After leaving British Columbia in brilliant sunshine and travelling up the narrow Johnson Strait, Juneau was our first port of call in Alaska. Unfortunately, the weather by now had closed in, with light rain and mists hanging around the mountains. The locals informed us that this is considered a good day in this part of the world. After a very smooth disembarkation, we were free to explore Alaska’s state capital. With a whale-watching excursion booked for the afternoon, we had a little time to find out about town, which despite having a road 50 miles long is accessible only by air or sea.
Previously a gold mining town named after Joe Juneau, one of the original two prospectors who with Richard Harris discovered gold there in 1880. Juneau is overlooked by the peaks of Mount Roberts and Mount Juneau and has a large ice field, which feeds a number of glaciers, the Mendenhall glacier being the most accessible. The town itself seemed to consist mainly of jewellery and tee shirt shops, not something that appealed to us, so after a short time we headed back to the port to meet up with our excursion guide.
We had chosen the Discover Alaska’s Whales excursion, operated by the Gastineau Guiding Company. Travelling on board a custom-built research vessel, which not only looked for whales but also explored the food chain by sampling the water. Caitlin, our marine scientist guide met us and we drove about 8 miles to Auke Bay. On the journey, she pointed out local landmarks and told us about the gold mining and the history of Juneau. She also explained the Citizen Science program which we were about to participate in, observing humpback whale behaviour, phytoplankton sampling and checking a number of crab pots.
We boarded the research vessel and after a safety briefing, set off with signs of the weather improving slightly. Leaving the bay we were treated to stunning views of the mountain peaks and the Mendenhall glacier from the sea.
Our first stop was to haul in a crab pot to check whether it held any European Green Crabs, an invasive species that has the potential to out-compete the native Dungeness crab, unless its numbers are controlled. No crabs in the pot this time but a strange looking fish, Caitlin put on gloves because the fish had poisonous spines and teeth, much like a larger version of a weaver fish often found around the UK coasts. After a close look at the fish, it was returned unharmed to the sea and the paperwork was completed. Next we took a sample of the sea water to look for the density of the plankton, (krill for the humpback whale). The sample pot was full and you could clearly see the abundance of plankton that provides a crucial source of food to many large aquatic organisms that inhabit the waters of the Stephen’s passage.
Now it was time to find the whales. Almost immediately a plume of water was visible from the whales’ blow spurting high in the air. Incredibly excited we watched as coming towards us we could see a small dark dorsal fin and the humped back. It disappeared below the surface with no fluking up this time, however, Caitlin thought it was travelling and would reappear in about 10 minutes.
Sure enough another large spout of water shot high into the air followed by the characteristic small dorsal fin and the dark shape of the hump. This time with a noisy slap of the water the flukes appeared above the surface as the whale dived in search of food. More spouts of water could be seen around us as humpbacks travelled past, sometimes only the fin and the humped back was visible at other times the tail flukes lifted out of the water as the whale dived.
Approximately seven individual whales were seen in a a relatively small area of Stephen’s passage, mainly travelling along or diving for food. At this time of the year many of Humpbacks that inhabit these waters have headed off to their winter breeding grounds in Hawaii so seeing this number was thought to be unusual. An amazing experience.
After discussion of the tail patterns which we had seen and how they help identify individuals as the underside of the fluke has an individual pattern of black and white markings, we also got to look at a piece of baleen. It’s made from keratin same as our fingernails. Humpbacks are baleen whales feeding on krill and small fish like herring. Once again details of our observations of the whales’ behaviour had to be completed.
On the way back to the marina we stopped by a buoy which was being used as a resting place by Steller sea lions, the largest of the true “eared” seals. They were probably a bachelor group, who were vying noisily for position on the buoy, using their long front flippers and rotatable hind limbs to climb over each other to establish a position in a very small space.
Back at the marina as we moored the boat four bald eagles were squabbling on the foreshore. Two flapping and squawking in the trees and two on the narrow strip of shore over some food they had found, probably dead salmon.
The drive back into Juneau was interesting, with discussion on the difference between a salmon hatchery and farm and the presence of black bears on Juneau streets .The tide had gone out and the mud flats were visible between the mainland and Douglas Island, making it possible to just walk between them, a channel that not so long ago was used by ships as a route to the Stephen’s Passage, Despite the poor light and weather conditions it was a very enjoyable afternoon and an excursion I would recommend.