IVAlaska08: Ship Ryndam

Whale Watching Off Pacific Coast of Juneau



July 28- August 6, 2008


IAlaska08: Flight to Vancouver

VAlaska08: Skagway & Train Ride

IIAlaska08: Visit to Butchart Gardens

VIAlaska08: Glacier Bay

IIIAlaska08: Ship M/S Ryndam

VII: Shopping in Ketchikan

IVAlaska08: Juneau for Whale Watch

VIII: Flight Home to Memphis




Return To Nolan Travels Home Page (Page updated Aug. 30, 2008)


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Friday, Aug. 1, 2008 – In Juneau, Alaska for Whale Watching


We got lucky because once on the ship we had no rain during our seven-day cruise. The only rain we had during our 9-day trip was on the day of our visit to Butchart Gardens in Victoria, the capital of Canada’s British Columbia province near Vancouver. A weather forecast I had pulled off the Internet’s “Weather Channel” service had predicted rain with highs in the mid-50s and lows in the upper 40s for every day this week. I’m glad it was wrong.


In fact, the weather in Alaska’s Inside Passage was cool and damp. Most passengers on the M/S Ryndam wore light coats or heavy sweaters when venturing outside to walk around the Promenade Deck on Level 6 or just to hang out and watch the snow-capped mountains on the shore slide by.


This Friday seemed to us to be a typical morning for this time of year in Alaska, foggy with gray skies and chilly. Our in-room “Compass” book of local information told us that Juneau – the state capital of Juneau – was named for prospector Joseph Juneau. He came to the area in 1880 and was introduced to its rich deposits of gold by a Tlingit Indian named Chief Kowee. Soon thereafter, word got out and gold seekers flooded the streams and creeks, followed by mining companies around the turn of the 19th Century. Mining continued until World War II when it became unprofitable. But much of the architecture keeps memory of its go-go days in the forefront. 


Juneau was made the state capital in 1906. Alaska achieved statehood in the United States in 1959, which I remember since I was then in high school. Today, Juneau is the third largest city in Alaska, with a population of 30,000. It is described in the tourist information as “a friendly city with a mix and sophistication and informality.” It is at the base of two soaring mountains and fronts a salt water channel. It is on the edge of the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest. Even today, about the only access to Juneau is by air or sea – or maybe by dogsled for the extraordinarily hardy at wintertime.


For us, Juneau’s main attraction is its 12-mile long Mendenhall Glacier, a river of ice that starts in the mountains and flows down to the sea. A local favorite hangout is the Red Dog Saloon downtown.


As with yesterday, the room service breakfast was very good. But it took a telephone call to get it delivered even 15 minutes late. The ice for my Diet Coke was left off the tray, a mistake quickly corrected by the steward. I enjoyed 4 strips of well-drained bacon, 2 scrambled eggs, 2 large pieces of toasted whole wheat bread, a small serving of hash brown potatoes, a slice of orange and ice water. Betty had some bacon and a so-so blueberry muffin.


For lunch, Betty went through the buffet line on the Lido Deck’s restaurant and enjoyed a big salad, a nice piece of broiled chicken and a glass of ice tea. I opted for a juicy cheeseburger cooked in the poolside grill with French fries, a few tortilla chips with avocado dip and Diet Coke.


After eating, we had to patiently wait in a slow-moving line to get off the ship then walk about a block to Orca Enterprise’s Whale Watching Tour headquarters. Our travel agent had referred us there following her personal experience and good reports from other customers. The firm’s office has a shopping area that sells various memorabilia and I purchased a pair of jade earrings for Betty that were carved to look like the tail flukes of a diving humpback whale,


We were bused to the firm’s boat at Auk Bay several miles down the coast. The jet vessel was the 52-feet long “Orca Odyssey” that features a heated and enclosed cabin with large windows, restroom, open outside decks with rails and a small gallery area. In charge is “Captain Larry,” a bear-sized man with a wild beard and floppy leather hat who has been in the whale watch business for 40 years. Tour information said he was educated in wildlife management and marine biology and is vice president of the Marine Education and Research of Southeast Alaska organization.


There were only a dozen passengers on this cool and cloudy day. But Capt. Larry had three assistants. We talked to Sean and Dirk, who both seemed like stereotypical Alaska guys in their late 20s who know a lot about whales and area wildlife. It was easy to tell they love their work and enjoy making passengers feel welcome. They served us snacks of cheese, crackers, peanut butter and chunks of smoked salmon during the 3 ½ hour excursion on the salt water. The boat was out of beer and soft drinks and we passed on the offered coffee and juice packs  packaged in paper.


We paid $239 for the half-day outing and it was worth it. Since we booked it through Gulliver’s Travel in Memphis rather than through the ship, we think we probably paid a bit less and got more personal service from the independent venture whose success depends on referrals and satisfied customers. While we didn’t get any extremely “up close” views of the whales like we had on a similar excursion near San Diego a few years ago, we thought the whale watch cruise was another high point of this trip.


On the boat with us – which carries as many as 40 passengers – were a dozen fellow tourists. They included a young man from Japan who either didn’t speak much English or chose not to talk; a family from England whose gawky daughter appeared to be about 11 years ago; a couple from France, with the woman being attractive and standing at least 6 feet tall; and a couple of heavy, young American women dressed for the wilderness.


We were told that Orca Enterprises does a lot to protect the whales and help with scientific research into whale activities, including long distance work in the whale’s winter grounds in Maui, Hawaii. Information about their work is at www.alaskawhalewatching.com and information may be obtained by emailing their CEO, Carol Pitts, at orca@alaska.com. Orca’s address is P. O. Box 35431, Juneau, AK  99803; telephone is 907-789-6801.


Wildlife protection laws prohibit boats like the one we were on from “chasing” whales. But we saw a dozen surfacing humpback whales at a distance of perhaps 100 or more yards including one that swam to within 25 yards of our boat. Their bulb-shaped heads make it possible to dive to deep feeding grounds by thrusting their tail flukes to the vertical. The flukes out of the water make for some striking photos. The column of “steam” that comes when they exhale heated air when surfacing is a dead giveaway to their location.


We also saw a half-dozen or so napping Stellar Sea Lions which had “hauled out” to rest atop sea buoys and other marine navigation markers. We also had close looks at several mature Bald Eagles with their distinctive, white heads as well as immature ones climbing around a rock island at low tide in search of shellfish. Betty saw at least one Dalls Porpoise and several Harbor Seals swimming about. There were lots of seabirds on wing overhead and along the coast with views of glaciers in the distance. But we didn’t see any of the resident or migrating Orca “Killer Whales” on our excursion; however we had a great sighting of a pod of them porpoising through the gentle waves near our cruise ship a few days later.


On the drive back from the boat dock to the ship, we drove through Juneau’s main drag and were struck by the number of saloons and junky tourist shops.


We got back to the ship just before our 7 p.m. dinner reservation. We joined our new friends Dr. Ulrich Bauer and his wife, Susie Brown Bauer, for a very good meal that was exceeded only by the excellence of their company.


Betty went for the broiled salmon and a bowl of chicken noodle soup. I had broiled sole served on a medley of fresh vegetables, a Caesar salad and as an appetizer a serving of prosciutto ham with cantaloupe slices. We split a half bottle of Chardonnay and also enjoyed some pretty good desserts before showering and retiring about 10:30 p.m.

Continue With Part V, Skagway Train Ride  /  Return To Nolan Travels Home Page