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Whale Watching from a Cruise Ship

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Thursday, July 18, 2013


The marine mammals of Alaska's Inside Passage

Most people on a cruise ship spend their time partaking in the many party-like activities onboard. My wife and I however spent our time at sea watching for whales. It turned out to be an exciting choice. This week’s blog chronicles the marine mammals seen on a cruise to Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary my wife Pam and I decided to do what we love the most, watching marine mammals. But this time it would be from an Alaska-bound cruise ship. So along with the usual travel necessities we also packed along a powerful pair of binoculars. This trip meant taking time off from my volunteer shifts at the Aquarium but I think Parker the Sea Lion and Ollie the Sea Otter would understand.

On the first day we were surprised to see dozens of harbor porpoises popping up all along the Puget Sounds. Far from being the shy elusive creature that I had seen and read about. These small cetaceans were showing up in pods of three to a dozen all along the track of our cruise ship as she left Seattle.

The second day found our cruise ship in the open ocean off Canada’s West Coast. I had sprung for a patio cabin to facilitate watching for whales. This allowed us to spring out of bed at the crack of dawn and immediately start looking for whales and keep doing so until sunset with a couple of room service breaks in-between. On this day we spotted hundreds of Dall’s Porpoises. These black and white cetaceans have a habit of accelerating quickly while barely under the surface of the water. Their powerful flukes produce a line of spray that is called a “rooster tail” by long time marine mammal observers for the shape it makes behind the porpoise. These Dall’s Porpoise were almost a constant escort for our vessel that day. We also spotted dozens of humpback whales, a pair of Minke whales and a couple of Northern fur seals. These fur seals were easy to identify because of their long rear flippers and long handlebar shaped whiskers on their snouts. They also lounged in the water with the end of one of their front flippers touching the end of one of their rear flippers in the air forming a jug handle shape.

Our first port of call was in Juneau, Alaska. So what shore excursion did we do in port? Whale watching of course. Driven to a small inlet North of the city we boarded a small catamaran to explore the small islands around the area. We came across a humpback whale with a small calf. Humpback whales come to the waters of Alaska to feed during the summer. The young calf we were watching was weaned and attempting to lunge feed like the older whales. It would swim just under the surface, open its mouth to take in a mouthful of prey and then expel the excess water through its baleen. One of the more exciting moments was when one of the Humpbacks breached out of the water. The naturalist on board said that the whales in this area don’t breach twice in a row so most of the folks on the boat put their cameras down. I however kept my camera up. Working around marine mammals for so many years I knew that you can never 100 percent predict what an independent minded animal will do. So when the whale breached a second time I was the only one that got a shot of the whale in the air. From the cruise ship, both entering and exiting the port we caught glimpses of Stellar sea lions.

The second port of call was Skagway. Although we didn’t see any marine mammals in the port we did see mountain goats and a black bear and cub while on a round trip train ride up to the Canadian border at White Pass. We also were dive-bombed by angry Arctic terns when we accidentally got too close to a nesting area near the Skagway heliport.

The third day saw the cruise ship entering the Tracy Arm Fjord to encounter the glacier there. Recently born harbor seal pups and their moms were resting on the smaller iceberg as we neared the glacier. There is speculation that the seals have their pups there because all the ice in the fjord confuses the echolocation abilities of killer whales. The glacier itself was also calving. Chunks of ice were splitting from the wall of ice to become icebergs. As awesome it was to watch, the sound of a glacier calving was one of the most primordial sound a human could experience. An eerie low rumble that you hear and feel. After we exited the fjord we discovered one of the possible reasons the seals chose the fjord to hang out. A lone male killer whale was tail lobbing and flipper slapping the water. This particular orca was unique in that the very tip of his tall dorsal fin flopped to its left and his fluke had a extreme downward sag on both ends. Looking through a catalog of Alaskan killer whales the only animal I could find that matched this whale was one known as AE-18 also known as Lethcoe. However the catalog stated that the pod that this whale belongs to usually hangs out in Prince Williams Sound. A lot further north of where we were.

The fourth day and our third port of call was Ketchikan. We took a small R.I.B. (rigid hull inflatable boat) out to the calm inlet around the town to look for harbor seals, bears, eagles and deer which we did encounter. We also came upon a pod of killer whales. The pod consisted of two cow/calf pairs and a single female. One of the whales had a distinct tear drop shaped white patch in front of the left side of its dorsal fin which I haven’t been able to find a match for yet in the killer whale catalogs I’ve looked at. I wasn’t expecting orcas on this excursion so this encounter was an added treat.

The fifth and sixth day saw us back on the open ocean headed south. Along with Stellar sea lions we again encountered dozens of humpback whales. However, unlike the first day at sea these whales were quite often seen breaching and flipper slapping the water.

When we finally returned to Seattle our final list of critters seen on our cruise to Alaska included:

  • Humpback whales
  • Dall’s orpoises
  • Minke whales
  • Harbor porpoises
  • Killer whales
  • Stellar sea lions
  • Harbor seals
  • California sea lions
  • Bald bagles
  • Brown bears
  • Black bears
  • Mountain goats
  • Sitka black-tailed deer

Not a bad way to spend a second honeymoon.

Whale Watching from a Cruise Ship
One of hundreds of Dall's porpoises that escorted the cruise ship off the Canadian Coast.  | Hugh Ryono
Whale Watching from a Cruise Ship
A Killer whale seen near Ketchikan with a distinct mark near its dorsal fin.  | Hugh Ryono
Whale Watching from a Cruise Ship
Harbor seal and pup on iceberg near the glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord.  | Hugh Ryono
Whale Watching from a Cruise Ship
A young humpback whale feeds near Juneau, Alaska.  | Hugh Ryono

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