Category: Week 3

6/8: Sitka & The End of our Un-Cruise Ultra Adventure

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6am and we are Sitka-bound.  We had a nice morning, with just the occasional sprinkle. The views as we cruise to Sitka:

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June8-6At 6:30am, continental breakfast items were available in the lounge as they’d been all week.  The full breakfast buffet started at 7:30am.  A few more photos as we come into Sitka:

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The small ship behind us is the Admiralty Dream – the one we saw during Week 2 with the whale right next to it:

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At 8:30am, we were docking, and the gals got us safely secured:

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Debarkation was smooth, and we had a chance to say goodbye to the crew and thank them for another good week.  We were on our way to the Sitka Westmark Hotel, where we would overnight before leaving the next morning on our journey to Denali National Park.

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June8-14Here is some info on Sitka from Wikipedia: It is the largest city-borough in the US, with a land area of 2,870.3 mi2  and a total area (including water area) of 4,811.4 mi2. With a population of 8,881 in 2010, Sitka is the fourth-largest city by population in Alaska.

 

We went to the Westmark where our room wasn’t ready (and wouldn’t be until about 3pm).  We were scheduled to go on a Small Boat charter to St. Lazaria Island to see Puffins and Otters.  Unfortunately, our charter was cancelled due to problems with the boat.  Disappointed, but it was for the best – we still weren’t feeling great and the weather got worse in the afternoon.

 

We took care of an important errand first thing; packed up quite a bit of our stuff and mailed packages home.  Lou also sent his camera gear home.  I was worried about this, but it turned out ok.  It did take a month (!) for our packages to reach us, but everything except my Alaskan Fudge was in good shape.

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June8-15We weren’t in the mood for a lot of tourist activity, but did enjoy walking around Sitka.  Sitka has a strong Russian Heritage and several of the prominent attractions provide more information about the history of the area.  Sitka also likes bears – they were all around town:

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We tried a Mexican Cafe for lunch, and it was tasty – we like to sample Mexican Cuisine in unlikely parts of the world:

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One place we did want to visit was St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathederal; it was established in the nineteenth century when Sitka was under Russian rule, and is the oldest Orthodox Cathedral in the New World.  It burned down in 1966, but was rebuilt.  When we inquired about a tour, we were invited to join a tour group in session (from the Admiralty Dream, it turns out), and learned more about the Cathedral and the Orthodox Religion.

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Our room was ready when we returned to the Westmark (after buying a few more t-shirts).  Ahhhh – we each have our own bed, and the bathroom seems ginormous compared to the previous 3 weeks!  This will be a welcome relief from having to clamber over Lou to get in and out of bed during the past week (no photos and no video of that adventure!).

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We each took a long shower and a nap.  We had dinner plans with Dick & Polly, a nice couple we’d enjoyed spending time with during the past two weeks and hope to see again.  We had a pleasant dinner at the Westmark Restaurant, then hit the sack.  We had an early departure tomorrow for Fairbanks – 4am!!!

 

Pretty Flowers in Bloom in Sitka:

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The view from our room, overlooking Sitka harbor:

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Thoughts on Week 3: Glacier Bay and the Northern Passages on the Wilderness Explorer:

June3PM-31Scenery – A :  Spending 3 days in Glacier Bay National Park was a treat, and we would love to go back again.  We didn’t find the final few days as scenic as the previous two weeks, but were probably influenced by the rainy weather and the arrival of our colds.  Overall, we had great weather for Week 3 of the trip – even though we had rain, it wasn’t enough to interfere with activities if you really wanted to get outside and experience Alaska.

 

Puffin-2Wildlife – A:  How could it be anything less than a top grade?  Sure, we saw lots of humpbacks. But, we added Orcas, Puffins, Mountain Goats and baby ones too.  And how about the wolf, and a few bears?  Of course, we saw eagles and other birds as well.  No one could complain about this week’s wildlife sightings not living up to the marketing brochure.

