Where Ice Meets Water: Whale Watching from Juneau – by Eve Pearce

Alaska’s Inside Passage, as well as being temporary home to many cruise ships, is a very special place for wildlife. Admiralty Island, across the water from Juneau, has the highest density of brown bears in North America, and the waters around Juneau, where the Mendenhall Glacier overlooks the sea, are a great place to see humpback whales and orca. Visitors travelling north in the early twentieth century towards Juneau and what is now Glacier Bay National Park were likely to be struck by the change as they approached Juneau – the presence of ice from the Taku Glacier frequently became dominant in the landscape and ice chunks, often with seals basking on them, were an increasingly common sight from the deck of a ship. One hundred years later many glaciers have receded and others such as the Taku are not calving as much so icebergs close to Juneau are much rarer; but what long-ago visitors saw can still be seen while visiting Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Bay.

Orca and Humpback Sightings from Juneau

Orca (or killer whales), with their distinctive black and white patterning, can be seen from aboard the cruise ships, or, for a more exciting close encounter, from smaller boats which do excursions from Juneau. Orca are members of the dolphin family, and, whilst smaller than the humpback whale, are large predators, measuring up to 32ft in length and weighing as much as 6 tons. They live in family groups, often hunting collectively in larger groupings known as pods. Sightings of several whales together are common.

Taking a whale watching trip  means it is extremely likely you will see these mammals as they break the water. Alaska’s deep, glacial coastal passages provide a rich hunting ground for the orca, and small vessels can track their progress as they arc through the water, predicting the next point at which they are likely to emerge. This makes for a very authentic, and often close-up, wildlife experience, set against the backdrop of mountains and glacier.

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During the summer months humpback whales are also resident in numbers (approximately 600) in the northern areas of the Inside Passage, with some 65 individual whales sighted around Juneau. These giants of the ocean can measure over 60ft in length and weigh up to 40 tons. They have huge lung capacity, allowing them to dive to great depths in search of food, and spotting them often depends on first seeing the jet of spray from the blow hole as they surface. Now an endangered species, lucky visitors may witness a humpback breach, which they will sometimes do so powerfully that, for an instant, they are fully out of the water. Perhaps though, the most distinctive sighting is that of the great tail fin hitting the water as the humpback dives. These tail fins (or flukes) are significant as each tail has unique marking on the underside which allows regular watchers to identify individual whales.

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Unlike the more predatory, carnivorous orca, humpbacks are omnivores who feed on krill, plankton and small fish. This keeps them close to the coastline, and their migratory pattern takes Juneau’s humpbacks from the cold waters around Alaska, where many spend the summer months, to equatorial regions in the winter. These whales are likely to spend the winter in the Pacific near Hawaii, but may also travel to Asia or the Mexican coast.

The Mendenhall Glacier – A Spectacular Backdrop

Just beyond downtown Juneau, heading north, cruise ships and whale watching trips take in the Mendenhall Glacier where it is visible above the sea. This is a prelude to the Herbert and Eagle Glaciers proceeding from the Juneau Icefield, and beyond, the Brady Icefield which feeds the glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park. Visitors whether by ship or by plane with the time to explore in Juneau have the opportunity to take a trip up to the Mendenhall Glacier which also flows from the Juneau Icefield.

More than half of all visitors to this southern area of Alaska come by ship, and cruise liners are a regular sight, commonly stopping at Ketchikan in the south, then Juneau, and travelling to Skagway and Haines in the north, before sailing on to view the spectacular scenery at Glacier Bay National Park. An Alaskan cruise is a great way to see the territory, and whilst, strictly speaking, you cannot drive to Juneau from Vancouver, for example, the system of ferries known as the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) means visitors can bring their own vehicle. Provided suitable arrangements, such as appropriate car insurance, are in place, having the freedom to make an Alaskan road trip, allows more time to explore at leisure and to a personal itinerary.