Juneau – of Whales Tails, salmon bake and blueberry cake

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September 11th 2018
Published: September 14th 2018
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Skagway to Juneau

Did I tell you that Juneau is the state capital of Alaska? What is unique about this city is that it is completely cut off from the rest of Alaska. There are no roads in or out of Juneau. The city is completely surrounded by thousands of square miles of ice fields. Everything has to be either shipped in or flown in. There are highways that travel around the fjords but all the settlements are part of the Juneau environs. This is a city of about 32,000 inhabitants and has an area of 3,081 square miles so must be a contender for one of the most sparsely populated cities in the world.

We docked in Juneau at 7:00am. We managed to sleep through to 8:00 so we guess the jet lag is starting to wear off and our bodies are neutralising to the change in time difference!!

The stateroom TV has many infomercials about the places we are visiting but this morning, the TV stood silent on top of the shelf. No amount of pressing the remote control or pointing it toward the TV at varying angles would turn this ‘sucker’ on. After breakfast I popped down to the Customer Service to report the fault. Whilst waiting for my turn in line, I couldn’t help overhearing a rather irate passenger ranting at the Customer Relations Manager. The passenger was holding Princess Cruises responsible that they should have a duty of care not let someone rack up $5,000 debt in the casino. It turns out his partner had gone a little crazy last night and blew five Grand at the ship’s roulette wheel and black jack table. The manager tried to explain that a charge is made to a debit/credit card each evening rather than at the end of the cruise to ensure any debts can be honoured. The manager sounded quite unsympathetic but at the same time remained professional and courteous throughout whereas I would not be able to contain myself from laughing so hard the tears would be streaming down my legs!! This was the best laugh and entertainment I’d had in ages (apart from writing these blogs!!)

Roisin and I only book excursions if there’s something special we want to see and if difficult to arrange oneself. This was one of those occasions. Another bucket list item ticked off – Whale watching in Alaska. This particular excursion also ended up at a salmon bake at a nearby salmon farm.

Our tour started at 1pm so we had a leisurely morning onboard winning yet another trivia. We were taken by coach for the twenty-five-minute drive to the nearby marina at Auke Bay and introduced to Kate, our marine biologist and guide as well as our Captain for the duration. The boat was a modest size that held about 40 passengers. The whole of the cabin was enclosed with large retractable windows down each side. There was a small aft deck that became accessible to passengers after we had reached our destination!!

The boat headed for a spot about six miles off shore where this particular part of the fjord narrowed, forming a straight before opening out in to a wider arm. The whales are currently looking for food prior to making a 3000-mile migration to warmer climates such as Hawaii and Mexico where the cows (female whales) will give birth to their calves. The mother will then nurse and ween the baby whale until it is fit enough and old enough to fend for itself whilst the father, not at all paternal, will disappear in search of another mate!! The migration back to the Alaskan feeding grounds start the process all over again. The whales we expected to see today were hump back whales so called due to the shape of their tail and dorsal fins. These creatures can grow up to sixty feet and weigh anything up to sixty ton. The whales don’t have teeth (so we weren’t going to need a bigger boat!!) they have a fine filter instead. They open their mouth to consume thousands of pounds of small fish and krill at one time then raise their tongue to trap the tasty morsels before filtering all the water and other waste produce out through these fine strands of bone.

The boat crawled out of the bay and once clear of the buoy (pronounced boo-ee in these here parts) the captain pulled the throttle down and we experienced the most uncomfortable fifteen minutes of our lives. The boat flew across the water and every few seconds hit a large wave that the ship would smack against thus causing an almighty jolt.

When we finally came to a halt, the lady I was sat next to me turned and said in a deep south accent, ‘I think I got me some nice shots of that there glacier’.

‘That’s nice’, I said. ‘The only thing I think I’ve got from this trip so far is whiplash!!’

In the next ten minutes, several whales were spotted in the distance, practically on the horizon but like true tourists, everyone scrambled for that perfect shot. This is a bit rubbish, I thought to myself. It could be a bloke with a snorkel who has just come up for air!! Kate then mentioned that the whales like to play ping pong. When they dive they seem to know that the boats will sail toward the diving spot so the whales swim and come back up for air a mile or so away so she said we have to second guess what the whale is going to do.

