I shared with you a little bit about my whale wishes in my last post. Given my enthusiasm, it may surprise you that we did not pre-book a whale watching excursion on our Alaskan cruise. While whale watching has been on my bucket list, we live one hour from Monterey Bay, and have plenty of opportunities for whale watching in our normal, every day lives. Therefore, as I perused excursion options, I felt it more important to get out to Mendenhall Glacier. After all, many clients go to see this wonder of nature, and I felt I should, too. However, not wanting to miss out on an adventure, we selected a river rafting trip that took us out to the glacier, then continued on exploring the beautiful areas around Juneau. I don’t really like water in the face, and I have a bit of a bad back, but the trip seemed to be the perfect fit. It wouldn’t be TOO rough for me, and I could suck up my dislike of water in order to experience The Final Frontier.
We arrived in Juneau and disembarked around 3pm. The ship used the lifeboats as tenders to get us to the shore. With our excursion booked at 5pm,this gave us time to explore old town and do some souvenir shopping. We enjoyed finding some treasures in the local book store. After all, a vacation isn’t complete without at least one book on local history. As we rambled down the street, we came across the local fudge shop.
We smelled it before we saw it, the aroma beckoning to me and my immense sweet tooth. We ventured inside and enjoyed watching the fudge making process. I thought about purchasing some for folks back home, but rethought it when I realized I’d never get it that far. (Have I mentioned sweet tooth?)
Around 4:15 we checked in for our excursion. Upon doing so, we were informed that high tide levels had increased the rapids from class 2 or 3 to class 4 and 5. We were being offered a refund if we didn’t want to go, since the outing was not recommended for those with back or neck problems. Given my wimpy back syndrome, canceling was definitely in our best interest. That left us quickly scrambling for plan B. We inquired about whale watching with some local vendors, who found us 2 seats on their last tour of the day. I was going to get to see some whales after all!
We left a little bit later than anticipated, and hit a bit of traffic, as a truck full of salmon had overturned on the one road in and out of town. Yes, you read that correctly…overturned truck of salmon. Thankfully, the spill was cleaned up rather quickly, and we could be on our way. (There was much chatter about how there could be great bear sightings at the location of the fish spill that evening!)
Out at the marina, we caught a glimpse of a sweet harbor seal playing in the water and an eagle on a pole, before we ever even set foot on our vessel. We climbed on board with our driver and 2 guides, and headed out to sea. As we went, our guide told stories of growing up in Alaska, complete with bear encounters and history lessons.
Soon the boat slowed as we came upon a spout in the distance. Our crew was careful to stay a safe distance from our mammal friends, not wanting to harm them in any way. We oohed and aahed as the whale popped up every 4 minutes or so, hoping he would come closer. When he moved on, we did also, passing some adorable harbor seals on a buoy before reaching our true destination.
As I looked across the horizon, I spied at least a dozen boats stopped in the water. “Wow, there must be some whales out here”, I thought to myself. Just then, our guides spilled the beans. Not only were there some whales out here, but they had been bubble net feeding all day. Bubble net feeding?!? No way!
Our amazing naturalist onboard, Brent Nixon, had told us about this phenomenon in one of his lectures. Humpbacks have learned how to trap schools of herring by having the whales work together. They swim in an ever-shrinking circle, and blow bubbles, which then forces the prey to the surface for easy feeding. Female humpbacks lead this maneuver, and have to teach the skills to the next generation.
With only 10 or so known humpbacks who perform this skill in the wild, we were thrilled to witness it in person. What a phenomenon to experience! The whales would dive beneath the surface, disappearing for several minutes at a time. Then, some bubbles would begin to appear on the surface, followed by a flock of birds flying toward the area to take advantage of an easy catch. Right about the time the birds would skim the water, up would pop the whales, mouths wide open to catch the herring before straining it through their baleen. Imagine it…10 or so whales all popping up at the same time, synchronized swimming at its finest! Despite watching this take place 7 or 8 times, each time we gasped and hollered, delighted by the spectacle of these enormous beasts working together for the common good.
Our time on the water ended all too quickly, as I could have watched my gigantic friends feeding all day long. What we experienced was truly special, a rare glimpse into the survival techniques of an endangered species. I was reminded of my own small, powerful place in the world. Small, as I am just here for a time, one person among millions. However, I am powerful, as my words can serve as a reminder that these creatures are worth admiring, worth protecting, worth taking the time to understand. These treasures have gone from almost extinct in my lifetime to making a beautiful and glorious comeback. That is because one person at a time took a stand, educated others, and worked for change. I’m so incredibly glad they did, so that I might experience their majesty and grace. I hope that you get to do the same some day, too.
P.S. When in Juneau, be sure to look for the statue of Patsy near the harbor. She has her own wonderful history that needs to be shared!
Lisa is the owner of Dreams Delivered Travel. She loves animals, reading, and exploring new destinations. When not on vacation, she helps others turn their vacation dreams in to reality (and her services are always free).