Heading to Alaska this summer? If so, you'll be seeing some critters for sure. Large mammals other than mankind still rule most of Alaska, and even in urban Anchorage it's not uncommon for a moose to amble through town. In the skies once-endangered bald eagles are as common as pigeons in Central Park, while enough salmon fill the state's rivers to give fishermen pleasant dreams for months on end.
The number and variety of animals you see depends on several factors:
- The type of vessel you're sailing aboard: Passengers aboard small ships nearly always report more wildlife sightings, due to the fact that (a) the vessels are only a few decks above the water, making for better whale watching; (b) they can cruise closer in to land, making for better land-mammal sightings; and (c) small-ship lines generally build time into their schedules to actively look for wildlife, and will alter their itineraries to go where good sightings have been reported.
- Where you're sailing; and whether you take a pre-; postcruise land tour: Some areas, such as Icy Strait (at the entrance to Glacier Bay) and Frederick Sound, are particularly good whale-watching waters and thus are frequented by many, many cruise ships. To see animals such as moose, caribou, and brown bear you'll likely have to go inland on a pre- or postcruise tour: sightings of all three are common in Denali National Park.
- Whether you take any of the various wildlife-watching excursions offered in port. Most ports offer excursions specifically designed to get you out to prime wildlife-watching spots, weather on land or sea.
- Luck. We've been on cruises where we spent all day looking for bear, then only spotted one accidentally when glancing out the window during dinner. Ditto for whale-watching -- though we've also had whales dancing around our ship from day-one. As in comedy and romance, it's all in the timing.
Here's a little background on the various critters you'll find in the great land. You may not spot them all, but if you do, you'll have a few facts with which to impress your fellow passengers.
Whale-watching takes patience, because frankly, whales spend a lot of time underwater. On most large cruise ships, the captain or officer on watch will make an announcement when he or she spots a whale, at which point half the people on board will start craning their necks in the same direction. What they'll typically see is the curve of the whale's back as he slides through the water, or the flash of his tail as he makes a deep sounding dive. It can be minutes before he comes up again, and you never know exactly where that might happen.
There are exceptions, of course. A few years ago, on the very first day of a cruise, I saw a pod of humpbacks breaching -- leaping straight out of the water and twisting in midair before falling back with a gigantic kersploosh. No one knows for sure why they do this, though to look at them it seems obvious: They're enjoying themselves. A few days later, sailing through Sergius Narrows on the way to Sitka, we spotted a pod of killer whales coming straight toward us. As we watched, the group -- at least ten strong, the younger whales flanked by their parents -- turned and sliced through the water no more than twenty feet off the ship's port side, the sun shining off their sleek, angular dorsal fins and panda-colored backs.
Here's a rundown of the types of whales typically found in Alaskan waters.
Humpback Whale: Easily recognized by its size (up to 53 feet long), by its huge mottled tail, by the hump on its back (just forward of its dorsal fin), and by its arm-like flippers (which can grow to be 14 feet long), these migratory whales spend their summers in Alaska, feeding on small fish and other tiny creatures that they filter through strips of stiff, fibrous baleen -- the material humpbacks have instead of teeth. Most humpback sightings are of the whales' humped backs as they cruise along the surface, resting, and of the flukes of their tails as they dive. Feeding dives can last a long time and often mean you won't see that particular whale again, but if you're lucky the whale may be just dipping down for a few minutes before breaching. Humpbacks tend to congregate to feed, making certain spots with rich supplies of food reliable places to watch them. In Southeast Alaska, the best spots include the waters of Icy Strait just outside Glacier Bay, Frederick Sound outside Petersburg, and Sitka Sound. In Southcentral Alaska, Resurrection Bay, outside Seward near Kenai Fjords National Park, is a reliable spot for sightings.
Orca (Killer Whale): The starkly defined black-and-white patches of the orca, the ocean's top predator, recall the sharp, graphic look of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska Native American art, and in fact the killer whale figures prominently in Native theology. Growing up to about 30 feet long, these whales rove like wolves in highly structured family groups and swim at up to 25 knots (about 29 mph). They feed on salmon, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and even juvenile whales, but they're notably benign toward human beings. Like dolphins, orcas often pop above the surface in a flashing, graceful arc when they travel, giving viewers a glance at their sleek shape, markings, and tall dorsal fin. Unlike humpbacks and other whales that rely on a predictable food supply, orcas' hunting patterns mean it's not easy to say exactly where you might find them -- you just need to be where their prey happens to be that day.
