We booked all our tours for Juneau and Skagway (the following destination) through a guy called Chris. He had set up alongside the arrival quay in Juneau Port (see here for last post). We saved a small fortune on the advertised prices on the boat and also got to see some places that we wouldn’t have considered otherwise if it weren’t for Chris’s excellent sales pitch (I mean that kindly!). The “White Pass and Dog Mushing” was another highlight, which will be coming in the next few posts (if I can work out the new WordPress editor that is).
Downtown Juneau nestles on the shores of Gastineau Channel overlooked by Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts. It’s a curious mixture of narrow streets and old-fashioned buildings dating from its heyday as a 19th century gold mining centre combined with modern concrete architecture. Many of these newer buildings house government headquarters as Juneau is the state capital of Alaska (not the city of Anchorage as you might expect). This last fact is somewhat surprising given that there is no access road into Juneau (unlike Ketchikan our previous port of call or Skagway the next one). We were told on more than one occasion by the locals that there are in fact only three means of access into Juneau, by sea, air and birth canal ……
The waterfront is a perpetual hive of activity in the summer months with small fishing boats and seaplanes coming and going and the large cruise ships passing through several times a week.
We had just enough time to catch the morning whale watching tour with “Juneau Whale Watch”. Our boat, the Rochelle B, was proudly crewed by an all girl crew, Kara the captain, Tori the deck hand/assistant and Christi the tour guide and resident biologist. All of them had interesting stories and we learnt not only about the wildlife, flora and eco-system but about the history of the area. Christi’s family were several generation settlers originally from Scotland from memory and Tori came from a remote First Nations Community up in the north.
We were expecting to stop in the channel to see if we could spot any whales but Kara suddenly speeded up the boat. Although we were bobbing about quite a bit in the small boat miraculously I didn’t get seasick!
We approached a wider and more open part of the channel more like a bay and the reason for the haste became clear – we were about to witness literally a once in a lifetime experience. A group of humpback whales had encountered a massive shoal of fish on an underwater ledge and, as sometimes happens, pooled their resources in a giant fishing operation known as “bubble-netting”. Rather than try and explain the intricacies of this procedure, follow the link here for more details. Basically though it is learned rather than instinctive behaviour and the “feed” is coordinated by a leader who uses sounds to indicate to the other whales when to dive and blow bubbles to trap the fish. The whales therefore dive in unison and create a huge “bubble-net” which ensures them a giant feast. As we were in Alaska in late summer the whales would have been feeding up for the breeding season in the winter months when they don’t eat at all. I am not a scientist so forgive the rather unscientific layman’s explanation.
Here is a video taken at a fair distance to give you some idea (it does come out the right way when you click on it!)
Naturally it is very important that the whales do not become stressed with boatloads of tourists trying to take photos. Our boat had to remain a fair distance away from the action and we had of course to be as quiet and discreet as possible. We were able to listen to the female group leader (her name was Cornucopia) through Christi’s sonogram machine. The photos therefore are all taken at a considerable distance – there were about fourteen whales in the group and it was an amazing sight to witness. Christi had only ever seen a group of whales bubble-netting three times in her life and she’s a local biologist! Most tourists would never get to see it at all.
We stayed in the area for about 15 minutes before leaving to give another boat a turn.
Our final stop was a small island where a large group of young male sea lions were seeing out the summer. Apparently many of them would have been young adolescents who had been unable to find a partner in the mating season so basically they chill out on the island passing the time away. Hopefully they will have better luck next year but with the cacophony of noise and the somewhat strong smell I’m not sure of their chances.
We felt really privileged to have been on the whale watching tour and to have seen such an incredible sight as the humpback whales bubble-netting. Alaska just kept on getting better and better!
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