Saturday, September 26, 2009

Whales at Alaska Sea

We saw whales while our cruise Ryndam sailed at sea. But they were far and the cruise won't stop for us to observe the whales more. The best whale watching is from excursions on a smaller boat. We had our best whale watching experience from Juneau 'Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest' and from Sitka 'Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest'. The sea outside Juneau is a year round orca whale (a.k.a. killer whale, the whales we see at Sea World) feeding ground. Whale watching is essentially guaranteed.

At Juneau, as our Catamaran speeding to the whale feeding ground, the Mendenhall glaciers we walked on a few hours ago, were in sight at 6 o'clock direction, with foreground of blue sea, blue sky and green mountains. They were once more mystic, intriguing and gravitational. What a magnificent visual feast! It is noted that on a boat or ship, the direction is usually described in terms of clock - with the direction of sailing, or the direction of the bow, be 12 o'clock, 90 degree to the right be 3 o'clock, 90 degree to the left be 9 o'clock, and etc.

The first sighting of the trip was two whales swimming at 1 o'clock direction. It was the most exciting one even though the whales were far away, what we saw were just the black backs of the whales up and down in the sea. As the whales swam around, people swung from one side of the ship to the other, wherever whales popped into scene. All tourists on board had a kind of suppressed excitement, only whispers and click of camera shutters could be heard, in addition to captain's announcement or comments from the public announcer.

Of course, more sightings and most spectacular one came later of the trip.

As the boat reached the feeding ground, it slowed down and we had more and more whale sightings. A group of 4 or 5 whales were swimming along a shallow water by some half submersed rocks (tiny island?), they swam in a line, one after another, sprouting, going up and down, splashing water to one another occasionally, backstroking, having a good time. We, the tourists had a good time as well, we stayed away from them (the water there was too shallow for our Catamaran any way) , using binoculars, cameras to watch and record the whale's performance. All you heard on board at this time was just the sound of camera shutter clicking, and occasionally "wow' and "oh".

In another area, we saw a group of 9 whales, swimming in a circle, sea gulls and other sea birds circling above them close to a shoreline. Apparently they were feeding, in fact they were bubble net feeding according to our captain. We saw them frequently diving, display their magnificent tails - orca whale tail has a white pattern on it, which is unique to each whale, just like Human finger print. All of us were trying hard to have a perfect whale tail picture. Using my new Nikon camera, I could get really good pictures of the whales. After a while, people, including me, lost their initial intense concentration. At this time, a rare "full breach" occurred, a whale jumped out of water!!. I saw the whole breaching process, but only caught a blurred falling down whale. A big splash, and a totally astonished audience. - WOW! The captain's comment: "You never know what will happen next!"

During Sitka 'Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest' excursion, even though the main attraction was sea otters, on the way to see sea otters, whales gave us spectacular diving shows. As this time the whales were in the middle of sea, our boat was much closer to the whales than that during the Juneau trip. One time two whales swimming at 9 o'clock direction, they moved up and down, up and down, then their lower body bent above water, the tails went up, they dived deep to catch fish. I had a hard time to have a perfect picture of the whale tail because I somehow always just missed the moment of a whale tail's full upright display.

Fortunately, there was a naturalist on board. I guess that she realized that some people had a hard time to catch the moment of tail up. She told us that a whale would go up and down 7 times before a deep dive, and thus the wondrous showing of its tail. The second time we encountered two whales, might be the same two we saw earlier, I counted the whale's up and down, and indeed they dived after 7 times! and I got a really good picture of the whale tail. As many of us were obsessed with taking a perfect whale picture, not really looking at the whales with our eyes, the third time we encountered whales, the naturalist challenged us: "I recommend you to put down your cameras, just enjoy the spectacular whales with your own eyes!" I followed her suggestion. A whale swam a short distance from our boat, its dorsal fin and black back went up and down, up and down, then a big bent of its lower body, a really big curve, the whale tail went up, facing me, (or rather I looked straight at it), a big splash!!

The excitement of discovery, the anxiousness of anticipation, the thrill of unexpected! Those are what made the whale watching at Alaska sea a great experience.

Travel note: a high power binocular can really help one to see fine features of wild life, far or near. To take good pictures of wild life, especially in distance, one should have some more advanced cameras. During our Yellowstone national park trip in 2008, our "point and shot" Sony digital camera really could not capture wolves in distance well. This time, we purchased a 24x optical zoom Nikon advanced digital camera - it worked great. A digital SLR with high power lens would be better, but it is expensive and heavy.