An extraordinary week in Alaska
As we left Seattle the pilot announced that the flight would be smooth but that the approach and landing to Juneau wouldn’t. In fact, not to worry, but the cabin crew would be taking to their seats earlier than usual due to expected turbulence caused by unusually high winds in the Juneau area. I don’t mind flying, but I do get sea sick (I know, I am in the wrong job) so I was more worried about what the sea would be like than the flight. As we approached Juneau we could see countless white caps on the waves so I was planning my sea sickness medication in my head.
We had a couple of hours to kill in Juneau before we embarked on Safari Endeavour so we had a quick wander around an eerily quiet town with rows of tourist shops with no shoppers. It turns out that there were due to be three vast cruise ships in port that day but it was too windy for these behemoths to dock, so great for us but terrible for the shop owners who were missing out on an influx of some 10000 potential shoppers. No problem however for the comparatively petite Safari Endeavour, moored as she was just by the centre of town.
We were welcomed aboard by the amazingly abundant crew (37 crew to look after 82 passengers) who showed us to our cabin, provided a champagne cocktail and talked us through the plans for the following days - expect rain - ignore the weather forecast, this is Southeast Alaska. It rains. We slipped the mooring at around 19.30, just as dinner was served, and, here’s the thing, our progress was so smooth and sedate that we didn’t realise we were cruising. The sea was flat, the progress steady and the dinner fantastic. And the bar(wo)man coped with a rush of passengers all wanting exotic drinks simultaneously without actually keeping anyone waiting. Early to bed in anticipation.
Two weeks in a day - Endicott Arm an extraordinary 24 hours
The tail end of jet lag had me awake at 05.00 so I was out on deck by 06.00 to see the pink dawn over the fjords ‘berry bits’ and mountains. 06.30 an early riser coffee and pastry before - for some anyway- the 06.45 yoga session on deck. We indulged in a full breakfast as we cruise down the 30 miles long Endicott Arm fjord admiring the mountains and forests from our tables. Endicott Arm is part of the Ford’s Terror Wilderness and home to the magnificent Dawes Glacier.
The channel began to fill up with more and more ice before the skipper decided that was as far as the ship could go, so we took to the Zodiacs to navigate a mile or two towards the glacier. We spotted the brilliant white coats of several mountain goats stark against the granite walls of the valley, and several curious seals broke the surface as we cruised by. This would all have been spectacular in any weather, but due to severe ‘cloud failure’ the whole scene of the vast glacier and mountain backdrop was set against a brilliant blue cloudless sky - Quite breath-taking. And all helped along by a cup of hot chocolate charged with some schnapps - No idea where the yardarm was but the sun was definitely up. What an hors d’euvre.
The main course was to follow. - I know people who go on 2 weeks cruises in the hope of seeing what we saw in the next 4 hours. As we left the 30 mile long Endicott Arm we saw our first spout and the cry ‘Humpback’ went out. A lone whale feeding a little way off, but it got the pulse going a little. We saw a couple more in the distance as we cruised down the main channel, but towards dusk we spotted at first one, then two, and then dozens of spouts all around. I counted a minimum of 24 whales all around us, mostly in the distance, but not all. I couldn’t drag myself away - so I was late for dinner (fresh halibut or seared duck).
Another bucket list tick
We could still glimpse a few whales through the large dining room windows but as dusk fell the light soon faded so we could enjoy our meal and the company as we argued over the highlight of the day (and there were many, and the argument got quite vociferous) without distractions. Until about 10 o’clock when the captain announced that the Aurora Borealis could now be seen quite clearly - Cue dash to the top deck where those slightly the worse for wear after a long dinner mingled with those wearing their worst - Pyjamas and a shawl - but none of us felt the cold as we watched in awe for an hour.
And here's an odd thing. When you see the Aurora Borealis, or at least when we saw them, they aren't green. They are just waves of light dancing across the sky, but when you take a photo the Aurora appears a ghostly green colour - You need someone more intelligent than I to explain.
How to follow that?
