Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Day 12 – Juneau & the Whales

OMG – what fun we had!!  We got so much tail!!  They were all humpbacks.  The orcas are migratory and sadly we didn’t see any.

We arrived to a semi-sunny day in Juneau.  Captain Jack met us at the pier and drove us to the other side of town where his boat was waiting.  Joey and Ryan are the crew on the M/V Scania.  As it turned out, we were the only guests for the day.  It’s very early in the season.  Later on, his boat will be filled with whale seekers every day.

We took off and didn’t have to go far before we encountered the first one.  I missed the best photo op of the day when he flashed us a huge tail right beside the boat.  What was I doing?  Climbing the ladder to the top level of the boat – which required both hands on the railing because the boat was rocking about.   And with that flash he was gone.  Oh well.  We saw plenty more, just not as close as that first one.

How does one find a whale, anyway?  You definitely increase your chances when you have lots of help.  Joey and Ryan were our spotters, and they were really good.  They continually scanned the area for the “blow”, or the exhalation of the whales.  It looks like the smoke from a campfire.  And if you’re close enough you can smell it – it reeks like rotten fish. 

Just after they exhale, they will hump their back as they submerge.  They only flash their tail when they dive deep to feed.  If they’re on the move, they will swim just below the surface.  Orcas have a large dorsal fin, which makes them easier to track.  Because the dorsal fin of the humpback is so small, they can play hide-and-seek very well.  They can stay under for up to 45 minutes, but mostly they were on a 10-minute cycle.  You just have to wait, and watch, and have lots of eyes on the water.  By the time you see the blow, aim the camera, and focus – well, it’s really hard to catch the body and tail flash. 

Captain Jack manned the radio and communicated with all the other tour guides in the area.  Any time someone spotted a whale, they shared the location.  We were able to relocate to new positions whenever we got word of a sighting.  I was so lucky to get these pictures!

The calves are born in Hawaii in January.  The mothers stay there with them until they are strong enough to travel the 3,000 miles to Alaska.  They come here for the excellent feeding ground.  We were fortunate to see this baby and mom… 

Captain Jack told us that most literature states the life expectancy of a humpback is 60 years.  Recent research indicates that it’s more like 150-200 years.  They have found whale carcasses with harpoon barbs dating back that long ago.  They aren’t sure if the bubble netting behavior is something learned recently, or if the old-timers are bringing back an old practice.

We took a short detour to see a colony of sea lions.  They like to hang out here and play “king of the buoy”.  These guys just cracked me up.  Aren't they adorable?

Then we went near shore where the moms give birth.  The whole shoreline was packed with them.  They literally crawled over each other.  I noticed one in the water who was leaping and playing.  I happened to catch this picture, and didn’t realize until I saw it on the screen that his mouth was open.  I think he was laughing while he played.  Can you see the pups on shore?

 And we saw the Mendenhall Glacier from the water…

Today was definitely the highlight of the trip.  Nature always entertains me.  Sadly, we didn't see any whales breech this time.  Maybe they'll honor me with that next time.  

 Stay tuned…

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