We sailed out further in to the fjord. More whales were spotted, this time they were only a few hundred yards off the port stern. It seemed easier than expected to spot these gargantuan mammals. They would start with clearing their lungs by exhaling through the blow hole. The water you see is only surface water that is blasted up at almost 300 mph and vaporised. The whales will then arch their back and you know this is the time to zoom and focus as its dive, dive, dive!!!. During our 2 ½ hours in the bay we spotted numerous whales who, we were told, don’t have any predators in these parts so although they are mindful of the boat’s presence, they ignore them and go about their daily routine. Some whales are known by their special markings of their tail fins, a little bit like finger prints. Kate pointed out a few of the whales she recognised who, she said, feel like they’re showing off by putting in an exaggerated performance.

From the bay we also had a great view of Mendenhall glacier. It is twelve miles long, half a mile wide and a staggering eighteen hundred feet deep in some places. It starts in the Juneau ice fields ending in the Mendenhall Lake. It has been slowly retreating since the 1700s.

On our way back to port, we spotted a family of sea lions sun bathing on a red buoy (there’s that word again – boo-ee!!) These animals can spend hours in the water but they are, after all, warm blooded so no matter what their metaphysical makeup is, sooner or later their body temperature will drop so they quite often take refuge ashore to heat up their bodies again.

Once back on land we were driven to a Salmon farm for a Salmon bake. A Salmon bake is an authentic Alaskan dining experience in a unique environment. In this instance we were shown the catering facilities in a glen alongside a stream that led to a small waterfall. A local singer strummed her guitar while we ate. The tunes ranged from the Eagles Peaceful, easy Feeling to local Alaska folk songs about eagles swooping down and pinching your sandwiches!! Somehow, if I saw a bald eagle hurling toward me I wouldn’t protect my lunch as I would from a greedy seagull!! I would gladly offer my sarnies to the oncoming avian juggernaut by dropping them and getting the hell out of the way!!

After a cup of clam chowder, at the head of the all you can eat menu was the wood grilled salmon (there was also chicken available for those who weren’t aware what food to expect at a Salmon bake – and didn’t like fish!!) The salmon came with a brown sugar, butter and lemon juiceglaze. To accompany this freshest of fish, you could stock up from the fresh green salad bar, roast or/and mashed potatoes, grizzly bear baked beans, sourdough rolls and biscuits with gravy. Not the biscuits we’re used to (i.e. the cookie kind) but these are similar to scones in texture but are savoury and yummy!! What else but blueberry cake was on the menu for dessert washed down with tea or coffee. There was no rush to get rid. The tour was, in effect over, but the hospitality was still in full swing and you could stay at the Salmon bake for as long as you wished. We were several miles outside the port area but there were free shuttle buses to the ship running every ten minutes. We took our time so after our delicious meal, wandered up to the nearby waterfall.

Across from the waterfall viewing platform I spotted the entrance to a mine. The sign said Danger – do not enter.
Danger - do not enterDanger - do not enterDanger - do not enter

I'm always up for a challenge!!
It was Roisin who spotted the sign as I scrambled to get back over to the right side of the mine before anyone spotted me!!

The bright afternoon sun was now starting to disappear behind the outlying mountains so it was time to head back to the ship. The weather today had been sunny. The temperature had only reached 15°C but it felt much warmer. The locals say that we have been very lucky as Juneau is, for the most, always covered by a blanket of low-lying cloud and mist making it difficult to see any mountains. They have to tell visitors to ‘take their word for it that there are mountains out there somewhere!!’ Once again, we have been blessed with fine weather making todays experience even more unforgettable (in the good sort of way!!). There is nothing more vivid than the memories within. From a recent trivia experience I may have forgotten that Barbie was given a belly button for the first time in 2014 and not smaller tits and Roisin may have forgotten that Brussels is not a country; but the images from the whale watching and flavours experienced from the Salmon Bake will stay with us for years to come!!

Additional photos below
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16th September 2018

Selling the Alaskan cruise Chris with your brilliant blog and great photos too.
16th September 2018

Selling the AlSkan cruise
Glad you’re enjoying it Lynne. I would certainly recommend Alaska as a cruise destination at least once in you’re lifetime!!

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