Humpback whales are so quintessential to Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage that I was surprised when we didn't stop to see any on the first day of our cruise in Glacier Bay National Park on the National Geographic Quest. Like most of the small ships, the National Geographic Quest has an open bridge. We had a wonderful Captain and Chief Mate who warmly chatted with guests whenever we visited. They explained that there are a lot of very specific rules for ships traveling in the National Park, among them that they can't change course or stop for whales in the park. We had to admire them from a distance.
That being said, Glacier Bay National Park was only the first day and we were able to stop throughout the remainder of the cruise whenever we encountered whales who didn't mind our presence. Most didn't as the whales we saw were often eating. They would stay by the surface, turning on their sides to gather huge mouthfuls of water, plankton and small fish that would get strained through their baleen.
Since our presence was not disrupting their behavior, we were able to sit and watch the whales for sometime, even positioning the ship with a lovely rainbow behind us on one of our sightings.
The National Geographic ships particularly emphasize quality naturalists. Their lectures didn't disappoint. My favorite was National Geographic Explorer Chris Cilfone who spends his winters off the coast of Maui leading a film crew documenting the humpback whales there. They free dive with the whales without scuba equipment that can distract the whales from their normal behaviors. He showed us some of the incredible video and images that his team has been able to gather as part of this Kohola Film Project. Chris also interested us to HappyWhale.Com, a site where citizen scientists can share their fluke photos. Flukes, like fingerprints, have unique markings, and Happy Whale's software can match citizen scientist's photos with their database to identify other instances when that whale has been spotted as well as any distinguishing characteristics. For example, Chris helped me identify this fluke photo I took to be 'Clay', a female that was first spotted in 2004.
Whales are such a part of life in Southeast Alaska, that Juneau commissioned this gorgeous sculpture in their city park to commemorate 50 years of statehood.