 

June3PM-40Life Onboard – B:  We found the Wilderness Explorer to be less comfortable inside than the Wilderness Discoverer – the two areas that affected us were our room and the lounge. The lounge seemed congested at times with a full complement of passengers on board.  The food was good, and we once again got a chance to meet some nice people.   We didn’t get to know the staff as well, only being on the boat for one week. Having Ranger Fay (and Miss Elizabeth) join us for the first three days was a plus.

 

June3PM-14Off Boat Acitivities – B: We had a couple of nice shore walks, and certainly the chance to visit Bartlett Cove was appreciated. Once we left Glacier Bay, it seemed Skiff Tours were given a lower priority than they had been the previous two weeks.  Our perspective may be clouded by the weather and our colds. Just like in Week 1, there were a few hard core adventurers who would have liked the strenuous hikes to be more difficult, but you will probably always have people at both ends of the spectrum.

 
 

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Overall: We may have been more nitpicky about some things in Week 3 because we’d had such a fantastic time on the Wilderness Discoverer.  But, don’t get the impression we didn’t have a good time.  Not the case at all – it was a great week.

 

 

Thoughts on the whole Ultra Adventure: “You’re gonna spend 3 whole weeks on a small boat?”

Was 3 weeks too long?  No, for us it was just right.  We have spent summers living on a boat a lot smaller than these two ships, and knew we wouldn’t have a problem with being on the boat for so long.  By doing 3 weeks, we didn’t have to worry about missing something. We built in time for bad weather and a few lazy days.

 

What was the best week? There’s an easy answer to this question … we don’t know!  We’ve gone back and forth and can make an argument for any of the three weeks being the best.  Week 1 touring the Eastern Coves – it was all new and exciting, and seeing both Tracy Arm and Misty Fjords was an unforgettable experience.  Week 2 touring the Western Coves – we were into the ship’s routine, and had a balanced week on and off the boat.  Some of the best early morning views and sunsets happened in Week 2.  Week 3 – Visiting Glacier Bay was amazing, and the wildlife viewing was wonderful.  Weeks 1 and 2 gave us a look into Native Alaskan history and culture, and Week 3 included a visit to a beautiful National Park – it’s too hard to choose a favorite!

 

Were there any negatives?  This report has been largely positive and complimentary of both the Alaska Inside Passage and Un-Cruise Adventures.  Alaska deserves the praise, because it is so special – there is a reason people go back year after year.  And, we were treated to spectacular weather. Un-Cruise Adventures exceeded our expectations, and they strive to provide excellent customer service.  The only negative we’ve talked about is the transitional day between each cruise.  We found ourselves waiting around in the afternoon to re-board the ship, and that was tiring.  This wouldn’t be an issue if you are the go-getter-gotta-see-everything type of traveler because you can easily occupy yourself on those days.  We are more laid-back, and would have preferred to have a true “3-week” experience instead of 3 separate 1-week adventures, if that makes sense.  This is a fairly minor “negative.”

 

Will you Un-Cruise again? Yes, definitely.  I’ve booked us on the Ultra Adventure for next summer.  We’re going to start out on the Wilderness Explorer in Sitka, and I’ve booked a cabin with twin beds.  Starting in Sitka means we’ll end the week on a high note in Glacier Bay.  We’ll switch to the Wilderness Discoverer in Juneau for two weeks touring the Western & Eastern Coves, and have the same cabin we had on this trip.  Switching ships after just one week instead of two will be less disruptive  We’ll be going in mid-July, after having spent a week at Katmai watching the bears fish for salmon with Len, our favorite photography tour leader.

 

JUST KIDDING, Lou!!! We would like to go back to Alaska, and hope another Un-Cruise Adventure will be part of that trip.  We are still discussing whether we’ll go in July/August or wait to go later to see the fall colors.  But, there are no definite plans, and we’ve sworn off big trips for a year or two.  I outlined a slightly different Ultra Adventure in my fantasy trip, but that’s only because we’ve already done the early season visit.  I wouldn’t change a thing about the trip we just did – going in May allowed us to celebrate both birthdays onboard.  We saw lots of snow on the mountains, had wonderful weather, made new friends, and saw baby animals.  It was perfect.

Up Next:  The highlights of our 5 day Land Tour start in the next post.  

