American Safari Cruises -- Alaskan Adventure (Part 3)

| September 12, 2008

This small adventure cruise line offers close-up views of Alaska without sacrificing comfort.

Our Cruise -- Day by Day (Continued) We watched this bubble-feeding three or four times before the captain said, "Let's get in the skiffs" -- rubber boats with outboard motors that can go up to 35 mph. The advantage to using skiffs, we discovered, is the agility and maneuverability you need to get close to (or away from) the action in a hurry. Being at sea level for a more realistic perspective is another distinct advantage.

Within minutes, all 32 of us were seated in two rubber boats following the whales. Adding to the excitement, our naturalist Beth dropped an underwater microphone, known as a hydrophone, over the side of the skiff so we could hear the leader signaling the group. We could hear the signal start with perfect clarity until the final shrill signal followed by silence. After the last whistle, you know the pod is going to break through the surface somewhere, but there is no way to predict where the whales will appear.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Humpback Dorsal Fin Waving   Bubble Feeding Surface Break   Watching Whales from a Skiff

Video of humpback whales bubble feeding   Highly recommended video! This video shows humpback whales doing a rare practice - bubble-feeding in the wild - upclose video shot from a American Safari Explorer Skiff

The whales are so well coordinated, their mouths break the surface of the water at the very moment the bubbles do. It could be 200 yards away or right under your boat. All we could do, once the final signal ended, was sit in our skiff with eyes peeled awaiting our whales.

We followed the pod for two hours and at least a dozen bubble feeding sessions, and a few times the whales appeared within 50 yards of our boat. After the feeding sessions got very far apart and the whales appeared to be moving well across the bay, we stopped following them.

*** See the entire American Safari in Alaska Photo Gallery here    

After lunch, we got a lesson in natural selection. First the captain announced that he spied two orca and slowed down. As we assembled on the bow, we saw that the orca were toying with a group of sea lions. One adult sea lion was the main victim. The orca pounded him with their snouts, breaching into the air and splash landing on top of him, holding him under water and knocking him repeatedly from all sides. A group of about 50 tormented sea lions hovered in the water nearby to watch the carnage. This went on for 30 minutes before the orca left. The captain followed behind them until they disappeared, then dispatched us into the skiffs to see if we could find them.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Attacked Sea Lion Barely Breathing   Hot chocolate with Baileys on dock When we return from skiffs   Humpback whale breaching

We reached the sea lions but the orca were gone. The lone victim was still alive, but could barely breathe due to internal injuries. His friends were trying to push him to higher ground. We left them, not wanting to add to their agitation.

That was the end of day four, one of the most magical days in my life. Day five was surprisingly quiet, with nothing but a few whale and orca sightings far in the distance. That afternoon we stopped in the small town of Petersberg, a nice village that had been settled by Norwegians. There were Norwegian flags and even signs in Norwegian scattered around town. It is not on any cruise line's regular itinerary, so the primary industry is fishing. Richard, our naturalist, described it to me as "a fine little drinking town with a fishing problem."

On day six we entered Tracy Arm, a bay with several glaciers that cruise ships started visiting when the number of permits for Glacier Bay became limited. Our destination was Dawes Glacier, which our captain had heard was recently unusually active. The number of large blue ice pieces, miniature bergs we passed on the way to the glacier, indicated this was true.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Beautiful Blue Ice Chunks   Explorer positioned by Dawes Glacier   The Shooter about 30 minutes after it emerged.

Video of Dawes Glacier Calving and Shooter!   Highly recommended video! This video shows the glacier starting to calve and then a huge shooter emerges from below the surface. This is one of the best glacial action videos I have ever seen! And I took it.

At Dawes glacier we got into the skiffs with our naturalist, Richard, at the engine. We were inching through the ice, hoping to catch some calving action on video. My wife asked Richard why he kept us at a distance of approximately 150 yards away, and he explained that while the glacier towered well over 100 yards above the water level, below the surface the ice could be as deep as 500 yards. The interaction of solidly compacted glacial ice with the seawater can cause large pieces to break loose below the water line. The result is called a "shooter," a large chunk of ice that comes up from far below the water and breaks through the surface with no warning.

Then we started to see some calving, and I turned on my video camera. We saw a few impressive sheets of ice break loose and fall into the sea.

"That thing's not done; that whole wall is going to break loose," Richard said. Just then the largest shooter any of us had ever seen, including 20-year Alaska veteran Richard, emerged from the water in such a surrealistic manner we could hardly believe it was real. In the movie Titanic, the aft end of the ship slips quietly into the ocean and disappears. This was like watching that scene in reverse, as the shooter appeared from nowhere and rose up before our eyes.

"That thing is bigger than a city block!" Richard exclaimed as he prepared to reposition our skiff to handle the wake coming our way. As the shooter rose from the depths, behind it were monolithic ice swords 100 yards tall falling into the water. Some of our group was watching from tiny kayaks on the other side of the bay, and we could hear them screaming in fear as the rising shooter rocked and rolled in search of equilibrium. The wake finally reached us but I kept my video rolling. It shows the shooter took several minutes to find its buoyancy level due to its massive size. It rolled several different ways, but it was so large the movement was almost imperceptible.

*** See the entire American Safari in Alaska Photo Gallery here    

After dinner we shared pictures and video. This was our last night, so we celebrated our staff and thanked them for the great service. The next morning we were docked in Juneau by 8:30 and on our way to the airport by 9:00. We were lucky -- air service in Alaska can be spotty. Flights are frequently canceled or diverted. Some people were not able to get flights out until the next day.

Continue Article >> Summing Up American Safari Cruises (Part 4)

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