As a destination overflowing with wildlife and natural spectacles, Alaska steals your breath away at every opportunity. With more miles of coastline than the rest of the USA combined, an ocean cruise has long been the most traditional introduction for visitors to Alaska – and that’s exactly how I planned to explore.
As I set off from Vancouver on board the MS Volendam, the magic and excitement began to build. Almost as soon as we sailed, our ship began to ply the waters of the scenic Canadian Inside Passage – a narrow and steep-sided water channel flowing between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Looking out from the ship’s deck I spotted a monumental splash in the distance. Binoculars already in hand, I investigated and realised the cause of the water disturbance was a humpback whale breaching, as once again it launched its entire 30-tonne body out of the water!
Bears and bald eagles
On reaching Alaskan waters, I got ready for my first experience of its awesome natural treasures, joining an extra excursion into Tracy Arm Fjord and the twin Sawyer Glaciers. A thick fog loomed, but as we got further along the narrow fjord it began to lift and the scenery came to life.
On deck, wrapped in many layers, we were told to look for ‘golf balls’ and ‘black blobs’ on the steep sides of the fjord. It turned out that, from a distance, a bald eagle (the majestic national bird of the USA) sat in a tree waiting to swoop looks exactly like a golf ball. Similarly, a black blob on the shoreline could be a black bear searching for its breakfast. Amazingly, both were spotted in quick succession, causing a lot of excitement.
We reached the face of South Sawyer Glacier, an icefield that has swept its way down from the mountains, and here the boat slowly made a 180-degree turn as we listened to the creak and crack of the centuries-old ice resisting the pressure to calve, and watched the harbour seals hauled out on the resulting icebergs.
Whales, seals and sea otters
After sailing back to the main ship and re-boarding, we docked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau. From here, there were many options to explore and I had chosen to take a whale-watching excursion. On the road transfer to the whale-watching departure point, we passed at least 20-30 bald eagles resting on street lights (the salmon run was starting and they were waiting in greedy anticipation). Within five minutes of leaving the dock we spotted a humpback blow, followed by a tail fluke. “Can it be this simple to find them,” I thought to myself. The hour and a half that followed proved that to be true, as we saw whale after whale diving, fluking and tail throwing.
As MS Volendam sailed into Glacier Bay National Park for a day of scenic exploring, a park ranger and onboard naturalists were on hand to provide a fascinating insight into this UNESCO-protected area, with the highest number of actively calving tidewater glaciers in the world. As we sailed towards the mile-wide Margerie Glacier, its size was astounding, but nothing prepared me for the bangs, cracks and groans that emanated from its depths. Every few minutes a huge chunk of ice crashed into the water below, creating a sound akin to a thunderclap.
As the ship sailed out of the bay the excitement didn’t end, as this part of Alaska is known for its abundance of marine mammals and birds. In the right season, you may spot a breaching humpback whale, killer whales (orca) as they porpoise at high speed, adorable sea otters lazily floating on their backs, enormous stellar sea lions or their smaller harbour seal relatives. Soaring in the air you may view a bald eagle and many other seabirds. I managed to tick many of these off my list.
Playful cubs and dolphin pods
From Alaska’s southernmost city of Ketchikan, I took an excursion to Herring Cove. As I stepped off the coach, we were told there was only a small chance of seeing black bears, as the rain had hampered viewing for the last few days. About five minutes into our journey along the boardwalk, silence washed over us and we all turned into statues as we realised that a black bear sow and her cub were ambling along the river’s edge, and a male bear was on the other side of the bridge. Fantastic! Alongside the wonderful bears, there were adult and juvenile bald eagles, a lovely belted kingfisher and a tiny American red squirrel munching on a pine cone – definite wildlife highlights.
We sailed south through the Canadian Inside Passage once more, spotting more humpback whales, orca and bald eagles. While watching through the window during my final dinner in the restaurant, a playful pod of pacific white-sided dolphins leapt in and out of the water in the wake of the ship, as if to say goodbye – adding more memories to those I had already vowed to keep for a lifetime.