We had stayed four nights in the Alaskan waters from the start of our Discover Alaska and had covered almost 300 km without seeing a single Orca, not even a glimpse of its dorsal fin.
I was still hopeful that on the fifth day of our cruise we would have the good fortune of seeing the Orca. Our destination for the night was Pybus Bay in Admiralty Island and Captain Ben said it is not far from our previous location, the Eliza Harbor. Most of the day’s sightings during the yacht cruise were limited to one of the largest mammals in the world; the Humpback Whale which is 50 to 70 feet in length, weighing a ton per foot of its body length. By 3.30 pm we had reached our destination for the night and once again without any sign of the Orca.
Immediately after the yacht was anchored, Captain Ben came rushing to me and said that there are Grizzly Bears on land. Rienzie and I immediately collected our camera equipment, got into the speedboat and within a few minutes reached the shore but it was impossible to land the boat at that point. However, I was successful in capturing a few good images from the boat and once again, Captain Ben’s shoulders served as a tripod. Rest of the evening we enjoyed kayaking at Pybus Bay. At dinner, the Captain informed us that he had been in radio contact with other vessels in the Alaskan waters and none had sighted Orcas that day.
On the sixth day of our tour, kiribath (milk rice) was prepared by our friend Rienzie for breakfast, which all of us including the Captain and his Chef enjoyed. As usual the yacht started by 9 am to continue our journey along the Alaskan coastline. Our destination for the night was Ford’s Terror in the Endicott Arm. While cruising on the Stephens Passage, apart from the Humpback Whales we saw Dall’s Porpoises that are similar in shape to Dolphins but the size limited to an average of 6 feet in length and the color of the body was black with white markings. They were very fast in the water and hence taking good pictures was almost impossible.
The entry passage to Ford Terror was very narrow and shallow and the Captain said we had to get into the passage at high tide, which we did. Surrounded by untouched mountains and waterfalls, the landscape was overwhelming. We reached our destination by 5 pm. It was a long day for us. At dinner, the captain gave a briefing of the following day’s route and informed us that the yacht would start moving at 5 am. He looked at me with an apologetic expression on his face and said “sorry BAM (my short name), no Orca sightings recorded for the day in Alaska”.
The next day, the 22nd of June was our last day on board. When I came up to the deck by 8 am the yacht had already passed Ford’s Terror passage before the water level could drop and was cruising on the Endicott Arm towards the magnificent Dawes Glacier. We could see the glacier at the far end which was about two miles in width. Floating in the water were blocks of ice that had split from the glacier. The Captain steered the yacht slowly towards the glacier avoiding the floating ice blocks. Harbor Seals could be seen on ice, a common sight in Alaska. We could now see and hear the sound of ice chunks coming off from the glacier. It was the first time we had seen a glacier this close, I was in awe! I asked the Captain who had 20 years of exposure on Alaskan waters, his opinion on global warming. His answer was that ice breaking from the glacier nowadays was far more compared to 1990. I dare say we are seeing the effects of global warming although some do not agree.
Our destination for the night was Taku Harbor in Stephens Passage, which was also near Juneau. Having seen more Humpback Whales and Bald eagles in the afternoon we were relaxing at the dinner saloon enjoying Rienzie’s Chinese rolls while some others were playing cards, when suddenly the Captain’s Deputy came running in animatedly shouting Orcas! Orcas! Orcas! We all rushed to the open deck with our cameras and saw our dream come true at last!
Initially, we could see only the dorsal fin movement at a distance but later they came very close to the yacht and gave us a fantastic performance for almost an hour, moving from all directions, some with acrobatic jumps over water. According to the captain, this group consists of 20 Orcas which are always on the move from north to south in the Alaskan region and this was the first time even he had seen such movement of Orcas so close to the yacht for this long. The light was perfect. I had captured more than 300 images of the Orcas. It was such an incredible experience! I could hardly believe what I was seeing; these are not Dolphins in action at the San Diego Zoo!
The dorsal fin of the male grows up to 1.8 meters while the female’s fin is half that of the male with a slightly curved top end. The fin acts as a keel and probably helps to stabilize the Killer Whale. This mammalian fish which belongs to the Dolphin family, weighs 8 tons on average. Males have a lifespan of a maximum of 60 years whereas females can live up to 80 years.
We arrived at Taku Harbor for the night by 6 pm. All of us were in high spirits with the sighting of the Killer Whales. At dinner, the captain was smiling at me and asked “are you happy now?” I beamed. It was an unbelievable show by the Orcas that we will never forget.
The following morning the Captain steered the yacht along the Stephens Passage to reach Juneau docks by 11 am ending our 8 days ‘Discovery of Alaska’. Our friends took the afternoon flight out of Juneau. We stayed on for a further two nights in Juneau and returned home via San Francisco.
The recommended season to travel to Alaska is from June to August.