Juneau Alaska - Whale Watching and Hiking

Our second port stop was in the capital city of Alaska, Juneau! We ended up really liking Juneau. We had a full day to explore, from first thing in the morning to a n evening departure, and we made the most of our time. We explored the town for a bit; booked a whale watching trip that fully lived up to expectations; explored some more; took the gondola to the top of the local mountain and did some hiking, and even managed to relax and have a beer on a patio. It was a full, fun day!

This was the view we woke up to, after docking in Juneau during the night.

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After a night a sea, we awoke docked in Juneau. The side of the ship we were on was faced away from the dock, and we had a view out to Douglas Island that forms part of the city. Juneau is the capital city of Alaska, and it is the second largest city in the United States by area. Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, and has a population of just over 30,000. 

Downtown Juneau is nestled at the base of Mount Juneau, and the city is land locked, in that there are no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska or to the rest of North America. The absence of a road network is due to the extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city. This in turn makes Juneau a de facto island city in terms of transportation, since all goods coming in and out must go by plane or boat.

When we woke up, there were 2 other cruise ships docked at the same time. One left in the morning, but we were told that up to 5 cruise ships can be in port at a time, which can add almost 50% to the city's population. 

Instead of having breakfast on our deck, we went down to the main dining room and had a full on breakfast. The food was excellent again, and we started the morning off quite slowly. After breakfast we headed back to our room to get ready for a very busy day. From the balcony, you could see tons of salmon jumping in the bay. Our whale watching tour was booked for 10:30, so even after a slow start we had a couple of hours to explore.

 A view of downtown Juneau as we came off the ship.

A view of downtown Juneau as we came off the ship.

Downtown Juneau is quite nice. A little touristy, but enough old and interesting things to see. We walked up a few of the streets, and identified some things that we wanted to check out when we got back from our tour. 

At 10:30 we hooked up with our group and they put us on a small bus to head out to the harbour where the whale watching boat was moored. It was a bit further out than I expected, but it did take a lot of distance off, when I looked at a map later. Our initial view of the boat we were going out on was... questionable. But I have to say, it ended up being a perfect boat for the trip. Flat and stable, with lots of big windows that opened and deck areas fore and aft, it ended up being perfect. They seem to know what they're doing... We had another perfect weather day - not a cloud in the sky - and the seas were calm.

 This ship was moored just outside the harbour - not a bad set-up...

This ship was moored just outside the harbour - not a bad set-up...

After our safety briefing, we were on our way. Both the captain and our naturalist seemed quite good, and they kept us entertained the whole trip. I never realized how many glaciers there were in the area, but we had spectacular views of them most of the trip.

I don't remember the names of the various glaciers, but this was pretty typical of the scenery.

The views as we headed out of the harbour were breathtaking. 

I love this picture - so perfectly captures what we were seeing.

As we headed out of the harbour, our guides set the expectations on what we'd see. The focus was on humpbacks, but they expected we'd see some porpoises, sea lions and seals. When asked about orcas, the response was "maybe 10% of the time we see orcas".

It didn't take long for us to see our first porpoises, and even a harbour seal. But within 5 minutes of being told there wouldn't be orcas, this is what we got

It was a small pod of what we were told were transient orcas. Transients are the ones that hunt marine mammals. There were 3 or 4 - not 100% clear on that - and we think it was a female with a couple of generations of young ones. They were very close to the ship, and gave us a good showing. We followed at a respectable distance as they worked their way fairly close to shore.

Not far from the orcas a few stellar sea lions were playing in the water. At some point they must have become aware of the orcas, because all of a sudden they made a beeline for shore, splashing and making a racket as they went. It was pretty entertaining - not for them I'm sure!

Orcas on the hunt.

I'm not sure this scene could be any more perfect.

At one point, mom decided it was time to teach the young ones some tricks. We got a short display of her tail, which I had never seen with orcas before. Very cool!

The things got serious as mom decided it was time to teach some hunting skills. There were some Dall's porpoise in the area and all of a sudden the small pod was on the move. Our captain thought that they were hunting, and that they might have made a kill. It wasn't obvious at first, but there was some splashing, some interesting behaviour from the whales. And then when I got home and looked at my photos, it became clear that they had indeed killed one of the porpoises.

Three of the orcas after the hunt. If you look at the one on the left, you can see a splash of pink at the water line.

Zoomed in, you can see there's something that it's pushing along, I think left over from the kill. I think mom was teaching some life skills.

We got one last tail wave before we had to move on and leave the orcas to their hunting.

