Guaranteed whale sightings? That's what the tour company offered, and that's what we experienced when we signed on with the Allen family's, "Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest," departing just north of Juneau, Alaska.
"A Three-Hour Tour..."
While the sitcom crew on "Gilligan's Island" met with disaster on their "three-hour tour," mine had no such problems. It lived up to everything the promoters promised: a safe boat, personable tour guides, and lots of wildlife sightings.
Within about 20 minutes of our departure from the tour company's Auke Bay dock, we saw our first marine mammals: three Dall's porpoises. The playful cetaceans appeared about 100 feet off our port side, jumping high enough for those of us on deck to discern their distinctive black-and-white markings. Resembling miniature orcas to the untrained eye, these porpoises have black bodies with white sides and white-tipped fins, both dorsals and flukes. While they are known to occasionally play alongside or in the wakes of passing boats, this group was not interested in putting on a show. After half a dozen leaps, they used their superior speed (they can swim as fast as 35 mph) to swim away and disappear.
For the next 2-1/2 hours, our capable captain piloted the two-level ship along the waters of Favorite Channel and Saginaw Channel, skirting Lincoln, Shelter, and Admiralty islands, treating us to views of wildlife on land and on the water, accompanied by narration from capable young naturalists. We learned a host of fun facts, such as the bear population statistics for Admiralty Island, where there is more than one brown (aka grizzly) bear per square mile, making it the highest density brown bear habitat in the world -- not to mention a dubious choice for a picnic destination.
The Main Event
The scenery was beautiful and the skies were relatively kind to us. Juneau typically experiences about 4 inches or 5 inches of rain in July, but on this day we were only subjected to intermittent sprinkles. However, none of us were there for the weather or the boat ride. We were happy about the Dall's porpoises and the seals we saw, but everyone on that boat had one thing in mind: whales. Our tour narrator explained how to watch for the spouting of the whales. Dozens of pairs of eyes and binocular lenses were trained on the horizon. Twice the captain sped into vigorous pursuit of distant sightings.
About an hour into our ride, we were rewarded. The humpback whale just off the stern of our boat spouted, then began a series of maneuvers that kept us entertained for about 40 minutes. It would roll across the surface two or three times, giving us a nice view of its back, then roll to display one or more of its dorsals. It seemed particularly fond of waving its long, muscular, spotted front fins (some 9 feet to 12 feet long, according to our guide). On one occasion, it rolled fully onto its back and waved both at once. After several shallow dives and rolls, the humpback would display its tail flukes and take a deep dive, submerging for 5 minutes to 7 minutes, then emerging again in the same spot. This enabled us to have a nice, long session with "our" whale. It did not seem to object to our presence -- indeed, when the captain maneuvered the boat farther away from the humpback to maintain a respectful distance, the whale usually emerged closer to the boat than it had been initially.
During the same period as our whale viewing, we were treated to a sighting of a pair of killer whales (orcas) about 250 yards off the bow. Unlike the humpback, these moved around a great deal, coming up in a different location than where they submerged, making it difficult to get close to them. All the same, the sighting of their tall, erect dorsals was very exciting.
Before the tour was over, we had seen several bald eagles, sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and the aforementioned orcas and Dall's porpoises, in addition to our coveted humpback whale. It was a damp, but satisfied boatload that munched on cheeseburgers and drank hot cider en route back to Auke Bay.
About The Company
Based in Sitka, Allen Marine Tours is a family-owned company that has been helping tourists have quality on-the-water wildlife viewing experiences for 35 years. They build and design their own tour boats, most of which are highly maneuverable catamarans that offer excellent stability and speed. At the same time, the vessels sit high in the water so that tour participants have excellent views of the wildlife, shoreline, and waterways through which they pass.
For information on Allen Marine's whale-watching and other tours, go to http://www.allenmarinetours.com. Much of Allen Marine's business is booked through the many cruise lines that visit southeastern Alaska, but tours can be arranged directly with the company as well; information is available on the website.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a Pacific Northwest travel writer who visited Juneau in the summer of 2005. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.