Almost impossible, but a great effort. I stepped out of my cabin at 06.30 to be greeted by two whale flukes about a mile away across a flat calm sea. Almost blasé by now about Humpbacks so I opted for the kayaking. 30 harbour seals - yawn. Bald eagles, turnstones and Harlequin ducks - so what. Harassed by a bachelor gang of 30 adolescent stellar sealions - fantastic, amazing, and a little edgy, culminating in our kayak guide positioning her kayak between us and sea lion pack and banging her kayak to ward them off when they became a little too insistent on showing us who was boss.
I had signed up for a bushwhack in the afternoon but decided to change the plan and go back in search of the sealions on a skiff outing. We headed roughly in their direction passing a selection of bald eagles enroute but were distracted by what the guides call ‘whale soup’. Try to imagine – 12 small humans sat in a small inflatable vessel in the middle of a wide channel surrounded by mountains, glaciers and forests, with Humpback whales spouting, fluking and breaching 360 degrees around you. Some 1-2 miles away, some within 100 yards (one dived under the boat, I felt very very small) ; at this point I run out of superlatives. All thoughts of sealions forgotten, we tuned the engine off and sat for 45 minutes not knowing which way to look. I discovered that this isn’t particularly unusual, but the weather was and continued to be over the next few days. As I write this I am sitting on the top deck in shorts and a t-shirt with at least 1/2 dozen humpbacks within view, feeding and fattening themselves lazily within 1 mile of the boat.
This isn’t a walk or a trek, there are no paths (except the odd bear trail) and the going is not easy. You are clambering over tree trunks, through stands of ‘Devil’s Club (a particularly spiteful spiked plant) and scrambling up muddy banks, but it is a great way to see the forest. Plenty of fungi, including ‘chicken of the woods’ a common and safe to eat staple of woodsmen. Berries abound and after checking with our guide I was happy to try Huckleberries, sweet and juicy. We learned that if you lick a banana slug your mouth goes numb for an hour or so, and that yes, bears do _ _ _ _ in the woods.
In the afternoon we turned north towards one of the most popular spots for feeding Humpbacks - somewhere we should be able to see even more of them apparently, if that is possible. Well, it did prove untrue, but.........
While we probably only saw a dozen or so, a couple decided to come very close to the boat and give us a great view as they dived in unison, but their efforts were soon forgotten. One whale decided that leaping out of the water, or breaching, was something he needed to practice, a lot. So for 40 minutes or so we hove to and watched as he/she alternatively slapped the sea surface with his massive pectoral fin, dived and breached.
No one knows why whales do this, though there are several theories. To dislodge barnacles, to stun fish, to send a long-distance message (breaching makes a hell of a splash and an accompanying boom that can be heard for miles away under water), or just because they can - it’s fun! Watching this whale breach 12-14 times, each progressively closer to the vessel, before he finished with a grandstand display before disappearing completely, there was no doubt amongst most of our shipmates that not only was he/she doing it for fun, but he was well aware that we were there and the show was for our benefit.
Day 5 dawned grey and dull, the first and amazingly only time that would happen. We had time to squeeze in an hours kayaking before we took to a skiff. We could see whales spouting in the distance but learned that another skiff had spotted a bear on the shore about a mile away so we sped off in search. We hadn’t got more than 1/2 way there when 3 Humpbacks appeared in front of our skiff and deflected our interest - Bears would have to wait until another day. The Humpbacks swam, spouted, dived slapped and provided another short breaching display before the rain set in and we returned to the vessel for a particularly fine lunch. The rain had abated by early afternoon so we took a forest walk, not a bushwhack, but a gentle stroll albeit along a bear path just inside the forest- This was old growth forest, mighty 200 year old Sitka Spruce and Hemlocks but more daylight in between so something of a cross between a a cathedral and a forest out of Lord Of The Rings, with great strands of moss hanging from every branch, swamps full of fallen trees and shafts of sunlight illuminating the deep forest.
Glacier Bay, the highlight!
