So hey, Alaska is damn spectacular! (You probably knew that already.)
We stopped in Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, which is in British Columbia.
There’s a lot I could talk about—fantastic people, some neat art, cruise food, etc. But I’ll stick with animals for now, because that’s what I’m good at.
I spotted many, many awesome pelagic birds. Black-footed Albatross! Laysen’s Albatross! Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel! Tufted Puffin!
Weirdest bird of the trip, however, was when my friend Tina, of birdwatching fame, and I were on the fantail of the ship, checking out a glacier. Uninhabited fjord. Big glacier. Seals everywhere, with pups all over the ice. (Let’s face it, a sunbathing seal basically resembles a turd with soulful eyes. There were a lot of them. They were adorable.)
And a pigeon went over our heads.
I am SO GLAD she saw it too. We both went “Whaaaaat?” and snapped our heads around, and…yup. Pigeon. Rock dove. City pigeon. Or fjord pigeon in this case.
It was terribly weird.
Shopping in Juneau was somewhat regrettably touristy, although we found a Filipino food stand selling reindeer sausage with carmelized onions. If you could have resisted this, you are made of sterner stuff than I am, and dear god, it was the best thing I’ve eaten in a LONG time. Then we went whale-watching.
Some of you saw the Twitter feed, but man, it was…dude. I have been whale-watching. My mental impression was that it’s the thing where you stand on a boat and an earnest guide tells you that there were whales here just yesterday, and then eventually there is a far distant spout and everyone points.
On this one, we eventually got into port with the captain telling us that he hoped we would not be too harsh on future whale-watching expeditions because frankly, there had never been a day like this. Ever.
First we had humpbacks doing a freakin’ ballet. They were breaching, slamming down into the water, maybe two hundred yards away. Multiple humpbacks, multiple breaches, and they just didn’t stop. Eventually we went to go find orcas…and we found them. They were cruising through the water, looking much less like Shamu and a lot more like the wolves of the sea.
They were just…I can’t even explain. I am used to wild animals on a scale I understand—birds, toads, weasels, foxes. This was just so much wildness, in one place. They hit me much harder than the humpbacks. You expect humpbacks to be enormous, gentle creatures. These things didn’t look gentle. They looked like contract killers, possibly with a sense of humor, but definitely something that could kill you and not feel much remorse about it. They were glorious.
(Now, I grew up going to Sea World, thinking of orcas as big clownish creatures, and I won’t swear these things didn’t have a sense of humor, but they were just…dude. Why the hell are we keeping those animals in captivity? Ambassadors, sure, whales too injured or unable to be returned to the wild, fine, but…just…no.
I think it was the dorsal fins. I always thought orca fins lopped over. Never thought much about it, honestly—I’m all for whales, but they are not my Charismatic Species of Choice. The naturalist on board said that’s a stress response, actually, and a male orca fin is supposed to look like…well, like that, over there. Six feet tall. Standing straight up. Dude. I am generally of the “Many modern zoos actually do very good work with captive breeding and I am very very glad of them,” school of thought, but I’m moving toward a serious killer whale exception.)
Once we left the killer whales, we were all kinda stunned and the captain said “What the hell, we’ll go for broke,” and went to another inlet where humpbacks had been seen bubble-feeding.
Bubble-feeding is this thing they do. A bunch of whales blow bubbles in a big circle around a school of fish. This herds the fish together, since they won’t risk the bubbles. Then one whale dives very deep and begins coming up under the net, making a call that makes the fish very unhappy—their swim bladders vibrate, or maybe they’re just trying to get away from the whale—and the fish swim upward. All the whales rise with the school, and they all break the surface together, grabbing mouthfuls of fish.
It’s unbelievable to watch. You only see gulls circling, and then fish jumping, and then WHAM, five whales all break the surface, snout first, tightly together, with their mouths open. I’ve never seen anything like it, except in nature shows, and there it was, like two or three hundred feet away.
So they do this once, twice, and then dive. The boat waits around to see if they’ll come up again, and then the captain says, “Well, they seem to have moved off…”
And then there were gulls everywhere.
And then there were fish jumping from the water around the boat.
And if you ever want to hear the captain of a whale-watching boat FREAK THE HELL OUT, arrange to be there when five humpback whales bubble-net his ship. Because your first instant impulse is to start the engine and get out of their way, but no, that’ll risk hurting a whale which is as close to a truly mortal sin as exists in the natural world. Kill the engines!
We sat in absolute silence in the water with fish leaping and gulls screaming and the naturalist yelling “We’re in the bubble-net! We’re in it! Look at the fish!”
And the whales came up.
They realized at the last minute that they were there—the naturalist said that they’re mostly tuning out the big picture sonar stuff and concentrating on minutia, like fish motion, and so probably didn’t actually notice us until they were only a few feet from the surface. (Like walking into someone because you’re reading a book.) And you can’t steer a bubble-net. So suddenly five whales peel off and abort the net, having caught a lot more than they bargained for, and we’re surrounded by disgruntled whales surfacing ten feet away, blowing massive clouds of whale-breath, which incidentally stinks somewhat of fish but mostly of sulfur. (It is vile.)
“Um,” said the captain, as the whales sulked off. “So, we’re just gonna wait a minute before we start our engines…give them time to leave…a lot of time to leave…”
I felt an intense urge to apologize to the whales, but it was still just unbelievable.
So that was our whale-watching trip. And also there was food and shopping and good friends and incidentally I’m married and my oosik is quite nice compared to all the ones sold in Skagway (I had jewelers asking where I got it, since it’s a really thick piece and the standard is for very thin slices) and we found Kevin a wedding ring of Raven stealing the Sun, and I bought way too much art and also I would dearly love to retire to Victoria, which was a marvelously civilized city with excellent gardens. And it was pretty awesome. And I saw a Laysen’s Albatross which is a really good bird.
But dude. Whales.