Our captain decided it was time to move on to look for humpbacks. There was more spectacular scenery along the way, but it only took another 10 or 15 minutes before we saw our first humpbacks. Once again, we were treated to amazing scenery, in addition to the whales. We've been whale watching in Hawaii a number of times, and there's quite a difference in behaviour - even though they might be the same whales. Hawaii is about breeding; Alaska is about feeding. I think we saw three separate individual whales, but no really interesting behaviour. 

One whale was cruising along the shoreline, and got quite close to the boat. You could really see the colour and pattern to the skin.

We got quite close to this one.

I think this one is cool - you can really see the blowhole as he drifted along the surface.

The GPS trail of where we went on our whale watching wxcursion.

Humpbacks have two blowholes, and you can seem them both quite clearly here.

Going for a dive.

Eventually we needed to turn the boat around and head back to port. We had been treated to non-stop action, and none of us wanted to head back. But our time was up. As we made out way back, the captain noted this sea lion snoozing on the buoy - even with the bell ringing non-stop in the waves!

After getting back to the dock we headed up to the bus. There was a huge bald eagle just sitting on a railing in the parking lot. So cool... On the way back into Juneau, the bus stopped at a view point with a nice view of the Mendenhall Glacier. The Mendenhall Glacier is a glacier about 22 km long located in Mendenhall Valley, about 19 km from downtown Juneau. The Juneau Icefield Research Program has monitored the outlet glaciers of the Juneau Icefield since 1942, including Mendenhall Glacier. The glacier has retreated 2.82 km since 1929, when Mendenhall Lake was created. 

We decided not to take a trip up to the glacier this time, and instead decided to explore a bit of the city.

The Mendenhall Glacier, from a bit if a distance.

We were a bit hungry at this point, so we decided to walk up to a brewery that we noted in town, up one of the interesting side streets. The brewery was called Devil's Club Brewing, named after the plant. We had a flight of beers (they were quite good) and ordered a pizza for lunch. The pizza was really good and hit the spot.

The brewery was quite nice - very new by the looks of it - and the beer they were making was good. A little behind where Vancouver is in terms of styles of beer, but still nice. The layout of the place worked well, and I was almost convinced to buy one of their growlers to bring home.

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We walked back along the touristy section, and ended up buying a couple of shirts from a local vendor that had some really great designs. Mine is a grizzly, and it quickly has become one of my favouites. 

Downtown Juneau

With our dinner reservation on the ship not being until 8:30, we had quite a lot of time to explore after getting back. We had debated going up on the tram, and decided to do it. 

Our chariot to the top of the mountain!

The Mount Roberts Tramway makes a six-minute ascent of 3,819-foot (1,164 m) Mount Roberts from the cruise ship docks (just feet above sea level) to a height of about 1,800 feet (550 m). A restaurant, theater, nature center and retail shops are located at the top of the tramway, as well as connections to trails leading both up and down the mountain. We decided to do a short hike to see the views, and get some exercise after days of not doing a whole lot.

The GPS trail of our short hike. What I love about the Google Maps image is the cruise ships docked below the nountain, and how big they are!

There was a relatively short "nature trail" that looped around from the visitor center at the top. It wasn't overly strenuous, but did offer some spectacular views off in many directions. There were people paragliding off the top as well - looked really cool, but I still don't understand how you learn to do it... On the hike we were hoping for bears (struck out) but had to settle for bald eagles, hummingbirds and one very small/young marmot.

Doing the hike worked up quite a bit of a thirst. So we headed to the restaurant had had a beer on the patio. Our waitress was quite the character, and regaled us with some interesting stories. The main restaurant was having the 60th high school reunion for what would have been the only high school in Juneau - Class of '58 - and it was surprisingly well attended. 

One last view of Juneau, or at least the section of it near the ships.

After making our way back down on the tram, we headed back to the ship to get cleaned up for dinner. As we were getting ready, there were a ton of fish jumping, and the little harbour was super-busy with sea planes. They seemed to be taking off and landing every few minutes. 

From the balcony, we saw a pigeon guillemot doing a little bit of fishing. It seemed to catch something, but had a hard time swallowing it. Eventually if took off (very awkward fliers), taking the fish with it.

The ship departed from Juneau as we were sitting on the balcony, before heading down for dinner. The seaplane take off route took them directly over the ship, and it seemed like we were getting buzzed by them. We sat and watched the scenery go by for a while.vWe went and had another excellent dinner, and then went back to our room 

After dinner we tried sitting on the balcony again for a while. But it was bitterly cold, and we didn't last too long. We were treated to another nice sunset as we headed to our final stop in Ketchikan. 

Sunset as we headed out from Juneau.