The extraordinary Glacier Bay is home to dozens of glaciers, including 7 tidewater glaciers, and a great range of wildlife, and forms part of the largest international protected area on the planet. Surrounded by a host towering peaks between 10-15000 metres it is surely one of the most photogenic places on Earth. Every ship that spends time in Glacier Bay has to take on board a National Parks ranger. We only had to share ours between the 80 passengers on board, and over 2 days - compare that with the large vessels that pass through in 4-5 hours with 1500 - 4000 people on board. Rebecca, the ranger, was available to answer questions about the wildlife and geography of the area, and gave a couple of short talks when time and views allowed.
We started with a fine piece of seamanship as the skipper crept past the South Marble Islands, before allowing the tide to drift us back past on the opposite direction before we crept past again as we headed deeper into the bay. These islands are a mini sub-glacial Galapagos, being. Home to large numbers of sealions, seals and sea otters as well a variety of sea birds including puffins and Pelagic cormorants, plus the odd sail past by a Humpback or two. And surrounded by mountains and glaciers too. Pressing on into the bay we made a short detour into an inlet to watch a couple of brown bears collecting salmon before we hove to for another 20 minutes to enjoy half a dozen mountain goats defying the odds several hundred feet up an apparently sheer sea cliff.
After lunch we headed to the furthest reaches of the bay where not one but two vast and vastly different glaciers flow into the sea within yards of each other. An ideal location for a (extravagant I grant) geography field trip as the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers are a perfect illustration of glaciology I action, yet with different results. As one of the very few vessels afforded a night in Glacier Bay we headed down the extraordinary John Hopkins Inlet passing 1/2 dozen glaciers on the way to the head of the John Hopkins Glacier (One of the few glaciers in this part of the world still advancing), where hundreds of seals chose to have their pups every year and then keep them on small ice floes until large enough to swim free into the wilderness - in fact this particular part of Glacier Bay is closed to vessels until 1st September to protect the seal colony.
Not wanting to miss out on any possible experience I took the chance to check that the jacuzzi was in good working order - I can confirm it was just fine. We spent the night anchored near the foot of the Lamplugh Glacier so were greeted by the sunrise over the mountains and glaciers on yet another perfectly still and cloud free day. The mornings options included kayaking along the cliffs and glacier, a skiff tour of the area and a ridge walk and scramble to a magnificent viewpoint. The viewpoint won it for me so I joined a skiff load of fellow hikers for the short but ice ridden cruise to the beach. This was one of those walks where the views were magnificent from the start, and just got better as we went higher. And better. And better. I will let the images do the talking.
I was then hoisted on my own petard, having declared at the start of the week that I would try everything going, Captain ‘Shep’ announced that there was just time for a ‘Polar Plunge’ before. Lunch, so around 15-20 idiots/brave souls/hard as nails types (delete as appropriate) appeared on the fantail -the floating dock as the aft of the vessel - to leap or dive into the decidedly chilly water at the foot of the glacier before frantically thrashing our way back to the fantail to be hauled out by waiting crew -actually quite restorative and I would go again - before a quick dip in the hot tub to restore normality. We cruised back to Juneau overnight to disembark the next morning and say our goodbyes.
I haven’t gone into any detail about the fantastic food that was served up morning noon and night, the crew who seem to memorise everyone’s name, dietary requirements and drink preferences by the second day, or the ship itself, which provided the perfect platform to explore the nooks and crannies of South East Alaska in great comfort. All of that goes without saying but is true – A perfect boutique hotel. All of the above took place between 9 - 16 September 2018 on board the Safari Endeavour. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that mid-September is too late to go to Alaska!
Postscript - One extraordinary hour
Not part of the cruise but one of the most amazing things I have ever done - we took to a small 6 seater Cessna for a flight seeing tour of Glacier Bay and the surrounding mountains. Glacier Bay was stunning from the air, but I was struck speechless by the flight over the glaciers, climbing just high enough to pop over the ridge at the top of one glacier before descending the length of the next. One extraordinary hour.