In the vast waters that line Alaska’s coast, an encounter with a whale is likely, if not downright predictable. From the remote northernmost town of Barrow, to the lush southeast and even near downtown Anchorage – the state’s whale watching opportunities are the crowning jewel of many Alaska vacations.
And in the summer, after thousands of whales have made their way to the rich feeding grounds of Alaska waters, sightings are as plentiful as the sun.
Imagine enjoying a fine meal at one of Anchorage’s waterfront restaurants, the still water of Cook Inlet is punctuated by white flashes – the backs of a passing pod of beluga whales. Or perhaps you’re on a tour boat, scanning the waters of Southeast’s Glacier Bay. Through binoculars, you watch a dark spot in the distance disappear. Moments later, a humpback whale explodes from the water so close to the boat that binoculars are overkill.
It’s the stuff of a whale watcher’s dream.
In Resurrection Bay boat trips are available ranging from a 3-hour tour to 7.5-hour tour. For a true whale’s eye view, consider sea kayaking. Several outfitters in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska offer charter boats to remote coves with rentals and expert instruction.
All tours begin operating in the spring, which comes around May in Alaska, and run through September, weather permitting. Rain or shine, whales abound.
But a boat isn’t a requirement for whale watching. Sitting on a bench in a park overlooking Anchorage’s coastal trail and Cook Inlet beyond, one might be enjoying a cup of coffee or latte when what appears to be a strand of pearls bobs in and out of the water. Closer observation reveals a pod of belugas, small white whales that winter in drifting ice off the Bering Sea, and return each spring to Southcentral and Southeast Alaska to feed on salmon that congregate around the mouths of rivers.
Belugas are known as “canaries of the sea,” because they are very vocal, communicating through a series of odd noises to navigate the waters and find food. There are approximately 280 belugas in the Cook Inlet. Aside from the coastal trail, a series of stops along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage provide viewing opportunities, among them Beluga Point, eight kilometres outside the city.
Onboard a tour or charter boat, whale enthusiasts are likely to see orcas, also called killer whales. Orcas winter in the north, and migrate south to take advantage of other animals that visit the waters of Alaska each summer. Orcas travel in groups called pods, and can be spotted in accessible waterways such as Kachemak and Resurrection bays, as well as the waters of the Inside Passage.
Leslie Pemberton, captain of Puffin Family Charters out of Seward, recalls taking a boat full of visitors to view an Alaska oyster farm last summer. On the way back into Resurrection Bay, two pods of orcas encircled her boat, the Sophie Lou. The two groups, each about 15 whales, glided in and out of the water in tandem.
“It was like watching a ballet,” she says. Even the sound was symphonic; the pods’ unique calls rose from the choppy water.
Reinhard Pantke/Travel Alaska
The cry of the humpback is even more distinct – some say haunting. Their song can be heard in lush, forested Southeast Alaska, where they gather in great numbers to feed close to shore. Like many Alaskans, humpbacks spend their winters in sunnier climates like Hawaii. When the Alaska weather begins to warm, they travel thousands of kilometres to feed (and be photographed) in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay, Kodiak Island, the Aleutians and the Bering Sea. Growing between 14.5 and 19 metres long, they require up to a ton of food each day, including krill and small fish. To get the huge amount of food they need each day, humpbacks have intricate feeding strategies. They sometimes work in groups to assure their day’s meal, sending out a “net” of bubbles to trap food – a photographic opportunity not to be missed.
Photo Credit: Gregory Smith/Flickr
The small islands that dot the lush green, glacier-filled Southeast shoreline are accessible by charter boat and plane, offering prime viewing of humpback feeding areas. Humpbacks also are easily spotted from tour and charter boats in the Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound. One visitor from Sacramento, California, remembers looking off the side of a boat at what he thought was a glass float. Then it blinked. A few minutes later, the humpback breached, rocketing skyward until plunging back into the bay, its huge tail smacking the water. It remains the strongest memory of his vacation.
Whether they are leaping from the water, slapping their tails on the surface of the sea or staring you in the eye, the sight of a 15-metre humpback playing around in front of a glacier will never be forgotten. All you need is a pair of binoculars, rain gear, warm clothes, a camera and attentiveness.
Though the economy has evolved over the last century, Fairbanks still remembers its origins. Italian immigrant Felix Pedro’s initial 1902 gold strike coincided with Captain E.T. Barnette’s goal of building a trading post on the banks of the Chena River and the gold rush to Fairbanks was on. Prospectors filled the area to pan and sluice, followed by small manual drift mines and draglines to the monster floating dredges and lode mines.
Today, historic visitor attractions and modern-day mining operations celebrate the quest for gold. See the largest public display of gold in the state at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Visit the Pedro Monument in tribute to gold’s first discovery. Try your hand at gold panning and uncover your own Alaskan gold. Find that perfect gold nugget souvenir to take back home.
• During its 30 years of operation from 1928 to 1959, Gold Dredge #8 took in approximately seven million ounces of gold.
• The Fairbanks Exploration Company, an early corporate mining company, was the major employer in Fairbanks between 1928 and the Second World War.
• The largest gold mill in North America at Fort Knox Gold Mine grinds 40,000 tons of ore each day to extract gold.
For information about a whale watching:
• Resurrection Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park: Seward Chamber of Commerce, (907) 224-8051.
• Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, Juneau, (907) 586-4777.
• Travel Alaska (800) 862-5275, www.travelalaska.com