Monday, August 2

Damp and disappointing Juneau

Juneau is the state capital of Alaska. It’s home to 31,000 people and is completely land-locked; access can be gained only by boat or air. It’s a rather drab city, punctuated by the occasional monolithic government building or dramatic pork-barrel funded public space, and every street corner seems to host a poorly lit, foreboding bar. In fact the only building of note is the Governor’s sparkling, white mansion nestled on a green hillside overlooking downtown. It came as no surprise to later learn that there have been numerous attempts to move the state capital elsewhere.

Given such an uninviting aspect we spent most of our time out of town visiting its most popular sights. Mendenhall Glacier was our first excursion. This 12-mile river of ice flows down to sea-level from the nearby Juneau Ice Field and can be reached by road less than 15 minutes from downtown Juneau. As we arrived at its well appointed visitors centre the clouds closed in and rain began to fall, giving the glacier a rather mystical look.

This is a glacier in fall retreat. Seventy years ago its face was located where today’s visitor’s centre can be found. Since then Mendenhall has retreated several kilometres up the valley and can only be reached via a tqo kilometre walking track. We decided we’d been spoilt by Iceland’s dramatic glaciers where we’d literally driven up to the face of more than one glacier. Mendenhall Glacier simply wasn’t as noteworthy as guidebooks had us believe. For Garry the highlight of our visit was the moment he spotted a juvenile beaver swimming in its reached dammed lake.

Our next stop was everything we’d hoped it would be. We caught a whale-watching tour out to Stephens Passage. The water was unbelievably calm as the evening tide reached its peak. Even the locals were commenting on its glassy appearance. Incredibly, tides along the Panhandle coast fluctuate almost five metres between the high and low mark. Sadly, despite ideal whale watching conditions the usually reliable passage generated no whale sightings. Our boat soon moved on towards to Vanderbilt Reef. Here the ultimate nature show unfolded.

We arrived as a pod of Humpback Whales were engaged in bubble-net fishing. These normally solitary creatures team up every Summer to herd schools of herring in ever tighter clusters before dining on them in a dramatic ambush. First, the whales dive below the fish, then circle them with a curtain of bubbles blown from their blowholes. The bubble-net is drawn tighter and tighter until one whale calls out to the others. Then, in unison, the pod rise open-mouthed, swallowing the haplessly corralled fish above then. Finally, the ascending whales breech the surface in a dramatic swirl of white foaming water, often leaping high into the air.

Each dramatic surface breech was followed by several minutes of noisy recovery breathing, with dorsal fins and blowhole spray repeatedly breaking the surface. Then, one by one, each whales would prepare for a deep dive with a slow, elegant flick of its tail flukes. Alaska is the only place in the world where humpback whales feed in this manner. We watched mesmerised for almost half an hour as the pod repeated this spectacular feeding ritual again and again.

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