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Alaska Humpback Whale

ORCA’s Cruise Conservationists on the Remarkable Wildlife of the Last Frontier

If you prefer Mother Nature to museums and glacial waves to tropical shores; if paddling, hiking, soaring, zipping and plenty of marveling are your thing, then Alaska is your playground. This is the place for virtually any type of outdoor adventure your inner wanderer can dream up, with endless pursuits that will keep you in perpetual motion. But some of the most exhilarating moments here actually involve standing still, watching, waiting and catching your breath at the sight of the incredible wildlife. The waters near the far Pacific Northwest are home to the giants of the ocean and many of their spirited friends.

Our partners at ORCA – a leading conservation organization dedicated to the protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans) – will be on board Crystal Symphony this August to lead Crystal crew and guests through the practices of observing these animals and collecting data about their behavior to aid in their preservation. In the meantime, Lucy Babey, ORCA’s Head of Science and Conservation and John Young, an expert in birding and natural history and award-winning wildlife photographer are sharing their tips about what to look for when sailing this majestic region.

Alaska Orca
An orca plays in the icy waters of Alaska.

What are some of the tools and techniques ORCA employs to study the marine animals in Alaska?

ORCA uses “citizen science” to monitor important whale, dolphin and porpoise populations around the world, training volunteers to collect scientific data about marine life from aboard ships. We employ a distance sampling protocol on line transect surveys, which means that they record environmental conditions and sightings of individual animals on a regular basis. Analyzing this means we can build up a long-term dataset that can be used to identify critical habitats such as breeding grounds, feeding grounds and nursery grounds, as well assessing the health of different populations.

What are the most common marine animals spotted here?

We are bursting with excitement to visit Alaska, as it has a stunning array of marine mammals to see. Humpback whales, gray whales, orcas, belugas and Pacific white-sided dolphins are all species we are hoping to see, as well as Dall’s porpoise, Steller sea lions and harbor seals.

What are the most elusive marine animals here?

The joy of watching these animals in the wild is that you never know what you are going to see, so anything is possible! However, there are certainly some species that show off a little less than others and make it a challenge to spot them. Harbor porpoises for example, which are one of the most common species of cetacean ORCA encounter, are actually among the most difficult to spot – they are shy and swim very gently, meaning you need a keen eye to see them. Similarly, beluga whales, though striking in appearance, only spend 4-7% of their lives at the surface and often “snorkel”, meaning their blowhole is the only part of them visible above the surface of the water. However, the challenge in spotting some of these animals is part of the appeal of seeing them in the wild, and ensures that every trip is unique!

Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska
Harbor seals make themselves comfortable on the ice floes of Tracy Arm Fjord.

What are some of the tell-tale behaviors guests can look for? I.e. how can one tell when whales are feeling playful vs. protective?

Keeping an eye out for the tell-tale signs of cetaceans is always the best starting points – whale blows, splashing and diving birds are all great clues that something exciting is going on beneath the surface. The animals themselves display a dazzling and complex array of behaviors, with everything from breaching humpback whales to tail-slapping dolphins. Our ORCA Cruise Conservationists specialize in helping guests to interpret these behaviors, so they can understand the difference between playful bow-riding and sophisticated hunting strategies that may be on show.

Where does Alaska and surrounding region fall in the migratory patterns of these animals?

Humpback whales embark on their annual migration to Alaska each Spring to feed in the rich waters in the area through Autumn, when they return south to breed. Similarly, gray whales migrate over 20,000km annually up the western coast of North America to Alaska between February and May, spending time close to the shore to spend in the summer feeding grounds in the Chukchi Sea. Belugas, conversely, can be found in the area all year round, with the Cook Inlet population the smallest in the area and one that needs urgent protection after a sharp drop in numbers in the 1990s.

For John: Any tips for photographing marine animals? Lighting, shutter speed etc?

Capturing a great shot of a whale or dolphin is an incredibly satisfying achievement, and there are a few tips that can make it that much easier. The animals can move very quickly and appear suddenly for just a few seconds, so we always recommend burst mode to allow you to rattle off a series of shots. Usually a lens in the range of 300mm focal length is advised, and ideally a telephoto lens that  allows you to zoom in and out is also better than a fixed length – it means you can capture animals close up when they come in towards the ship. Finally, a fast shutter speed minimizes blur from the animal moving and gets you that fantastic freeze frame effect.

Crystal Symphony sails between Vancouver and Anchorage/Seward from June through September 2019. Plan your adventure through North America’s Last Frontier today.

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Posted on October 23, 2019