The Wonder of Whales

This is the sixth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

While COVID-19 has thrown 2020 a curve ball, and continues to disrupt in ways that are so difficult for so many, it seemed superficial to pick up where I left off to finish this blog series from our Alaska trip a year (seems like a lifetime …) ago. As I finished editing my photos during these months of more limited activity, it has been a welcome escape and reminder of the wonders of this world that are worth fighting for …. like the wonder of whales.

Wednesday was our fourth full day on the Alaskan Dream’s Misty Fjord, and was scheduled to be a long travel day, navigating Chatham Strait to position us just outside the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park.

Rounding the corner of a peninsula and looking back, we were treated to a grand scene: Point Retreat Lighthouse stood marking the promontory with massive Herbert Glacier dominating the background. The prominence of the glacier in the background despite the distance was a testament to its enormity. The details of the bluish ice field were hazy, creating a dreamlike quality to the scene, the lighthouse starkly contrasting with the clarity of its detail.

Point Retreat Lighthouse and Herbert Glacier

Humpbacks had been seen the day before in Freshwater Bay, so our Captain took a slight detour from our planned route to check it out …. what a worthwhile diversion it turned out to be!

As we entered the bay, in the distance we could see multiple spouts and a flurry of activity before the classic arching backs and flipping tails followed.

We clustered on the bow of our small vessel, scanning the open waters around us. The telltale churning circle appeared before a chorus of mouths and snouts emerged, with flailing pectorals showing flashes of white joining the feeding frenzy. The bubble net was created by the whales below, which trapped the herring the whales then swooped up to consume. The humpbacks milled about after the initial circular effort, water spouts following one after the other, undulating dorsal fins side by side, and the seemingly synchronized dive together — 3, 4, 5 at a time, tails slowly turning over and sinking to the water below, signaling the end of another feeding session.

We watched this sequence play out in full several times. Our gasps of awestruck wonder each time the stages of the instinctual dance began anew. Our small group soaked in the spectacle in silence … creating space for the sounds of the whales from below and along the surface to reach us, like an otherwordly exchange of voices.

At one point, the last of the whales’ tails gracefully disappeared, and most of us had set aside cameras and binoculars while we replayed the scene in conversation.

Suddenly, a single whale broke the surface in a breathtaking arch, breaching the water almost completely in a majestic manner, before it landed dramatically, displacing an enormous amount of water in one fell swoop. The bay’s surface reflected the disturbance for an extended time before returning to its even ripples.

Our unplanned hours in Freshwater Bay meant spending most of the rest of the day traveling to position for the remaining two days of our itinerary. Along the way we noticed the periodic group of Dall’s porpoises playing on the waves, or an isolated sea otter or sea lion traveling on its own journey.

Evening brought us to Flynn Cove, and we anchored for the night. The sun was just beginning its descent as kayaks were brought down from the top of the boat. The waters were calm and we pushed off in pairs to explore the cove.

The area was known to be popular with bears, but the unsettling growl that echoed across the water, in the way that only sounds can in the quiet of evening, was not a bear — instead it came from one of two elephant seals who were surprised by a couple of the kayaks. Our naturalist scared them off and the rest of the evening paddle was uneventful.

Before returning to the boat for the night, most of us beached our kayaks and took a short walk across the point from Flynn Cove to where we could see Icy Strait, just as the sky shifted from gold to pinks and blues, signaling that twilight had begun.

On the beach, faint bear tracks were seen, mixed with signs of birds and smaller animals. While I did not hear it, several in our group heard the low grumble which was an almost indescribable guttural sound that was unmistakably bear. It was our signal to leave.

With a short paddle back to the boat, our day of wonder came to an end.

~ Kat

Next post: The Grandeur of Glacier Bay

Previous posts in the series: 

The First Iceberg

This is the fifth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

The starting of the Misty Fjord’s engines at 5:00 a.m. roused me awake, but the gentle movement of the boat starting on the day’s journey quickly lulled me back to sleep for another couple of hours. It was hard to believe we were beginning our 4th day of the trip (and only our third full day) – every day had held an entire trip’s worth of memories, and today was no different.

Once I rolled out of bed, a few of us gathered in the lounge area off of the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee, slowly greeting the morning. Then one of our shipmates popped in from the deck with one word — “Iceberg” — and the energy immediately changed. We excitedly chattered while pulling on rain gear to head to the bow.

Similar to capturing the images of one’s first child, the first iceberg of the trip was the subject of a multitude of photos from different angles, trying to preserve the memory without dulling the details. The layers of gray mist painted a rich yet monochromatic backdrop for a pop of sculptured blue floating in isolation, soon joined by others. Small bergs seemed to gather close, and their frequency and size grew, creating an increasingly diverse landscape as we pushed forward up Tracy Arm to the Sawyer Glaciers.

The fjords leading to the Sawyer Glaciers vary in their navigability. When we arrived in the morning, the fjord branching toward the North Sawyer Glacier was more open, so the captain veered in that direction first. When we reached the north head of Tracy Arm, we were treated to a private showing of the wall of aged ice. Gunshot-like sounds filled the air to announce a shifting of ice, quickly followed by collapse of a section of the massive glacier face into the bay, much to all of our amazement.

