Day Eight – Whales, Sea Lions and Orca, the Killer (not) Whale

Our first ‘official’ Alaska day begins with stopping in Juneau.  Although our whale watching tour doesn’t leave the docks until 2 PM, we’re still up fairly early and down for a bite of breakfast (again at Sabattini’s).  The weather is not outstanding but it’s certainly bearable given what hardy Albertan’s should be accustomed to.  Mother will be staying on board (for much of the cruise actually).  She feels, given her RV’ing sojourns many years ago with my step-father, she has seen most everything, including Alaska which she has been to twice.  That, plus the lack of real warmth outside, has made her quite happy viewing things from a distance – albeit a cozy one.

We are in Alaska.  We have yet to see, much less try, any Alaskan King Crab.  A personal desire of mine, on this adventure, was to see one up close and personal.  Our walk into town took us past our tour company and towards the downtown ‘core’. Once there we found the local tourist information office.  Lots of interesting things to see, but that was not my focus.  The gentleman behind the counter suggested that our best bet, short of diving down and procuring our own personal crustacean, was to go to the local hatchery.  He assured us that it was within reasonable walking distance at only about 3 miles.  Really.  You don’t say?  I have my own opinions about a 5 KM distance at 5.5 C and none of them involve Shank’s Pony.

A suggestion met with less facial distortion was to take a bus.  We could walk about 2 blocks and catch one that would take us almost right there.  And for less than the ETS equivalent – actually, about 1/2 the price.  Done and done, off we went.

Our arrival gave us a 6 minute wait as our driver was just starting her shift.  Her inspection in and around the bus met with her approval and we were now underway.  Fifteen minutes later (and I’m fairly sure it was more than 3 miles) we were deposited (with directions) at the bus stop we should come back to for the return trip.  The directions were explicit and very easy to follow.  The distance, however, was the better part of another mile.  Alaskan’s seem to have differing outlooks regarding time and travel than we do at home.  Our tour leaves at 2, it’s now 12:40 (when we get off the bus).  A jaunt down to the hatchery, spend at least ~some~ time looking around, then attempt to get back to this spot at bus arrival time (only every 1/2 hour), to then hopefully be back to where we need to be in less than 1 1/2 hours?  Hmmm…I don’t think so, Tim.  Yeah, we’re hardy Albertans and all, and we’re also not dumb.  We’ll grab a cab.

The hatchery has tours they are happy to sell you or just admission if you are there to simply visit the aquarium/hatchery. I thought it was time to play the ‘I’m just an ignorant tourist simply looking for one thing’ card to see how far it would get us.  Sometimes a plan comes together.  The young lady behind the counter looked around at the fact there was NO ONE else there and simply said ‘sure…what the heck’.  In we went.

As nice a place as it is, and as pleasant as all the staff are, I was Highly disappointed with the King Crab.  The Star Fish (the ones with 5 ‘legs’) and the Sea Stars (with Many ‘legs’) were amazing.  The flounder was intriguing because as often as I have enjoyed his relatives, I’ve never actually seen one.  Flat as a pancake with eyes on the top of his head (cuz if they were on the side, he’d drag them through the sand).  The first King she showed us…what can I say?  She named him ‘Lunch’.  She must be a light eater because I’ve seen many a Dungeness that was a lot bigger.  The one she named ‘Dinner’ was hiding.  I would too if I had a reputation of being a giant and in fact was just barely…tall.  Really a LOt less than I had expected.  The legs that I have seen, enjoyed and occasionally, paid for, were from much larger specimens.  Oh well…there is much of the world left to see.

Got the cab and back to town.  Time enough to grab a soup and sandwich, quick stop at the bathroom and up to meet with our tour company.  The wait for everyone was only a few minutes then down to the bus and off to the boat.  Twenty minutes later and we are boarding a very nice thirty seat flat-bottomed cruiser with room at the top (when idling only) for twelve (for better photo opportunities).

They (much like most whale watching companies) offer a 100% full-refund guarantee that whales will be spotted.  They have yet had to make good on it.  We weren’t more than 500 yards out when our first whale popped.  Most missed it, including me, as it was unexpected to say the least.  Our driver, Larry, took us out quite a ways before more were evident.  Jeff and Kelly (our tour guides) both have years of experience and each have degrees in oceanography and marine biology.  In addition to that, they have both been doing this for many seasons and have a great appeal with their guests complimented with a good sense of humor.

The next three hours were spent spotting many humpback whales blowing, surfacing and diving.  In one spot we were even privileged enough to see mom and baby (along with an escort that is ~not~ the father).  Mating is around Hawaii, then the next year is spent travelling back to Alaska for mom to fill up with food, make the return trip and then have her bouncing baby (if something that is 15 feet long and 2 tons at birth can bounce!).  The two of them make the trip back to Alaska and all the while mom is feeding the baby and training it.

Each whale has a ‘fingerprint’ that is totally unique and documented.  It is the underside of the tale.  It can range from all white to all black, anywhere in between with or without spots.  They are very much creatures of habit (which certainly helps out with the guarantee provided by whale watching companies).

On our way back we stop by a very large buoy which has several sea lions on it.  It is hard to imagine just how big these animals become – nine feet and about fifteen hundred pounds being average (for a male).  One smaller guy was trying to get onboard.  His efforts were repulsed each time.  This one is full, go find your own.  Males don’t really have a harem.  They are, however, smart enough to go wherever the most females are gathered.

About this same time, the questions turned to the Killer Whale and would we see any.  Not likely, but possible.  Why is their dorsal fin sometimes tipped over?  Some had heard it was due to lack of sunlight.  Nope.  In fact it is due to lack of muscle stimulation, caused by being in captivity.  It never happens in the wild.  In fact, in the wild their life span can reach ninety years, yet in captivity they are lucky to reach three.

Oh…and by the way.  It is more accurately not a Killer Whale.  It is the largest member of the Dolphin Family.  Bet ya didn’t know THAT one!

Alaska is also renown for its eagles.  We have seen many, but the one we have been most searching for is the rare, ceramic-home-version.  Mother used to have one.  It actually still exists but it suffers from two broken wings and not great attempts at repair.  It has been in the family for about 60 years (she had it before she had me) and it is something I would dearly love to replace for her.  We did come across two very nice specimens in Juneau.  The first was only $1950.  USD.  Yeah.  Right.  We’re all over that one.  Not.  Probably should have got it though.  The only other one we saw…well…take a look at the picture.

A good day and very glad we dressed for it.  Saw the whales, learned a lot and never got seasick.  Tomorrow is another adventure.

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