bodies and so are susceptible to the cold. But every so often, they have to roll to replenish the insulating layer of air bubbles trapped in their fur.

Unlike other marine mammals, which have blubber to keep warm, sea otters have the thickest fur of any mammal, with up to one million hairs per square inch. This and the consumption of a quarter of their bodyweight every day in sea urchins, crabs and other crustaceans helps them to cope with Alaska’s freezing seas.

The sea otter is actually little more than a giant furball – a definite advantage over the Steller’s sealions that share these waters. Both larger and heavier, the sealions occupy an unenviable position at the top of the local orcas’ favourite prey list.

When we encountered the sea otters, they were miles from land, drifting on the ocean currents. But we needn’t have worried about them – they almost never go ashore, even giving birth in the water. All they need is a kelp bed to hold on to in stormy seas and they are completely content. As indeed was I and the other passengers on the Spirit as we exchanged smiles over breakfast – I didn’t miss my fluffy eggs after all.

An Alaskan adventure

I had been invited to explore Alaska’s Inside Passage – a series of secluded fjords, glacial waterways and secret inlets that divide the mainland from hundreds of coastal islands – in search of its amazing marine wildlife and pristine wilderness.

And I was on something of a personal mission to see humpbacks. I don’t mean the ‘Did-I-really-see-it-or-was-it-just-a-ripple?’ kind of sighting I’ve had on whale-watching vessels in the past. I had high expectations of Alaska’s whales, but they still managed to take my breath away.

Marine patrol

My adventure began on a cloudy day in Juneau, where I boarded the Spirit, a 50-metre long, 84-guest vessel dwarfed in the dock by the 3,000-passenger cruise-liners that lumber up and down these waters. As I gazed up at the floating cities, I wondered how their occupants managed to see any wildlife at all, or if, indeed, they cared.

The voyage started out well – we were challenged to spot white specks in the distant forest canopy or “golf balls in trees,” which turned out to be adult bald eagles, while “white suitcases with legs” were mountain goats, grazing perilously on the sheer sides of the glacier-carved valleys.

In Tracy Arm, icebergs provided a frisson of excitement as they scraped noisily along the underside of the boat, prompting Titanic jokes from the guests assembled on the front deck. 

That evening, we veered briefly off-course to watch a small pod of orcas cruising close to the shore, their dorsal fins rising and sinking beneath the waves as if they were on a merry-go-round, prompting “oohs” and “aahs” from my companions, like spectators at a firework display.

Humpback heaven

Day two in Frederick Sound dawned bright and clear (the sun is a rare guest in Alaska, so this was definitely a good omen) and Megan’s mellifluous early morning wake-up call included the ever-serene observation that there were humpbacks off the prow “and they’re putting on a great show.”

Racing up on deck, I was greeted by cheery smiles from a gaggle of binocular-brandishing guests and a crack like a gunshot. A humpback far in the distance was repeatedly slapping one four-metre-long flipper on the water, the sound reaching us a few seconds after we watched the massive appendage descend.

As 45 cameras zoomed in, the whale obligingly rolled onto its back and proceeded to use both flippers in a co-ordinated fin-slapping display, as though conducting an orchestra of circling seabirds.

Not to be outdone, another humpback far to the east of the boat launched its 25-tonne body out of the water. 45 cameras swivelled simultaneously in the newcomer’s direction – and took 45 photos of one almighty splash. Grinning foolishly at each other, we swore we’d be ready next time.

Photo call

Eyes narrowed, fingers poised, breath held, we waited. Taking pity on us, the humpback breached again – and again and again. Surely we’d got pictures of the action this time? Then, as quietly as they arrived, the whales departed – and respecting the rigorous Alaskan law and our own consciences, we let them be and resumed our course. 

As I wandered into the lounge, I realised that breakfast had finished about two hours ago and that I was still wearing my bunny bedsocks – but somehow I just didn’t care.

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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.

Fish-breath

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

Humpback whale

  • 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.

Orca

  • 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.

Steller’s sealion

  • 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.

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Sea otter

  • ID: Built for life at sea, with long, streamlined body, dense brown fur, short, thick, muscular tail and long hind feet that are broadly flattened and webbed. Length of up to 1.5m. Seldom seen far from water.

  • When: All year round, with most pups born in late spring.

  • Watch out for: Sea otters may be solitary or found in groups called rafts. Can often be seen clinging to kelp so they don’t float away while taking a nap.

  • What else? The early Russians settled Alaska to harvest sea otter fur. By 1867, the trade had caused otter numbers to crash, so Alaska was sold to the United States.

Bald eagle

  • ID: The largest bald eagles in the world are found in Alaska; adult has brownish-black body, white head and tail (develops at 2-3 years old). Juveniles speckled brown. Female’s wingspan up to 2.4m, males’ up to 2m.

  • When: Nest building begins April, young hatch June onwards and fledge from late August. Outside the breeding season, eagles congregate near food.

  • Watch out for: From a cruiser white specks perched in the canopy on a distant shore look like “golfballs in trees”. Once you get your eye in, they are easier to spot.

  • What else? There used to be a bounty on bald eagles due to competition for fish.

 

ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION

  • Sophie travelled with Discover the World, a specialist operator offering a diverse range of Alaskan holidays, including fly-drive itineraries, small ship cruising, bear-watching holidays, Arctic region tours and independent motor, coach and rail travel. For details call 0870 060 3288 or click on the link.

  • Other tour operators also organise trips to Alaska.

Getting there

  • British Airways flies daily Heathrow to Seattle and often twice daily. Return economy fares start at approx £469 (inc tax). 

  • Alaska Airlines flies Seattle to Juneau five times daily. Return economy fares start at approx £241 (inc tax). They also fly Seattle to Anchorage 12 times a day. Return economy fares start at £296 (inc tax). 

Things to do

  • Alaska raptor centre - If all you’ve managed to see in the wild are golfballs in trees, you’ll enjoy getting up close to rescued and rehabilitated bald eagles and other birds of prey at the Alaska Raptor Centre. 

  • Sitka National Historic Park - Walk among totem poles and learn the fascinating history and culture of the native Tlingit people. 

  • Kenai Peninsula - For a comfortable wilderness experience with hiking, river rafting, kayaking, saunas, log cabins and walks to see the salmon run, try Alaska Wildland Adventures

Cruising

  • Cruise West offers small-boat wildlife cruises that get you up close to the Inside Passage’s finest wildlife. The staff are friendly – they’ll remember your name from day one – and the food is superb. As the charming chef said, “You come on board as guests, you leave as ballast!” 

  • Other tour operators also cruise the Inside Passage.

More information

 

To meet Sophie and the rest of the team, click here.

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