Yesterday at the conclusion of a marvelous week in Alaska filled with more than one jaw dropping encounter with whales one of our dancers came up to me and said, “See that lady? I asked her how she liked her cruise and she said it would have been fine if she had seen a whale.” My little dancer friend was just as gob-stopped as I especially after such an incredible week of whale watching. Ladies and gentleman, if seeing a whale is your sole reason for taking an Alaskan cruise please read this carefully.
Whales are wild animals. Though there are places where it is more likely that they will be seen, there are no guarantees.
Places where whales are often seen include: outside of Victoria, British Columbia and Robson Bight, British Columbia for killer whales; and in Alaska, humpback whales like Point Adolphus, Snow Passage, The Brothers Islands, Endicott Arm, and Sitka Sound. If your ship is passing through one of these hot spots learn what to look for.
Whales are mammals so they must come to the surface to breath. Normally they will exhale, inhale and submerge. About four minutes later, they will come up again and do the same thing. After doing this four or five times, they usually go down for a deeper dive. On a humpback this is indicated by the back arching causing the nose to turn down; when the nose goes down the tail (fluke) goes up. Seeing the fluke means the whale has gone down and may be down for up to 45 minutes! 70% of all whale sightings consist of just that - the blow or vapor from the lungs, the small dorsal fin when the whale starts to dive and maybe the fluke slicing through the water as it dives.
When a whale is sighted it may be far off in the distance in which case all that is being seen is the “poof” of the cloud-like vapor from the lungs. From a distance it is hard to tell in which direction the whale is traveling. It may be swimming away from the ship. If the whale is spotted close to ship it may be seen only once before it dives down. You never know. What a true whale watcher does know is that patience is the operative word.
Every once in a while a whale will pull a lazy pectoral fin out of the water or slap its fluke on the surface. Sometimes they will raise the body out of the water to have a look around - this is called “spy hopping.” But what most people hope to see is the whale hurling its body entirely out of the water. This is called breaching as its about as common as seeing a falling star.
Disappointment comes from the unrealistic expectation created by adventure movies and travel brochures that show whales exuberantly jumping out of the water every which way you turn. Yes, it is very special to capture a moment like that - BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HAPPEN OFTEN! Doing my job on the bridge looking for all signs of wildlife on average I see a whale breech maybe once a month! Like you, all I am seeing are those occasional “poofs” on the horizon.
If you really want to see a whale, up close and personal, sign up for a whale watching tour. They are offered in Juneau, Sitka, Whittier and Seward as well as Vancouver and Victoria. The smaller whale watching boats are designed to be as unobtrusive as possible; they carry fewer people and have quiet engines. Some even carry hydrophones to allow you to listen to the whales if they are near. By far a much more satisfying whale watching experience.
Before unfairly judging your cruise for not delivering the goods when it comes to whales, please, please, please remember seeing whales in the wild requires appreciation of the behavior of these magnificent animals and a huge amount of patience!