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‘HUMPBACK WHALE OFF THE AFT DECK’ AND OTHER MOMENTS IN ALASKA

ORCA Cruise Conservationists Share Their Favorite Highlights and Images from the Last Frontier

Cruise Conservationists Lucy Babey and John Young have dedicated their professional and personal lives to the study and preservation of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) around the world. They are part of the team from ORCA, a leading conservation organization focused on the behaviors of these animals, and they are currently aboard Crystal Symphony sharing their expertise with Crystal guests as they cruise the waters and fjords of Alaska. Here, they share some of the highlights that have delighted travelers and broadened the awareness of these fascinating creatures.

They have a collective wealth of expertise on the matter. Lucy holds advanced degrees in their biology and behaviors, and John is a seasoned wildlife photographer with an eagle eye. Their first advice for observing these incredible animals is relatively simple, though:

“The longer you sit and watch patiently, the greater your chance for the best sightings.”

A good reminder for life in general.

We knew the approach into Sitka can be productive for whales, as the bridge crew of Crystal Symphony had previously spotted numerous humpback whales in the area over the past few months. Therefore, we stationed ourselves in Palm Court, along with many guests, and eagerly scanned the ocean.

We passed a large number of fishing boats throughout the morning, but as yet, no marine mammals came into view. Then all of a sudden, ”whale blow!” was shouted and everyone stood to attention. The blow hung in the air for a few seconds allowing guests to locate the whales position and direct those that had not seen the blow to the area where the whale was now swimming below the surface. The dark and broad body of the whale broke the surface and with a roll through the water the humped dorsal fin appeared. “Humpback whale!” was shouted by several guests, who were now excellent whale spotters after spending time with us during presentations and deck watches.

Just a couple of days later, in Juneau, a small group of guests joined us on a “Citizen Scientist” research excursion into Auke Bay. Here, we checked crab pots left by local researchers to see what species have been most prominent in the area, counted Stellar sea lions and, of course, kept our eyes on the horizon in hopes of sighting the tell-tale whale blow. Auke Bay is the annual summer feeding ground for a humpback named Sasha, an approximately 40-year-old whale who has returned to these waters for several years.

Juneau humpback whale
Sasha, Juneau’s resident humpback whale in Auke Bay, raises her fluke before a deep dive. (Photo courtesy of ORCA)

She appeared off the starboard side, what a beauty! Sasha arched her large back in preparation to dive and her massive black-and-white tail kicked out above the water. As we scanned the water eagerly to see where she surfaced next, a huge animal leapt out of the water and she breached so beautifully that our entire group stood in stunned silence before erupting in cheers.

But this behavior had a purpose. Humpback whales use their bodies to make thundering noise that echoes to other whales in the area. Breaching and slapping their side fins (pectoral fins) against the water creates massive sound that the whales use to communicate.

So, to whom was Sasha communicating? Within moments, two other humpbacks – visitors to this piece of heaven near Shelter Island – appeared and the three took turns dazzling us with their diving and swimming past each other.

We were treated to another of nature’s great masterpieces this week. Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier (one which reaches the sea) at 76 miles long, seven miles wide and 700 feet tall, with 350 feet above the water line and 250 feet stretching down below. The glacier put on quite a show for us all, with blocks of ice that can no longer be supported at the front of the slowly advancing glacier collapse crashing into the sea below. This caused an upward plume of water to rise against the face of the glacier and the cracking boom of “glacial thunder” caused by the splitting of the huge chunks of ice resonated around Yakutat Bay.

Hubbard Glacier
Spectacular Hubbard Glacier on a clear day in Alaska aboard Crystal Symphony

For whale watchers, deeper waters are very exciting, as they have the potential to produce a range of cetacean species. In these areas the nutrient rich cold water rises to the surface, providing an abundance of food for marine life.

Our afternoons spent hosting the Hospitality Desk brought wonderful interest and questions from guests about the sightings of the day and the animals themselves. One afternoon, as we were packing up to leave the hospitality desk a large group of guests opposite began to stand up and look through the deck windows. We approached the excited group as more people joined and looked. The excited cries, chatter and laughter was the result of a male orca, or killer whale, passing the ship! Sharing this sighting of the ocean’s top predator with Crystal guests was the perfect way to end the day.

ORCA Cruise Conservationists Lucy Babey & John Young.

Crystal Serenity will sail Alaska during her 2022 season. Book Now for the best fares available on these breathtaking voyages.

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Posted on May 23, 2017

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