With calm waters and minimal ice debris, the captain deemed it safe enough to put in the kayaks. We were cautioned to maintain a safe distance from the glacier as we explored the bay. When a glacier calves, the ice chunks can become dangerous projectiles and create hazardous post-calving waves.

Cascades and waterfalls were scattered about on the towering cliff walls surrounding us. We paddled toward the base of a waterfall and pushed at the smaller pieces of ice as we passed by. One quickly came to understand the danger that a sizeable iceberg poses to a fiberglass boat hull, as a tap of the paddle was met with incredible resistance, even on the seemingly smallest of ice chunks. The old phrase “tip of the iceberg” is accurate – a small mound of ice above the water’s surface is often misleading, given the large mass that is connected beneath it.

Sitting in a kayak at the water’s level, we felt incredibly insignificant in the most awe-inspiring of ways as the untouched beauty of the mineral-infused waters, blue mosaic glacial face, and mist-covered peaks of the imposing fjord walls enveloped us in their collective beauty.

Once the kayaks were loaded back on to the Misty Fjord, the boat worked its way back along Tracy Arm to the fork leading to the even more impressive South Sawyer Glacier. The ice floes were thicker in the fjord passage, causing the captain to slowly zig-zag between the icebergs. It was like wandering through a sculpture garden, with each angle of the dramatic frozen masses revealing a different creation. Some were a rich blue, others a milky white, while yet others were largely clear.

On the expanses of flat ice were pairs of seals, mother and baby, lounging safely together. As the boat slowly navigated the passage, seals quietly slid off the ice into the water, with the babies close on the tail of their mothers. Watching the mother seals cautiously observe the ship and determine when to instruct their offspring to dive, I felt my own protective motherly instinct stir, a feeling that often emerged while just scratching the surface of the stunning wilderness that is Alaska — a fierce desire to protect this untouched land for generations of seals and other wildlife to live without threat of harmful development and unnecessary environmental dangers.

The lunch call went out and South Sawyer Glacier loomed closer. The chef plated salmon fillets with rice, and we abandoned our cozy dining nook for lunch with the best kind of view.

We gazed at that living, moving piece of ice for some time. It periodically popped and groaned, and then rewarded us a couple of times by calving a piece of ice that fell dramatically into the water below. The harbor seals rested on the nearby ice fields, unfazed by the spectacular scene that left us gasping in wonderment.

The Misty Fjord had few scheduling pressures, but we did need to refuel and resupply the next morning, just outside Juneau at Auke Bay. We began the trip back down Tracy Arm, with icebergs supporting our happy hour that afternoon. Featured drink?! The glacier-ita!

Perhaps it was a romanticized view, but the glacial ice seemed to have a special glow about it, adding a special touch to cocktails that day.

We moored in a quiet bay for the night, with the lights of Juneau in the distance. The skiff transported us to the shore of a rocky beach to stretch our legs and skip stones into the peaceful waters before turning in for the evening.

The bay reflected a warm pink sky that was slowly consumed by the blue of twilight, as the fierce golden glow of the sun set on the snow-covered peaks.

~ Kat

Next post: The Wonder of Whales

Previous posts in the series: 

A Week-Long Alaskan Dream: Mosquito Cove Trail

We gathered in the hospitality room for Alaskan Dream Cruises in Sitka, Alaska, four couples from Michigan, New York City, Minnesota, and Australia. Introductions were made and we sized up our shipmates for the upcoming week. While the Misty Fjord finished its preparations for the Inside Passage cruise departure that afternoon, we were invited to join Alaskan Dream staff on a morning hike in the nearby Tongass National Forest.

The day before had been rainy and gray, so it seemed a good omen that the skies cleared and sun shone as we loaded into the van to hike the Mosquito Cove loop together. Making small talk and taking turns to point out interesting observations, we climbed timbered steps in the temperate rain forest, stepping carefully past piles of bear scat, while large slugs slowly made their way across the trail.

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We learned that only in the cleanest of atmospheres can a certain moss grow — usnea or “Old Man’s Beard” — a gossamer-like thread dancing in the slightest of breeze on the spruce and hemlock branches.  Old Man’s Beard reminded one of the delicate balance within Nature, and John Muir’s quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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We emerged from the deeply-shaded forest to a cove at low tide, greeted by a world that is revealed periodically as the water recedes: broken shells left behind by ravens and other creatures seeking morsels from within; tiny crabs scurrying under rocks; slow-moving snails carrying smaller travelers on their backs. A person could miss the sub-plots as the allure of the main landscape story drew the eye to the larger vistas across the bay.

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Mosquito Cove, Sitka, AK

Looping back to the trailhead, the clear blue skies yielded unobstructed views of the dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe.

Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka, AK

We walked the remaining trail back to the van, to return to Sitka before embarking on our cruise adventure later that afternoon.

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Conversation already flowed more freely, and a casual, comfortable vibe was established among our new travel companions after sharing the meditative beauty of the forest together.

~ Kat

Next post: Leaving Sitka on the Misty Fjord