Our ship arrived in Juneau at 1:00, and we tendered ashore for our excursion soon after. We boarded a bus which took us to Auke Bay, about a 25 minute ride from town. On the way we were entertained by a very funny and personable bus driver who kept us laughing with jokes and one liners about Alaska, Juneau, and even Sarah Palin. Once there we boarded a catamaran for our three hour adventure in the waters of Stephen's Passage. Our vessel had a very comfortable and weather-protected downstairs, while on the top deck there were some inside seats, and a viewing platform which was terrific for seeing and photographing the wildlife.
We had a wonderful day!! Of course we spent our time up top so we could photograph as much as possible...even though having your camera pointed in the right direction at the right time is a lot harder than you would think! The on-board naturalist estimates that we saw about 15 humpback whales, most of them in two different groups. Apparently humpbacks are usually solitary, but occasionally they work as a group to accomplish something called "bubble-net feeding." We were fortunate enough to see this several times during our trip. What happens is the whales form a loose circle and begin blowing bubbles. The "circle" of bubbles fools the herring into thinking they can't get past, that there is a wall of sorts there. Then one whale dives down below the group of herring and suddenly turns upward and makes a loud noise which frightens the herring and signals the whales, and at this point all the fish, and all the whales come up out of the water. It is an amazing sight - there are open whale mouths, fins, tails, fish, and birds circling all in the same space at the same time. The whales get a mouthful of fish, and the photographers get pictures so full of "whale parts" that you can't really tell how many there are, or which part belongs to which whale. But it is pretty darn exciting! Check out these videos on You Tube.
Whale watching boats are supposed to stay 100 yards away from the whales, although there's no telling where the whales might choose to break the surface. We saw one bubble-net feed that happened within 50 feet of a small whale watching vessel. Those passengers must have gotten some amazing photographs! Although my pictures were taken from a longer distance away, it was still exciting to watch for the whales, anticipate where they might come up, and try to create a decent photograph or two.
We had an incredible day. The weather was great, the waters calm, and the whale watching extraordinary. If I ever get to Juneau again, I'll be on another one of these trips as soon as possible.