Beluga Whale: The small white whale with the cute rounded beak is one of only three types that spend all their lives in cold water rather than heading south for the winter. (The other two are the narwhale and bowhead.) More likely to be confused for a dolphin than any other whale, belugas are fatter and larger than dolphins (growing up to about 16 feet long) and lack the dolphin's dorsal fin. Adults are all white, while juveniles are gray. Belugas swim in large packs that can number in the dozens, and since they feed on salmon, the mouths of rivers with large salmon runs the best places to see them. Occasionally, a group will strand itself chasing salmon on a falling tide, swimming away again when the water returns. If you're in Anchorage before or after your cruise, head out the Seward Highway, just south of town, and keep your eyes on the waters of Turnagain Arm, where sightings are common. Another good viewing ground is the beach near the mouth of the Kenai River in Kenai.
Minke Whale: The smallest of the baleen whales, the minke is generally under 26 feet long and has a blackish-gray body with a white stomach, a narrow, triangular head, and white bands on its flippers. Along with the humpback and (occasionally) the gray, it is the only baleen whale commonly seen in Alaskan waters. When breaching, minkes leap something like dolphins, gracefully reentering the water headfirst -- unlike humpbacks, which smash down on their sides. Also unlike the humpbacks, they don't raise their flukes clear of the water when they dive. Minkes are easy to confuse with dolphins: Watch for the dark skin color for differentiation.
Gray Whale: Like the humpback, grays are baleen whales. They're also about the same size as the humpback, though they lack the humpback's huge flippers. Their heads are pointed, and they lack a dorsal fin. Grays will often smack the water with their flukes, and are very friendlyÂ¿in Mexico, where they spend the winter, it's not uncommon for them to swim right up to a small boat and allow their heads to be patted. Since they're migratory whales, and since their summer feeding grounds are in northern Alaska, the only chance cruise passengers in the Inside Passage or Gulf of Alaska have of spotting one is while they're migrating. If you're taking a shoulder-season cruise (in May or very late Sept) you have a chance, but only if you're lucky.
Sea Mammals & Fish
Whales aren't the only animals in Alaska's waters. There are also . . .
Dall's Porpoise: One of the most delightful of Alaska's sea mammals, Dall's porpoises can frequently be spotted racing with your ship, leaping across the bow and surfing in the bow wake. Growing between six and eight feet long, these porpoises are exceptionally fast, swimming up to about 35 mph. Their bodies are stocky and black, with large white patches on their flanks and belly.
Sea Otter: Possibly number-one in Alaska's "cute critter" category, the sea otter is a member of the weasel family (as are minks and river otters) and spends almost all of its life in the water. Adult males weigh between 70 and 100 pounds, while females average 40 to 60 pounds. Both average 41/2 feet in length. Their fur is generally brown to black, often with a silvery or gray tinge, particularly in older animals. You typically see sea otters floating on their backs, sometimes cradling a rock on their stomachs (which they use to crack open shellfish), sometimes just watching the cruise ships float by.
Seal Lion: You'll hear 'em -- and smell 'em -- before you see 'em. An argumentative honking, like cars stalled in traffic, mixes with a low undertone that sounds like elephants with sinus problems. Then that fishy smell hits you. Still, when you get close enough to know what you're smelling, you won't mind because it's some sight: Sea lions typically haul out in their hundreds onto small islands, where they loll in the sun, argue, occasionally fight, go fishing, and breed -- just like people on vacation. Their bodies are huge, blubbery, and tubular, perfect for the cold northern waters but impossibly ungainly on land, over which they bound on perfectly inadequate-looking front flippers. The average adult male weighs approximately 1,250 pounds and measures 101/2 feet long, while adult females average 580 pounds and are 81/2 feet long. Most adult females are brownish yellow, while males typically are a bit darker, some with a reddish coat.
Salmon: You'll probably see more salmon on your dinner plate than you will in the wild, though at some ports (notably Ketchikan), you may be able to spot them at rivers that run right through town. Salmon come in five varieties up north: chinook; king Salmon; the largest of the species (growing up to about 40 inches); sockeye; red salmon; which get their name from the brilliant red color they turn when spawning; coho; silver salmon; whose coloring is a mix of metallic blue and silver, with black spots on its back; chum salmon (aka "dog salmon" for their hooked snouts and dog-like teeth), whose meat is a pale yellow; and pink salmon; the most abundant but smallest and least valuable of the bunch. They're nicknamed "humpy" salmon for the large humps they develop on their backs before spawning.
Alaskan Birds & Mammals
Whether in port, on a shore excursion, or aboard ship (and probably through binoculars), you have a very good chance of spotting at least some of these animals on your cruise, especially bald eagles, ravens, black bear, and -- way up on the peaks in Glacier Bay and elsewhere -- Dall sheep and mountain goats.
