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Fyllis: Alaska Part 2
Alaska - Part II:
A Whale of a Good Time

Story by Fyllis Hockman

he cry goes out -- orcas on right, 9 o'clock -- and I tried desperately to spot a spout or tail or fin a mile and a half out. Still, it was the closest I'd ever come to a whale up to now, and I could be patient.

Looking around at my fellow passengers aboard the Orca Enterprises, a three-and-a half-hour whale-watching expedition in Juneau, Alaska, I realized that the idea of seeing a whale was almost as exciting as the actual viewing of a fin or part of the flank. Tourists look at an unidentifiable part in the blink of an eye -- and it doesn't dim their enthusiasm any. Still they shout out: "Wow, did you see that? It's huge!"

breaching humpback whale, Alaska

Cameras and binoculars consistently point at where the whale just was in hopes of catching him there when he reappears, like paparazzi shooting a celebrity, but of course he's moved -- so the vigil starts again at the next fleeting exposure. And then occasionally, one surfaces enough to actually confirm you've seen a whale -- and you think, "Yes, now that's what I'm talking about."

Captain Larry whose beard extended almost to his navel and whose tall tales were almost as long as his beard entertained us with seafaring trivia while naturalist and whale researcher Jack astounded us with whale-watching lore. And as an unexpected aside, the safety briefing included more detailed and amusing instructions on how to use the head than one usually is privy to…so to speak.

glacier, Alaska

The Orca or killer whale, we learned, is actually the world's biggest dolphin. They are the social butterflies of the whale world and hang out together in family "pods"; the much larger, more independent Humpback tend to travel alone or in loose-knit groups. Unlike all their other ocean-dwelling neighbors, they don't worry much about predators -- their most feared stalker is Sea World.

I was beginning to feel a little frustration at the evasive nature of the Orca. After all, this was called a whale-watching tour, not a whale-glimpsing one. Thank goodness for the humpbacks! Weighing in at the size of a large boat -- as much as 50 feet long and tipping the scales at 40 tons -- these babies can put on quite a show.

All we saw at first was a sliver of black. Then a wayward spiral of spray caught everyone's attention. With experience, the eager onlookers recognized this as a prelude to an impressive denouement: the huge tail kicked up -- wavered teasingly -- and then sleekly disappeared. Pandemonium broke out on deck -- and that alone made the whole trip worthwhile. The fact that this first-rate act continued to occur at about 8 minute intervals was just a bonus. It also made the Humpback a lot more predictable than the Orca and thus much easier to see -- and cheer about.

tail of a breaching humpback whale protruding above the water, Alaska

Jack, who narrated much of the goings-on, clearly enjoyed what he was doing even after years of whale watching and research. He explained that many of the whales who visit Alaska every year hail from Maui where they spend the winter. Smart whales. Also smart Jack, who winters there as well, studying the very same whales in both habitats. He identified the most active Humpback as Flame, an old friend of his from Maui, and the mother of four baby whales.

Now the folks on my tour didn't witness this particular activity but I understand that it is a frequent part of many whale-watching tours. The "bubble-netting" feeding technique is used by humpback whales who gather together and blow air through their air-holes in order to herd schools of small fish into a tight ball through which the whales then plunge. Rumor has it it's quite a feat -- and feast -- to watch!

Another rumor states that the most spectacular whale-watching experience in Alaska is the annual gray whale migration. Every year, some 20,000 gray whales make their way from their winter hideaways to the cold-water feeding grounds of the Bering Sea. From the end of March until early May, these giant transient visitors can be easily observed from a variety of whale watching cruises, large and small. Something to look forward to on my next trip.

But whales were not the sole attraction on this expedition. Bald eagles in Alaska are as plentiful as pigeons in New York but that doesn't diminish their majesty in flight. Stellar sea lions, the largest of the seal populace, can be seen lounging on the rocks along the shoreline, bleating and bellowing so loud as to drown out the boat's very noisy motor.

sea lions on rocks, Alaska

Then attention diverted to harbor seals, several dozen of which were swimming along the shore, their heads bobbing in the water like little brown, slippery Jacks in the Box. They, however, were a lot less enamored of the whales than we were as the orcas are their most common predator. And so story and nature come full-circle: both the harbor seals and I were watching the whales closely, but for very different reasons.

a group of seals in the water, Alaska

For more information, visit; the price for the 3 ½-hour tour is $125 (including tax) per adult, $93 per child, 5-12 years. (Without tax, the figures are $119 and $89 respectively.)

Related Articles:
Denali National Park; Denali National Park video; Alaska's Interior; Alaska Marine Highway; Tongass Rain Forest, Alaska; Return to Alaska; Alaska Small Ship Cruise

(Posted 4-15-2012)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Three Musical Pilgrimages: Mozart, Grieg and Hendrix

Troldhaugen Villa in Bergen, Norway
Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) could read and compose music, plus play the violin and piano, when he was five years old. Born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria (then the Holy Roman Empire), he had a unique ability for imitating music, which first became evident when he recited a musical piece by simply observing his father conducting a lesson to his older sister. This led to a childhood on the road, where the young prodigy performed before many of the royal courts of Europe.

Go There

Tom Weber's travel blog/review
Treasures of Ireland: The Irish Goodbye (Dispatch #20)

Irish sunset

The Palladian Traveler brings to a close his 20-part series on the Emerald Isle from an upscale restaurant in downtown Dublin where he files his final dispatch and then quietly slips away.

Go There

John Clayton's travel blog/review
Two "MUST SEE" Truly Spectacular Places in Europe. Here's Why.

Culzean Castle, Scotland
The Han Grotto and Culzean Castle. As the name of my Traveling Boy feature is "Travel With a Difference," it's important to me to always bring you offbeat and unusual tourist places around the world you may not know about. These two fit that category to a T, and they're absolutely worth a visit. One's in Scotland and one's in Belgium. Culzean (pronounced CULLANE) Castle is located near Maybole, Carrick, on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland.

go there

Ringo Boitano's travel blog/review
Highway 49 Revisited: Exploring California's Gold Country

aurora borealis lights up the night sky near Fairbanks
In the 1840s, the population of California was only 14,000, but by 1850 more than 100,000 settlers and adventurers had arrived from all over the world – and they came for one reason: gold. James Marshall had discovered the first gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in El Dorado County, creating the largest gold rush in history.

go there

Eric Anderson's travel blog/review
Lake Charles’ Family-Size Low-Key Mardi Gras

dressed-up for the Mardi Gras
The Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, the second largest in Louisiana, does not need parents there to avert their children’s eyes. This is family entertainment and children are very much part of it. The main office of the Lake Charles CVB has costumes from last year’s Mardi Gras but it also has figures to fascinate little ones from country boys fishing for their dinner to alligators who have already fed and are rubbing their stomachs.

go there

Fyllis Hockman's travel blog/review
Puerto Vallarta: Magic and Mayhem on the Malecon

Cedar Hill, Washington DC
So I heard that you could spend from dawn to dusk on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and never get bored and I thought, "Okay, I'm up for that challenge." Well, maybe not the dawn part – I'm not a morning person – so I had no problem leaving those early hours to the joggers and those seeking an early start to catch their red snapper for dinner.

Go There

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