6/7: Marooned in the Magoun Islands

Our last full day on the Wilderness Explorer has arrived – we are at a quiet anchorage in the Magoun Islands. We weren’t actually marooned at the islands, it just sounds more adventurous than “Anchored in the Magoun Islands.” The weather has improved, and the morning views are nice.  The view at 4:30am shows promise:

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The lounge is nice and peaceful at quarter to five:

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Another look outside at 5:30am:

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The clouds are rolling in at 8:30am:

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We are on our last Skiff Tour at 9:30am. We didn’t want to miss out on our last chance to see more of the Alaskan shoreline.

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It was nice to see a bald eagle on our last Un-Cruise day; we also saw several nests:

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The intertidal creatures were colorful and plenty as we took the skiff right up to the shoreline.  I think this was my biggest surprise; never expected to see such creatures in Alaska (Alison, from the Wilderness Discoverer, would be proud).

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One of the kayak guided tours was also taking a good look at the cracks and crevices along the shore:

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The forests were thick with trees – lots of good bear hiding places but we didn’t see any today:

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We’ll count this as a successful last outing – I was out for the afternoon, and I think Lou just took it easy as well.  Here are a few borrowed photos from Un-Cruise to give an idea of the snorkeling adventure today.  It looks like it was the best one yet.  Today was also Polar Plunge Day, but we missed it (once again!).

The evening included the usual final night Captain’s dinner and a slide presentation of photos taken by the guides during the week – there are some excellent photographers in this group!

A few more photos from the evening, taken between 7:30 – 10:30pm:

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This really was a beautiful anchorage, and we were fortunate to have the return of mostly good weather.   It may seem like these last two days weren’t the most exciting, but it was a pleasant way to end our 3 Week Ultra Adventure.  Tomorrow morning we cruise into Sitka and we’ll get to see the largest city in the US.

6/6: A Bad Day @ Hanus Bay?

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We woke up to find ourselves in Hanus Bay.  We had two days left in our last week of Un-Cruising.  It didn’t seem possible for the rest of the week to live up to the days before, and ……………  it didn’t!  Again, that’s ok.  We had already had 5 great days, with just a little bit of rain.  Glacier Bay National Park and Icy Strait were astounding.

On top of waking up to rain and fog, I’d come down with a cold and it was working its way to Lou. This wasn’t a big surprise, because a number of passengers and crew had been sick during the week. I ended up sleeping the day away, waking just for meals and a brief time in the evening.  It was a bad day in Hanus Bay, but it was a great day overall.  Why?  If we had to get sick, this was the perfect time to do it.  We wouldn’t be missing out on much, and it would also give us a chance to recharge for our Land Tour starting on Saturday.

Even though it rained off and on all day, that didn’t stop the hikers and the kayakers …

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Here are some photos from the Un-Cruise photo share that give an indication of what today’s hike was like – looks like they saw some interesting flowers and critters while traversing some tough terrain:

 

June6-5After lunch of spaghetti and garlic bread, we pulled anchor and were going to pass through the Peril Strait and Sergious Narrows, to get us closer to Sitka.

This is one of the narrower passageways, and is often a place to see wildlife along the shore and in the water.  Not so much today – it was, again, rainy and foggy.  Lou was kind enough to brave the elements to get some photos for our scrapbook:

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My dinner selection was outstanding – it was fish, and was very tasty (can’t remember exactly what it was).  I forgot to take a photo, but our server managed to get a picture of the last serving.  I thought the food was very good on this ship, but Lou gives the nod to the Wilderness Discoverer.  It may be that I stuck mostly to the fish entrees and they were almost all excellent.

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Dessert was a favorite, as well (you can see the cold is not affecting my appetite):

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The evening’s entertainment was by Gabriella, the Wellness Instructor.  She is also a singer, and she entertained us with folk songs and ballads – she is very good, and it was an enjoyable evening.  Ellie, an expedition guide, accompanied her (as did another member of the crew – I think his name was Dan).

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And, that is it for this short review of Day 6 of our last Un-Cruise Adventure week.  The weather had cleared by late in the evening:

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Even More 6/5: “We are Just a Crouton in a Bowl of Whale Soup…”

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Dick made the comment in the title of this post as we were surrounded by humpbacks; he said he’d heard one of the guides use the phrase last week. It was most appropriate this evening.