Bald Eagle: By one government estimate, there are about 40,000 bald eagles in Alaska, soaring over Anchorage's high-rises and swarming around every fishing town, waiting to score some free food. Only adult eagles have the familiar white head and tail; juveniles of a few years or less have mottled brown plumage and can be hard to tell from a hawk. Eagles most often are seen soaring on rising air over ocean or river waters, where they are likely looking for fish to swoop down and snatch. You also can often see them perched on beach driftwood or in large trees. The eagle represents one of the two main kinship groupings in the matrilineal Tlingit culture (the other is the raven), so eagles frequently appear on totem poles and in other Southeast Native art. If you want to see an eagle really close up, visit Sitka's Alaska Raptor Center; where injured eagles, hawks, and owls are brought for treatment. Birds that can't return to the wild are housed here permanently, providing guests the rare experience of standing just a few feet from a huge, unblinking eagle.
Raven: A member of the Corvidae family, which includes jays, crows, and magpies, the raven is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is extremely common in Southeast Alaska. You can tell a raven from a crow by its larger size, heavy bill, and shaggy throat feathers. Its unmistakable "kaw," deep and evocative, provides a constant soundtrack to the misty forests of Southeast. The raven figures importantly in Southeast Alaska Native stories and in the creation myths of many other Native American peoples, where its personality is that of a wily and resourceful character with great magical powers.
Brown Bear: Also known as grizzly bears, brown bears are among the largest and most ferocious of all land mammals. Size depends on the bear's food source. In coastal areas where salmon are plentiful, such as Southeast or Katmai National Park, brown bears can grow well over 1,000 pounds and even approach the one-ton mark. The largest of all are found on salmon-rich Kodiak Island. Inland, at Denali National Park and on similar tundra landscape -- where they feed on rodents, berries, insects, and the like -- browns top out closer to 500 pounds. You can recognize a brown bear by the prominent shoulder hump, long face, and large size. Color can range from almost black to blond.
Black Bear: Black bears live in forests all over Alaska, feeding on fish, berries, insects, and vegetation. In Southeast, they can be so common as to be a pest. Although not typically dangerous, they still deserve caution and respect, standing about a yard tall at the shoulders and measuring 5 or 6 feet from nose to tail. Oddly, black bears aren't always black; they can also be brown or blond, or even blue. To tell a brown black bear from a real brown bear (i.e., a grizzly), look at the smaller size, the blunt face, and the shape of the back, which is straight and lacks the brown bear's large shoulder hump.
Moose: As big as a large horse, with bristly, ragged brown hair, a long, bulbous nose, and huge, mournful eyes, moose are the largest member of the deer family, with males reaching 1,200 to 1,600 pounds. They can be an absolute pest during Alaska's winters, but during the summer cruise season they can be more elusive, more often seen in the boreal forest that covers the Interior and Southcentral than in Southeast -- though even there you can occasionally see one eating weeds from the bottom of forest ponds or pruning streamside willows. They're unmistakable. Males grow large antlers, which they shed after battling for a mate every fall. Females lack antlers and are smaller, and bear one to three calves each year.
Caribou: Caribou are herd animals that live in arctic tundra, mountain tundra, and forest, and are the only member of the deer family in which both sexes grow antlers. Mature males weigh between 350 and 400 pounds, while mature females average 175-225 pounds. Both sexes are brownish in color, with shaggy fur and a white neck and mane. Though caribou herds are more prominent in the treeless northern tundra, you may spot some in Denali National Park.
Sitka Black-Tailed Deer: The Sitka black-tailed deer is a relatively small deer found in the coastal rain forests of Alaska. Males typically weigh in at around 120 pounds and show similarly small antlers. Both males and females sport a reddish-brown coat in summer. They can be found throughout the Southeast, in Prince William Sound, and on Kodiak Island.
Dall Sheep: Dall sheep resemble the more familiar bighorn but are smaller, weighing up to 300 pounds for males and 150 for females. Like the bighorn, males have the same curling horns, which they butt against each other to establish dominance for mating. Their habitat is the high, rocky places, where their incredible agility makes them safe from predators. Except in a few exceptional spots, such as on the cliffs above the Seward Highway just south of Anchorage on Turnagain Arm, you almost always need strong binoculars to see them. Scanning the mountains, try to pick out white spots, then focus in on them. Often, the sheep move in herds of a dozen or more.
Mountain Goat: Another animal that you won't see unless you bring your binoculars, the mountain goat inhabits the same craggy mountain habitat as the Dall sheep, including the prime viewing area on Turnagain Arm. From a distance, it's easy to confuse mountain goats with female Dall sheep, but mountain goats are shaggier, have short, straight black horns (which appear in both the male and female), have the typical goat beard, and have a much more pronounced hump at the shoulders.
The Great Alaskan Mosquito: Alaska has 35 different species of mosquitoes, so pack your repellent, especially in June and early July. You won't have a problem when on the water, but may find them annoying if you take a shore excursion that ventures into the woods.
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