Humpback heaven in Alaska

Alaska, the big country, has huge appeal for nature-lovers with its magnificent wildlife and vast landscapes

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Alaska, the big country, has huge appeal for nature-lovers with its magnificent, generously-proportioned wildlife and spectacularly vast landscapes.

“Good morning Spirit of Discovery.” Megan’s silky tones slipped into my cabin at some ungodly hour of the morning. OK, it was actually 7am, but after a princess-and-the-pea night on a slimline bed, it felt earlier. Pulling the covers over my head in a vain attempt to block out the 20-hour-a-day sunlight, I resolved to forgo the gourmet breakfast that was undoubtedly waiting for me.

But not for long. The exploration team leader’s next words had me scrambling out of bed, reaching simultaneously for my binoculars and camera. “We have sea otters close to the boat at nine o’clock” she purred calmly. Nine o’clock meant portside – and that meant directly outside my cabin window.

Dragging open the thick, sunlight-defying curtain, I was just in time to catch a raft of about six sleepy otters floating past. Most of them had adopted the traditional laid-back drifting pose – on their backs, chins tucked into furry chests, over-large back feet raised aloft like sails, looking as if they were bathing in a hot spring rather than swimming in water so cold it had icebergs in it.

Floating furballs

Sea otters try to keep their noses and feet out of the chilly water as much as possible – these extremities do not have the same fur density as the rest of their bodies and so are susceptible to the cold. But every so often, they have to roll to replenish the insulating layer of air bubbles trapped in their fur.

Unlike other marine mammals, which have blubber to keep warm, sea otters have the thickest fur of any mammal, with up to one million hairs per square inch. This and the consumption of a quarter of their bodyweight every day in sea urchins, crabs and other crustaceans helps them to cope with Alaska’s freezing seas.

The sea otter is actually little more than a giant furball – a definite advantage over the Steller’s sealions that share these waters. Both larger and heavier, the sealions occupy an unenviable position at the top of the local orcas’ favourite prey list.

When we encountered the sea otters, they were miles from land, drifting on the ocean currents. But we needn’t have worried about them – they almost never go ashore, even giving birth in the water. All they need is a kelp bed to hold on to in stormy seas and they are completely content. As indeed was I and the other passengers on the Spirit as we exchanged smiles over breakfast – I didn’t miss my fluffy eggs after all.

An Alaskan adventure

I had been invited to explore Alaska’s Inside Passage – a series of secluded fjords, glacial waterways and secret inlets that divide the mainland from hundreds of coastal islands – in search of its amazing marine wildlife and pristine wilderness.

And I was on something of a personal mission to see humpbacks. I don’t mean the ‘Did-I-really-see-it-or-was-it-just-a-ripple?’ kind of sighting I’ve had on whale-watching vessels in the past. I had high expectations of Alaska’s whales, but they still managed to take my breath away.

Marine patrol

My adventure began on a cloudy day in Juneau, where I boarded the Spirit, a 50-metre long, 84-guest vessel dwarfed in the dock by the 3,000-passenger cruise-liners that lumber up and down these waters. As I gazed up at the floating cities, I wondered how their occupants managed to see any wildlife at all, or if, indeed, they cared.

The voyage started out well – we were challenged to spot white specks in the distant forest canopy or “golf balls in trees,” which turned out to be adult bald eagles, while “white suitcases with legs” were mountain goats, grazing perilously on the sheer sides of the glacier-carved valleys.

In Tracy Arm, icebergs provided a frisson of excitement as they scraped noisily along the underside of the boat, prompting Titanic jokes from the guests assembled on the front deck. 

That evening, we veered briefly off-course to watch a small pod of orcas cruising close to the shore, their dorsal fins rising and sinking beneath the waves as if they were on a merry-go-round, prompting “oohs” and “aahs” from my companions, like spectators at a firework display.

Humpback heaven

Day two in Frederick Sound dawned bright and clear (the sun is a rare guest in Alaska, so this was definitely a good omen) and Megan’s mellifluous early morning wake-up call included the ever-serene observation that there were humpbacks off the prow “and they’re putting on a great show.”

Racing up on deck, I was greeted by cheery smiles from a gaggle of binocular-brandishing guests and a crack like a gunshot. A humpback far in the distance was repeatedly slapping one four-metre-long flipper on the water, the sound reaching us a few seconds after we watched the massive appendage descend.

As 45 cameras zoomed in, the whale obligingly rolled onto its back and proceeded to use both flippers in a co-ordinated fin-slapping display, as though conducting an orchestra of circling seabirds.

Not to be outdone, another humpback far to the east of the boat launched its 25-tonne body out of the water. 45 cameras swivelled simultaneously in the newcomer’s direction – and took 45 photos of one almighty splash. Grinning foolishly at each other, we swore we’d be ready next time.

Photo call

Eyes narrowed, fingers poised, breath held, we waited. Taking pity on us, the humpback breached again – and again and again. Surely we’d got pictures of the action this time? Then, as quietly as they arrived, the whales departed – and respecting the rigorous Alaskan law and our own consciences, we let them be and resumed our course. 

As I wandered into the lounge, I realised that breakfast had finished about two hours ago and that I was still wearing my bunny bedsocks – but somehow I just didn’t care.

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