It was now 6:20pm, and no one was thinking about dinner.  We watched the line of humpbacks, not sure how many there really were; Three? Four? Five?  At times, maybe six.

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Oops, there’s one close to the ship:

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Remembering to check out the scenery, and not just the whale show:

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We also saw a barge toting boats, trucks, and other goods – probably the only option for some, since so many areas in Alaska are not connected by roads:

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One thing that stood out about this evening’s adventure was how often we saw at least two whales close together.  At times, it looked like they were playing follow-the-leader.

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It was time to go in for a quick bite to eat, and then hurry back outside.  Another quick look at the mountains and the blows against the shoreline:

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Wait a minute?  What’s that?  Ha!  You didn’t get away this time:

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Let’s straighten you up:

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We kept scanning for another breach – sometimes a humpback will breach more than once – and rarely more than a hundred times! That didn’t happen, but that’s okay.  Scientists don’t know for sure why whales breach – it may be to wash off parasites, to communicate, or just because they’re feeling frisky.

We enjoyed the next hour watching the fun.  And, in case you’re wondering, I did put the camera down every so often to just enjoy the sights.  A few more photos:

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At 8pm, we saw the Island Princess arriving.  They were late to the party, but maybe they’d seen whales elsewhere, since there seemed to be so many.

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No time to worry about the cruise ship, we had more buddy activity to watch:

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The Island Princess came close enough so we could see they were watching the new Disney “Oz” movie on their big screen. There weren’t a lot of people out on deck or at their balconies.  One good thing about this interruption – Lou said we did get a cell phone signal while they were in the vicinity.

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It was almost 9pm when we said good night to both the Island Princess and the whales.

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A goodnight shot from the last dynamic duo of the evening:

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Another day exceeds expectations! Thank you, Lou – this has been the best birthday present ever.

 

I went to bed with visions of leaping whales …

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More 6/5: Triple Play in Icy Strait

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Back out on the bow of the boat, we were watching the Kittiwakes – they were just sitting there, then all of a sudden there would be a big ruckus and they would fly around.  Jeremy, one of our expedition guides, explained there was a Parasitic Jaeger bothering them.  The Jaeger’s M.O. is to wait until the kittiwake has done the hard work of catching a fish, then it goes after it – trying to get it to drop the fish.

I focused on different kittiwakes, hoping to get them in the act of catching a fish:

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No luck, but I did finally see the Jaeger and started tracking him:

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Son of a gun – Jeremy was right!  Didn’t even see the fish in the Kittiwake’s beak until I was looking at the photos.  Here’s another lucky shot:

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About this time, we spotted the National Geographic Sea Lion.  We were curious about how long it would hang around, wanting to compare it to our Un-Cruise style.  But, we got distracted and forgot to notice when it left the area.

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WARNING:  The rest of this post and the next one are about whales.  There are lots of photos.  If you are tired of Whales, you can skip ahead to the post after the next one.

 

After fun with Jaeger, it was time to get back to serious business – watching the whales.  Where to look?  There were blows in several directions.  This one caught my eye:

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That’s 4 whales, maybe 5, in a row, and possibly some back by the shore line.  This is almost too much.  We watch the conga line for a while to see what happens:

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That was fun – just one whale tail after another.

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This looks interesting:

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Wow – a Triple!  Synchronized fluking for the win.  Unbelievable.

A different type of triple:

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Shall we go for a quadruple play?

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Not lucky enough to see that, but it was still awesome:

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And then, the whales are practically on top of us:

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They’re circling – maybe we’ll see bubble net feeding:

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Lou stepped in to help out and take a few wide angle shots, showing the circling throng:

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No luck with the bubble net, but who cares?  This guy showed us his pretty side:

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They just wouldn’t stop  …

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Everyone is mesmerized:

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Let’s take a break, and when we come back, we’ll finish up the night in Icy Strait.

 

6/5: A Rainy Day in Idaho

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Lou confirmed we were going to be in Idaho Inlet for the morning, then headed to Icy Strait later in the afternoon.  We were still moving at 5am, and the weather didn’t look too promising.

