Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sailing and Whaling

A humpback whale descending to feed

September 10
One of the best reasons to cruise the Alaskan Inner Passage is to witness the cavorting and playfulness of several species of aquatic life such as humpback whales, orcas (or "killer whales" as they are known colloquially), sea lions and sea otters. All are regular players in Alaska during the summer months and the ship cruises and side expeditions on smaller boats in particular offer spectacular opportunities to view these magnificent creatures in their local habitats. There is perhaps no greater joy than watching whales play in the chilly waters of the Alaskan wilderness as they gorge themselves or mate prior to making journeys that will take them as far away as Hawaii. Upon arriving in the capital city of Juneau, the third largest city in Alaska, we were all disappointed that the splendiferous weather we had had in Vancouver, at sea and in Ketchikan seemed to be leaving us. The skies were dark and rain drizzled throughout the morning and early afternoon hours. The first stop was the Mendenhall Glacier, a beautiful example of the rivers of ice that have ground much of the Alaskan countryside over the course of millions of years. A number of calves or small icebergs could be seen bearing the characteristic blue hue that is an optical illusion. The blue is the result of the density of the glacial ice that starts out as hundreds of feet of compressed snow and becomes very dense ice. The ice is so dense that it will only permit the blue spectrum of light to exit, so the beautiful deep blue hue is characteristic of most glaciers.

Mendenhall Glacier located in Juneau

Following the stop at the Mendenhall Glacier, we boarded our bus to head towards a boat launch in what was now a steady rain. We climbed a double level boat that then headed out into the Pacific where whales and sea lions were expected to be seen. The inside was toasty warm and the crew offered us insights into these aquatic creatures, but the outside level above was quite chilly. The high humidity cut through one's clothing. It wasn't long before we were viewing eight humpback whales. To see these beautiful creatures up close is absolutely astonishing. But that wasn't all. We ran into a pod of five killer whales (orcas), a group of four females and one young male. We also spotted nearly a hundred sea lions nestled out on an island and were looking for porpoises before we had to call it a day. But what a day! Despite the overcast skies and the rainy weather, it was the best viewing the crew had seen in at least two weeks and was one of their best days of the summer! Check out the orcas below:

Killer whales are not dangerous to man, only seals and other whales

The rest of the day consisted of a few hours to kill at the Red Dog Saloon or checking out some good buys in shops located near the docks. The governor's mansion was visible from the main street in Juneau and two museums were accessible until 5:00 p.m. for those so inclined. Frankly, I enjoyed the scenery at one of the local pubs that featured free wireless access to the Internet for the price of buying one drink. It was after 5 o'clock, so I reckoned, why not?

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