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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.
Depending on your itinerary, numerous whale-watching tours are available. The waters of Resurrection Bay, Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska are particularly popular and offer several options. They range from deluxe half- or full-day tours on large, comfortable commercial boats to longer, customized trips on small charters.
In Resurrection Bay boat trips a day 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. Charter options in the Southeast and Southcentral range from bare bones for the rugged adventurer, to downright luxurious, for those who'd like to enjoy amenities and fine meals aboard yachts while whale watching. Whatever your style, there is a tailor-made trip for you.
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, 6.5 miles outside the city.
Onboard a tour or charter boat, whale enthusiasts are likely to see orcas, also called killer whales. The striking black-and-white beasts are actually dolphins, but are called killer whales because they attack and feed on other whales, including belugas, as well as seals and sea lions. 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 comprised of 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. 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 miles to feed (and be photographed) in Southeast, Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay, Kodiak Island, the Aleutians and the Bering Sea. Growing between 48 to 62.5 feet long, they require up to a ton of food each day, including krill and small fish. Humpbacks are the most commonly seen of the baleen whales, which have no teeth, but strips of baleen, or "whalebone," hanging from their jaw. The whales gulp huge amounts of water, and the baleen acts as a strainer, separating food from water. 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.
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, Calif., 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.
Another whale sometimes sighted by visitors is the gray whale. Grays, like humpbacks, are migrants, heading north from as far as Mexico, where they winter in lagoons. Gray whales like shallow water, and are the only baleen whales that are primarily bottom feeders. Grays begin arriving in Alaska in April, and migrate through the Gulf of Alaska to feeding grounds in the Bering, Chuckchi and Beaufort seas. They like to stick close to the shore, which provides ample viewing opportunities as they skirt the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage.
While sightings aren't as frequent as those of other whales, bowhead, minke, fin, narwhal, and sperm are other whales that one might see in Alaska. For the most dedicated whale watcher, the rarely seen blue whale makes a pilgrimage each year north through the Gulf of Alaska. Blues are the world's largest mammal, spanning up to 100 feet and weighing up to 200 tons.
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 50-foot 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. In Alaska, you never know when you'll be sprayed by the wake of a tail slap or winked at by a whale.
For information about a whale watching tour that's right for you, contact:
Resurrection Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park: Seward Chamber of Commerce,. 2001 Seward Highway
Seward, AK 99664; (907) 224-8051.
Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, Juneau, AK 99802; (907) 586-4777.
For Alaska Visitor Information contact: 800 862-5275 or visit our website http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372
Media email: Alaskatravelmedia@thompsonpr.com