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Our agenda for today included just one activity.  As usual, we picked the Skiff Tour (predictably boring, I know).  I had considered switching to one of the hikes, but thought better of it.  Good thing – today one of the groups got stuck by a tidal change and had to ford a waist-high stream.  We probably wouldn’t have enjoyed that.

 

Here are a couple more photos as we cruised to our anchorage:

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June5-10Cinnamon French Toast was a good start to what was going to be a rainy day.  I think Lou slept in this morning – I know he decided to skip the Skiff Tour, having had too much fun the previous day.  I was excited about today’s tour.  While waiting, we heard the guides talking on the two-way radios about seeing three bears along the shoreline.

Here goes one of the hiking groups: June5-11

 

June5-13My Skiff Tour didn’t leave until 11:30am, so there was time to take a few more photos of the kayaks.  I asked one of the crew members if he would mind putting the green one in amongst all the red and yellow ones (see photo on left) – he looked at me strangely, but said, “sure.”  I explained I was just kidding, but it was nice that he actually considered it.

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Two groups were doing a serious kayak paddle and hiking trip today.  They took a boxed lunch with them, and after kayaking to some distant point on shore, they further punished themselves by hiking in the rain.  The plan was for us to pick them up on our way to Icy Strait after lunch.

Finally into the Skiff Tour, and we’d heard the bears were still out there.  Here is Indy, our guide, looking for the bears:

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On the way to the bear hunt, we saw both an otter and a curious harbor seal – not sure if the photos show it, but it was raining now…

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Indy spots one of the rumored bears:

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That’s not a very good photo, is it?  I wasn’t worried, we were planning to get much closer (but still maintain a safe distance and not disturb the bears).

Ker Plunk !!!  Uh Oh !!!  We hit something out in the middle of the small cove – don’t know whether it was a rock or a tree root, but that put the kabosh on trying to navigate any closer to the bears.  Oh well, time to go back to the ship and dry off.

 

After lunch, we were cruising out of Idaho Inlet.  We passed some kayaks on the shore … hope nobody got lost.

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It was close to 2pm when we spotted some wet, but apparently happy, kayakers hitching a ride.  Someone (one of their spouses, I believe) suggested taking a vote to see if we should pick them up or not, but consensus was they deserved a ride after all their hard work.

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We saw more otters as we cruised towards Icy Strait – the waterway was not too wide, so it was easier to spot the otters:

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Thar She Blows !!!  At 4:30pm, we saw our first humpbacks.  It was still raining, but not too much – not enough to keep the serious whale watchers inside, at least.

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We had a good show for the next 10-15 minutes as there were several humpbacks diving near the shore.  And then, I saw something just a little bit different.   This humpback wasn’t diving; he was slapping his fin – also called a peck slap.  I’ve read this can be a form of communication.

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I may just be easily amused, but this made me happy – we’d now seen tail slapping and fin slapping.  And then there was that breach we almost saw last week …

Just five minutes after the fin slapper, we had a humpback come fairly close to the ship.  While there are separation distances you must maintain when watching the whales (and other wildlife), the whales don’t always follow the rules.  This one did the classic gather up and dive routine:

We’d seen this before – many times.  But, this one gave us the best look at the pattern on the underside of its fluke; like our finger prints, the fluke pattern is unique to each humpback whale and allows researchers to identify them:

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Less than five minutes after the fluke display, we heard a cry for “Orcas!”  They were in front of the ship – not close, but we could see them with a lot of zoom:

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As we got closer, we could see there were at least 5, maybe 6.  The sea lions slumbering on the buoy didn’t seem in the least concerned as the killer whales circled them.

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More shots of the Orcas:

Several of us got a photo of the little one, when he popped out of the water for just a second:

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Not bad for a rainy day that didn’t start out too promising.  I put the camera down and took a break for a while – Lou enjoys wildlife photography, but he confessed to me later that he found the whales on the boring side: “They come up, they go down … over and over again.”  He was a good sport, and did pop out every so often to see what was happening.  We heard we were going to hang around Icy Strait into the evening, so there might be more action later on.