"Can you see it?!"
A sea-green surface nearly as smooth as glass stretches off in all directions. Towering spruce trees growing thickly to the water's edge reflect deep green against the jumbled, rocky, shore. A gentle breeze blows chill across your face as you stand frozen with anticipation, your eyes steadily panning the surface watching and waiting for the creature to appear. Suddenly the smooth surface bulges up slightly left of your center gaze. White water sprays skyward as the surface erupts. A knobby, barnacle encrusted, nose emerges from the spray followed by a saucer-like eye. Elegant, wing-like flippers slice the surface and rise into the air. With two thirds of its massive body clear of the water the creature gives a mighty twist and momentarily pauses in mid air. Gravity perserveres and she falls on her side, exposing the mottled grey and white pleats of her throat and belly, generating a splash rivaling the launch of a small ship.
The breach of a humpback whale can be compared to few other events in the animal kingdom, it is unique and breathtaking to behold. Enjoying a moment like this is an opportunity that can be more easily enjoyed than you may ever have imagined.
Whales and More Whales
Each summer large numbers Humpback whales make the journey from their winter calving grounds in Hawaii and Mexico, to the nutrient rich waters of Southeast Alaska. There, among the protected islands and bays they gorge themselves on the abundant herring, krill and candlefish that flourish in the icy waters. The whales feed and frolic nearly non-stop under the endless Alaskan summer sky, pausing only for an occasional nap before returning to the task of building up the fat reserves they will need to sustain themselves on the long journey south for the winter.
Southeast Alaska offers many locations from which you may enjoy the whales, but one of the most dependable and easily accessible areas is Icy Straits. Located at the northern end of Alaska's famous inside passage, Icy Straits provides a summer playground and ample larder for a large number of humpbacks. The waters off of Point Adolphus, across from Glacier Bay National park, offer nearly guaranteed whale activity all summer long, and along most of the beaches in the area you can find whales feeding and playing.
Humpback whales have voracious appetites, spending many hours each day engaged in the consumption of huge quantities of small sea creatures. In a select few areas of Icy Straits, you can often observe humpbacks employing their most fantastic feeding technique known as "bubble feeding." This elegant fishing method begins when a single whale or a large group of whales locate a school of bait fish near the surface of the water. Diving deeply below the school of fish, the whales swim in a circle around the perimeter of the school releasing a steady stream of air from their blowholes. This stream of air creates an effervescent curtain of bubbles that rises toward the surface. In calm waters the construction of these "bubble nets" can be observed on the surface as the circle of erupting bubbles is closed concentrating the herring into a tight ball inside of the curtain. The whales then swim straight up toward the surface through the center of the "bubble net," rising open mouthed from the water, hundreds of sparkling silver, herring escaping from between the baleen as water rushes out of the corners of the whale's gaping mouth. Its pleated throat amazingly distended with water and fish the whales close their mouths and sink backward beneath the surface to strain its catch from the sea water
The beauty of bubble feeding is that you can often capture some excellent photos as the location of the "feed" can be established at the center of the bubble net. The same whale or group of whales often can be followed as they feed for several hours as the tide moves in and out along a rich stretch of shoreline.
The Rest of the Show
In addition to feeding behaviors, humpbacks engage in a wide variety of play and social interaction. The most
breathtaking and publicized of all humpback behaviors is breaching. Though hard to predict initially, many whales breach repeatedly, and the second and third breaches can be captured on film. Humpbacks also engage in what would be called tail and fluke slapping. While swimming on their backs or side, they lift their huge flukes clear of the water and slap them down with a smacking sound that can carry for miles across calm waters. Some whales lift the back third of their body clear of the water in a headstand fashion and repeatedly beat the water with their powerful tails. While on the surface, the whales produce what can best be described as groans and trumpets which echo across the water for miles. On many occasions you will also find mixed in among the whales, stellar sea lions, porpoises and a wide variety of sea birds. Sea lions love to play among the whales often leapfrogging over their backs, in and out among the group like a circus dog. Bald eagles can be seen regularly swooping down from a perch on a high branch to snatch up a dinner of salmon or cod in their sharp talons, returning to the shore to eat their catch of the day.
Let Sleeping Whales Lie
Humpbacks sleep on the surface, breathing shallowly every few minutes and bobbing nearly invisibly even in calm water. For this reason great care should to be taken when transiting their feeding grounds, as they often do not wake to the sound of an approaching vessel and collisions are a real possibility.
How to get there
Immediate access to Icy Straits can be obtained from two small communities. Hoonah, located on the northern end of Chichagof Island, and Gustavus, located at the on the mainland side of Icy Straits. Hoonah is a small fishing and timber community originally established by the Huna Tlingit after being forced from Glacier Bay by the advancing ice. Nestled along the beach at the foot of thickly wooded hillsides that rise steeply from the water Hoonah offers a quiet, small town, atmosphere flavored with the traditions of the Tlingit culture. Gustavus lies on a flat peninsula separating Glacier Bay from Icy Straits. Gustavis boasts an airport with both jet and small plane service from Juneau and serves as the entry point for all most who visit Glacier Bay each year. Hoonah and Gustavis can be quickly reached by air taxi departing from the Juneau international airport.
Once in Gustavus or Hoonah, reaching the whales is simply a matter of making contact with your charter operators and arranging a time of departure. Air taxi travel time to Hoonah or Gustavus is between 20 to 30 minutes and with adequate planning you should be on the water watching the whales within a half an hour of touching down. If you choose to overnight a host of comfortable accomodations are available in both communities. If you are a day tripper, after a six hour whale watch and a quick flight back to Juneau you could be enjoying a nice evening meal in one of Juneau's fines restaurants.
There are a number of excellent charter operators based in both Hoonah and Gustavis offering a variety of whale watching experiences, from an up-close and personal guided sea-kayak trip to a full day on a private charter boat. Plan on making advanced arrangements for boat time as bookings fill for most operators prior to the start of the summer season. It is still possible to arrange for a trip on a walk up basis, but available times and dates may be difficult to obtain within your window of opportunity.
To reach the whales you should select an operator that provides a service that fits with you personal needs. Several tour operators offer daily scheduled departures for up to fifty persons leaving from Gustavus. You will share the boat with a large number of people and return times are rigidly observed. Personalized charters are available for your private party for a custom day on the water. Single party trips allow you a more intimate experience with the whales as you are able to stay longer and move a bit more freely to allow the whales the best access to you. Your guide will happily share a wealth of personal knowledge of the country, wildlife, and rich cultural history of this area. Day rates range from $50 to $150 per person for half day excursions to between $75 and $250 for a full day on the water.
Spending time on the blue-green waters of Icy Straits, surrounded by the lush beauty of the Tongas National Forest with the snow capped peaks of the Fairweather Mountain range towering in the distance is an experience never to be forgotten. Access is easy and hospitality is wonderful throughout Southeast Alaska. Try a new adventure this summer and take home some Alaskan memories to lift your spirits for years to come!