Humpbacks Bubble Net Feeding, photo by Wikimedia Commons
A mere twenty seconds into our whale-watching expedition while stationary in the harbour, we spot huge flukes suspended high in the air as a whale
majestically descends into the dark water on a misty, rainy, miserable day. "There goes our $100 rebate," laments a gloomy tourist from Missouri, referring to the charter's gallant money-back guarantee that ensures passengers see whales in the wild.
In fact, despite the weather, according to our guide, Howard Gray, a full-fledged
Tlingit, the day is "spectacular" as we observe three humpback whales perform their impressive
bubble-net fishing technique just off the shore to the delight of many motorists gathered along the road to watch the spectacle for free.
The three whales dive deeply together and emit high-pitched sounds which frightens thousands of herring and causes them to mass together into a giant herd for protection; the whales forcefully expel bubbles that surround the herring and through which they will not swim; on a signal from the leader, the mighty humpbacks ascend steadily together like giant vacuums, open mouths filling with prey when they breach the water and soar into the air, much to our glee as we witness this remarkable teamwork worthy of a formidable NHL power play. While the whales perform their ingenious acrobatics, a group of ten kayaks saunter in much too close to the action, one narrowly escaping imminent capsize.
In October, humpbacks set course for Hawaii where they breed and calf for six months, not eating and thereby dropping 30,000 pounds! Upon return to Alaska in April, they are starving for fish which are plentiful. We witness one such feast, and after this thrilling display, our captain, Cheryl, transports us to Adolphus Point, the intersection of three bodies of water - Glacier Bay, the Pacific and Icy Point Strait, a natural hunting ground where ten more huge humpbacks pass within metres of our boat. Three
Stellar sea lions which can weigh up to two thousand pounds each, cavort behind the massive creatures, sampling remnants of herded fish for their own banquet. About 200 whales feed here including humpbacks, orcas and minke whales.
Howard asks the passengers to remain silent as he places a microphone under the water, and amidst the quietude, we thrill to the loud "whoosh" sounds of air expelled forcefully through the blow holes of the surfaced whales. Howard expresses astonishment at how close they come to our vessel, and he regales us with stories of orcas, the ultimate predator,
taking on great white sharks, turning them upside down to immobilize them, and snatching the victims in their powerful jaws. He also describes watching a
1.5 hour orca attack against a mother humpback and her calf, the mother saving the calf by jousting with her powerful tail, brawny enough to kill upon impact while the orcas try to drown her calf by covering its blow hole and ramming its sides. Bloody and bruised, the humpbacks prevail. Howard's stories enrich our experience, revealing a whole new hidden world.
Later, back on shore, his sister, Sonya Gray, tours my wife and I though the rainforest, describing all of the myriad plants and berries that we encounter along the way. Salmon berries are little, round red items that resemble a cluster of eggs. There is skunk cabbage that bears use as a diuretic; apparently, also an effective anti-cancer product. With shallow roots for trees in the rainforest, she says that wind, not fire is a major problem causing "blow-downs" and landslides.
Sonya's grandfather was a Norwegian sailor. She tells us that in Hoonah, there are 6,000 brown bears residing amidst the 760 native people who admire and respect the bears. Hoonah is a Tlingit community on Chichagof Island, located in Alaska's "panhandle" in the southeast region of the state. It is 30 miles west of Juneau, across the Alaskan Inland Passage and the 5th largest island in the United States.
Sonya relates that as a child on her way from school, she encountered a bear. She curled on the ground, and the bear strode up and sniffed her hairspray. Her body shook violently with such fright that the bear jumped back, providing her the opportunity to flee. It's an uneasy coexistence between Tlingit and bears on the north shore of Chichagof Island.
Next, we tour the impressive canning factory, a genuine tourist attraction, but Sonya prefers the term, "guest" to that of tourist. The factory includes all of the original equipment including steam cookers or "retorts," tokens or "bingles" used instead of coins, nets, floats (cork, wood and plastic),
salmon species charts (Coho, Sockeye, King, Pink and Chum), beautiful red lacquer labels and appropriate signage that makes it an educational experience.
Hoonah also claims the longest Zipline in the world, but we pass on that experience for another day. Those we watch move at great speed!
Sonya hopes for a dock to be built as we tender in from our ship, Radiance of the Seas, but this process is well worth the effort, an excellent choice by Royal Caribbean for a meaningful shore excursion. There is room here for only one ship at a time, a welcome relief from the usual glut of four or more vessels, each with the capacity for 2,000 passengers or more who inevitably engulf each community en masse. I prefer no dock. Here, we have none of the usual jewelry and myriad other stores competing for tourist dollars. It is remote, natural, geared to Tlingit life and well worth keeping in that pristine order.
Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas at Hoonah, Alaska, photo by Mike Keenan
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Hoonah is a
Tlingit community on Chichagof Island, located in Alaska's "panhandle" in the southeast region of the state. It is 30 miles west of Juneau, across the Alaskan Inland Passage. Hoonah is the only first-class city on Chichagof Island, the 109th largest island in the world and the 5th
largest island in the United States. At the 2000 census the population was 860, though summer population can swell to over 1300 depending on fishing, boating, hiking and hunting conditions. Hoonah means "village by the cliff" or "place protected from the North Wind" in the Tlingit language. - Wikipedia