It was quite a wonderful sight to finally see the mountains of Alaska from our cruise ship. First small mountains in the distance, the Aleutian Islands, then bigger mountain ranges on the Alaskan mainland. Back in the USA after about six months of travel to places too hot for any human. Great to see snow again.
How appropriate to arrive back in the USA and see so many bald eagles flying about. This one had just taken a dive for some fresh seafood and was still drying out. Before our tour boat from Seward was even out of the harbor we had stopped to view several eagles and then an otter. Tourists are pretty easy to please. Our tour guide told us the otter has the most dense coat of any other animal, and for good reason.
My first of Several Whale Tours
While seeing these eagles and otters was fun, my goal was to photograph some whale tails, or more correctly whale flukes, just as the humpback whale makes a deep dive. We have all seen such photos of these mammoth majestic migrating mammals. My photo would not be any better than the many thousands taken before me, but still it was my photo challenge of the day.
The first step in our whale tour was to… leave the whales. From our ship we had a great view of whales feeding and diving. From the dock on the way to our tour boat I saw my first group of whales bubble feeding, generally a rare sight. I had to leave all this whale activity to go on our whale spotting tour. It seemed the whale operator was somewhat embarrassed to have such good whale activity right at the dock, so they soon sped us away in search of apparently the more desirous distant whales.
After leaving the many whales near the cruise ship and dock, we begin searching for the now elusive whales. The first sighting of a whale is often the blow from a just surfacing whale exhaling air.
With no whales in sight, our tour boat passed the time cruising near some lazy harbor seals.
Finally we spotted a whale blow and a diving whale both in one scene. The humpback whale will blow out the old air upon surfacing and breathe in air three or four times before diving down again. While we were all happy to find more whales, it was a side view, not the ideal angle for a photograph.
Finally I got a better angle on the whale fluke. In this photo we can even see the texture of the whale fin.
Now that I had captured a couple good whale flukes, I widened the view to include the scenery of the area.
Whales Bubble Net Feeding
We are at Icy Strait Point, Alaska, a tourist destination just outside the small village of Hoonah, Alaska. We were told it is one of the few places on earth where the humpback whales have learned how to bubble net feed. These hungry whales have just returned from their tropical homes 8,000 miles away where they live off of their stored fat, give birth and do no feeding. They are now in a feeding frenzy, consuming three thousand pounds of fish per day.
One whale dives deep and then releases a circular curtain of bubbles from the blow hole. These fast rising bubbles act as a barrier to the school of herring or krill. Other whales herd the small fish into this circular bubble confining net. Numerous whales will then rapidly surge upward with gaping mouths, scooping up bushels full of herring or krill and an occasional sea gull in the process. Fewer than one hundred whales know how to do this feeding trick.
Inside the mouths of the whales above their filtering baleen plates can be seen. If an unfortunate seagull is caught by mistake, it will be spit out, dazed but not consumed.
In hindsight, it would have been good to take a video of this amazing sight, but I stuck to photography. In the photo below the more aqua color of the water surrounding the whales is the remains of the circular bubble net.
We actually returned to this same town a month later and there were no whales in the harbor and zero bubble net feedings. The whales were so efficient in their earlier feeding they had fished out this harbor and had moved on to better fishing spots.
For more information and a great video of bubble net feeding, here is a link to a BBC narration of the event.
Cruising the Glaciers
Scenes such as this one went on day after day as we cruised by several large glacier fields. While the number of cruise ships is regulated, you will not be cruising alone here. There is steady traffic of ships coming and going. The ship captain will brag that while in these pristine waters, they will burn a cleaner fuel. What are they burning the rest of the time?
The edge of the colorful glacier field. Notice the three birds flying near the center of the photo.
The days we cruised the glaciers were mostly cloudy and foggy. However, that did not make the scenery any less spectacular.
In many harbors it is a requirement that a local harbor master direct the ship from the cruise ship navigation deck. When out of the local harbor, the local commander must somehow get off of the cruise ship.
Goodbye from Alaska.
While our next stop is Seattle, we will return to do this cruise once again next month, different stops, different light and a few nights in Denali National Park. Be sure to keep a close watch.