ATVs, Wildlife, and More

So I’ve been a slacker on updates, I know, but the cruise is going wonderfully. Icy Strait Point is actually not the real name of where we were (I think it’s just where we were anchored, then we took little tender boats to the actual destination). The real place was the village of Hoonah, a neat little town mostly populated by the native-Alaskan Tlingit people (pronounced ‘klink-it’) and/or fishermen.

We had a booked shore-excursion in Hoonah. We rode a bus up the mountain and got some some spiffy little 4×4 ATVs (Melissa made me drive the whole time ;-)) and drove up a narrow mountain trail. We didn’t see much wildlife—just a funny little ground squirrel—but the views were gorgeous and the ATV was a lot of fun to drive!

The next morning we were in Skagway, where we walked around a little bit but it was mostly a fake, crowded tourist town. Melissa wanted to go to Jewell Gardens, a botanical garden on the outskirts of the town, so we went up there and she took a lot of pictures of flowers at close range while I admired an expansive model train set that went all over the place—complete with models of town and campsites and little plastic people, cows, and so on. We were also right between the tight mountain approach pattern for Skayway’s airport, which afforded me a great view of small planes flying at low-altitude between mountain peaks.

Yesterday we were in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. Melissa bought a watch. We went all over Juneau two years ago, so we didn’t do a lot of exploring this time. In the afternoon we had our second (and final) booked shore-excursion, a whale watching and wildlife tour.

We rode a bus from the city of Juneau out past Mendenhall Glacier where we boarded a smallish whale-watching boat at Auke Bay and set out into the channels and waterways of the Juneau area. After only fifteen minutes or so we came across two humpback whales—mother and calf—chillin’ out on the east side of Shelter Island and diving for delicious krill. The mother’s tail would arc out of the water when she dove, but the calf hadn’t yet developed the muscles so its tail would just poke out a bit when he dove. It was very cool.

By law, said our guide, we weren’t allowed to approach closer than 300 feet from the whales. But if you park the boat 300 feet away and the whales come to you, it’s all perfectly legal! We must have been lucky, because that’s exactly what happened. At their closest, the mom and calf humpbacks took a spectacular dive from probably 50-100 feet away from the boat. Man, those things are big!

We abandoned the pair of humpbacks after a half-hour (another legal requirement) and took off in search of more animals. We saw occasional splashes and glimpses of sea lions in the water around us, but we didn’t stop for them (according to the guide, they like to mess with boats—making a scene, being cute, and then disappearing as soon as you stop to look at them). No worries though, another few minutes away we approached the rocky west coast of Benjamin Island where upwards of 100 stellar sea lions—the largest kind of sea lion—were sunning themselves, goofing off, rolling into the water and climbing back out in a cacophony of motion. It was absolutely amazing.

The boat turned around and we started heading to our next location. We passed a picturesque buoy—with a bald eagle perched on its top and two or three sea lions sunning on the bottom. In the North Pass, between Lincoln Island and Shelter Island, we found some more humpbacks. There were probably four of them total, diving for krill and putting on a periodic show of arched tails. Melissa and I also saw what we think was some kind of dolphin or porpoise in the distance jumping up and down out of the water, but it was too far away to tell for sure.

We returned to the dock for the bus ride back to the ship, and on the way we passed what seemed to be a bald eagle party—seven of them all flying around in a little cluster. We’d learned from our guide on the boat earlier that bald eagles don’t actually shriek (like you hear in the movies), but make a cute chirp noise like a regular old bird. Who knew!

Last night, after dinner, I was looking out our cabin window back on the Volendam and saw even more humpbacks diving like we’d seen on the whale watching tour. Some of them almost as close. They were everywhere! Then, this morning, while we were eating breakfast up on the Lido deck we heard a commotion and saw people looking out the window. Luckily we had a window seat, so we looked out and saw two fins on the surface. As we passed them by, they surfaced a bit higher and we could see the unmistakable black and while pattern of the killer whale (orca). Wow! First time I’ve ever seen them in the wild (except possibly on our last cruise, but it was so far away we couldn’t tell what it was for sure).

Anyway, needless to say we’ve been having a great time! Right now we’re in Ketchikan, our last stop in Alaska before we proceed to Vancouver (and hope that my passport receipt gets me back into the United States). You may not hear from me again until some time on Saturday, since we will mostly be at-sea, in the air, or sleeping between tonight and then.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.