Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Alaska Cruise: Day 3 - Juneau

As the World Bird Sanctuary prepares to lead a group of travelers on another Alaska Cruise this September, travel along with us as I give you a glimpse into the highlights of our 2009 trip.  
Dock area shops - Red Dog Saloon in the background

After cruising all night, day 3 found us about to cruse into our first port of call—Juneau, the capitol of the State of Alaska.

Upon signing up for the cruise we had been given a website and a password whereby we could preview many aspects of the trip—one of which was a list of the many land tours available at each port.  This would give us the opportunity of deciding ahead of time which tours we would like to do, and we could sign up from home—no last minute decisions.  There were thirty-two tours offered for the port of Juneau alone.
Dockside tramway ride to the top of Mt. Roberts - one of the many land tour options
Tour choices ranged from Alaska Salmon Bakes to whale watches, helicopter flightseeing, gold panning, fly-out fly fishing trips, beach walks, bus tours, sea kayaking, rain forest canopy and zipline adventures, and a multitude of others.  The choices were mind-boggling.  Thank goodness we could go through the list ahead of time.

Since there were several other things we wanted to see in our next two ports of call, we had decided that we would sign up for a Whale Watching Quest in Juneau. Others in our travel group opted for some of the other tours. 
The Old Witch Totem, located in the Civic Center Building, accessible by foot, but a bit of a walk
Our tour didn’t leave until 12:30 pm, so we set off to explore the city of Juneau on foot.  We spent the morning searching for The Old Witch Totem Pole.  According to an acquaintance who had lived in Juneau for many years this was the best preserved authentic totem pole in the state of Alaska.  However, unlike many of the other totems it was not on the usual tourist itinerary, but in the Civic Center office building. 
This totem had some amazing detail

This totem was a true work of art and it was hard to believe that it had been carved by people who had only the crudest of tools. 
We were intrigued by some of the colorful buildings
On the way back to the dock area we explored the quaint shops along the way and photographed the colorful buildings that lined the streets—and of course purchased our share of souvenirs for kids and grandkids back home.
The Alaska Fishermen's Building
Our shuttle driver for our tour was very informative and as we drove to the harbor she showed us the points of interest and gave us background and history on many of the local landmarks.  She even stopped the bus and let us get off the to photograph a beautiful scenic area that was ablaze with Fireweed.
The Fireweed in full bloom with Mendenhall Glacier in the background
We boarded the tour boat promptly at 12:30 and set out to find whales.  A park ranger was on board to answer questions and to interpret some of the behaviors we would see.
There was comfortable seating in the boat, but this was the best spot to get photos
Along the way we spotted a colony of sea lions basking on a rocky land spit.  At first all we saw was a rocky shoreline, and then suddenly we realized that some of those “rocks” were actually sea lions.  Mother nature’s camouflage is amazing!  
There are nine or more Sea Lions in this photo--can you spot them?
The fur of these marine mammals blends into the rocks so perfectly that they’re almost invisible until you’re right on top of them.
This Sea Lion blended right in with these mossy rocks
We motored along and rounded the tip of an island and suddenly, there they were—ORCAS! (Otherwise known as Killer Whales).  This was a small pod of four Orcas—including at least 1—possibly 2—youngsters.  It was hard to get a fix on the exact number since they would surface only briefly and then dive—only to surface again in a totally different direction.  
This pod of Orcas cavorted around our boat for at least 30 minutes
I have to say that of all the animals that I have photographed in the wild these were probably the most difficult to capture on film.  You never knew where they were going to surface, plus they travel at the speed of light!
My husband was lucky enough to catch this shot of an Orca breaching
After watching and photographing this pod of Orcas for quite some time the captain of our tour boat decided it was time to move to another location where a pod of Humpback Whales had been spotted that morning.  After a short ride we found them.  They were hunting the waters right in front of a glacier ice field.
This time I was the one lucky enough to get the shot
As we watched, the Humpbacks began bubble net feeding, and the ranger began describing to us what was going on beneath the surface.  The entire pod of Humpbacks dove to a great depth and then they began to circle a school of prey fish.  As they circled, the lead whale began to “sing” (we could hear this on an underwater microphone that was lowered off the side of our boat).  The “singing” and bubbles emitted from the whales’ blowhole acted as a kind of net that pushed the prey to the surface as the whales circled the school of fish.  
The gulls let us know where the Humpbacks would surface
We were told that when the “singing” stopped we should watch the gulls that were circling overhead as they would pinpoint the location where the prey and the whales would break the surface.  Sure enough, the singing stopped and the gulls began to circle overhead.  
This was an incredible sight!
Suddenly whales and small baitfish exploded from the water in an incredible feeding frenzy!  The huge behemoths would dive and then jump half their body length out of the water with mouths gaping to scoop up the frenzied baitfish.  This went on for perhaps ten minutes and then it was over--all was quiet except for the calls of the gulls, who were greedily feasting on the leftovers from the carnage.  This happened twice while we were watching. 

Soon it was time to head back to port, and as we traveled back to our respective ships all of us who had boarded the tour boat as strangers began swapping names and email addresses, promising to share photos (if any turned out).  To this day I still swap emails with a couple of the strangers that we met as part of our whale watching experience.
There are plenty of shops here to satisfy the cravings of any shopaholic
We returned to the docks with just enough time to make a couple of last minute purchases at one of the stores that fronts the wharf before it was time to board ship.

For more information or to make your reservation to join this year’s cruise Click Here

Submitted by Gay Schroer, World Bird Sanctuary Volunteer/Photographer

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