Whale Watching Around The World Part 10
Summer is also good for the whales. The humpbacks that winter off the Hawaiian Islands and Baja California migrate in summer to Alaska waters, where they feed on vast schools of herring and candlefish. Well over half the world's 10,000 to 12,500 endangered humpbacks summer here. Each year females migrate north with their calves to these important feeding areas. It is not uncommon to see humpbacks feeding within a few feet of the shoreline.
For sightings, Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage is the best bet. This marine route is protected by numerous islands stretching nearly 375 miles from the Alaska-British Columbia border north to Skagway, with coves and bays that shelter boats from severe storms. The waters around mountainous, 100-mile-long, 25-mile-wide Admiralty Island, west of Juneau and north of Petersburg, are the premier location for humpbacks.
Because of their shore-hugging feeding strategies and spectacular acrobatic behavior, humpbacks are, not surprisingly, Alaska's big whale-watching attraction. Other cetaceans swim these waters, too. Gray whales migrate in spring from Baja California's sheltered lagoons north along the Pacific coast to feeding grounds in Alaska's Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea, a swim of 5,000 miles or more. Rarely are they seen in Prince William Sound or the Inside Passage, but in 1998 observers were shocked to see a small gray swimming by the dock in Glacier Bay's Bartlett Cove. Viewing gray whales in Alaska is limited to spring and fall migration times, which often coincide with storm seasons. A limited number of tour operators are developing spring gray whale cruises. The beluga is a high-arctic species rarely seen without considerable expense.
Orcas, minke whales, harbor, and Dall's porpoises are commonly observed in inshore waters. On a weeklong cruise for humpbacks, orcas may be sighted once or twice. Shy minkes and harbor porpoises may approach quiet, stationary boats, whereas exuberant Dall's porpoises play in a boat's wake. These small, speedy porpoises, colored like miniature orcas, swim in huge schools (an estimated 3,000 were once observed in a single group). The more acrobatic Pacific white-sided dolphins are rarely seen inshore, but again in 1998, amid other unusual marine sightings, a white-sided dolphin spent time around Haines, swimming with people and playing around boats.
The Alaskan backdrop is as much a draw as the whales themselves. Dense conifer forests skirt mountains rising to glacial summits. Numerous islands and fjords punctuate wild coastlines thick with grizzlies and eagles. Massive tidewater glaciers tower over inlets choked with icebergs calved from their faces. When whales are inactive, there are seals, sea lions, eagles, and bears to spot, puffins and marbled murrelets to count. Sea otters, once threatened with extinction because of overhunting by early Russian fur hunters, are now abundant and delight visitors. A crow calling from silent, mist-draped woods reminds you that this land once was solely the home of Native Alaskans, the Tlingit and Haida, the clans of the bear, eagle, raven, and whale. It takes very little imagination to conjure visions of warriors heading out in cedar dugout canoes to hunt whales or fish for salmon. Here in Alaska, the word wilderness takes on its full and complete meaning.