Humpbacks galore on Juneau shore excursion

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Humpback sighting in Stephens Passage on a whale-watching tour with Gastineau Guiding.
Humpback sighting in Stephens Passage on a whale-watching tour with Gastineau Guiding. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Cunard Line, which returned to Alaska this year after a two-decade absence, is hosting destinations editor Eric Moya aboard the Queen Elizabeth for a 10-day sailing.

To my group on yesterday's shore excursion: Sorry again for being late. Also, you're welcome.

Regarding the former: Just some confusion on the part of a first-time cruiser who hadn't anticipated the gangway traffic jam that awaited him on Deck 3, particularly since the previous day's disembarkation had been a breeze. Of course, part of that might have been because several excursions in Ketchikan had been canceled due to rain, whereas in Juneau we were graced with mostly sunny skies.

Regarding the latter: So what gives me the temerity? I hate being late when I'm traveling, and the worst part is the walk of shame onto the bus. (It's a rare occurrence, I swear.) I'm not sure my five-minute delay merited a crossed-arms death stare from that woman in the second row whose disapproval eerily evoked my fourth-grade teacher, but I guess I had it coming. Idling in a bus is no fun, and a timid (but sincere!) "sorry" from the offender probably doesn't count for much.

Straggler seated, off we went for our afternoon with Gastineau Guiding on a five-hour photography tour in search of humpbacks, wrapping up with a quick hike to view the Mendenhall Glacier. It was about a 20-minute ride to the pier, during which our guide Skip told us what to expect during the day, shared a few of his own stunning photos and offered an incredibly succinct tutorial on photography fundamentals.

Captain Mac, who like Skip sported some considerable camera firepower of his own, invited us onboard and explained some of the rules that tour boats must obey: Don't get within 100 yards of a whale, don't linger in one spot for more than a half-hour and so on. Even though it was billed as a photography tour, there weren't many shutterbugs onboard. Skip sat with one man to offer setting suggestions for the guest's newly acquired Sony mirrorless. I was ready with my Canon SLR and zoom lens.

We didn't have to wait long. Fifteen or so minutes into our ride, we got word that orcas had been sighted nearby. We stopped to wait for one; it wouldn't end up surfacing very much, but its signature, eye-like white marking peeked out long enough for me to get a shot.

After lingering for a few minutes more, off we went, and then the real show began. There must have been three or four pairs of humpbacks, mothers and calves: a couple within easy binocular distance and one or two just over 100 yards away from our boat. Captain Mac, as giddy as his 11 passengers, steered around to get some mountains within view, the perfect backdrop for a particularly boisterous pair. They ended up putting on quite a show for us, and most of us got a full-breach shot or two; even smartphone and tablet users were getting Instagram-worthy pics.

Skip's photo tips echoed in my brain, Obi-Wan-like: rule of thirds, mind your shutter speed, don't forget the background and foreground.

The whale show died down, and Captain Mac started the engines. With the luck our group was having, he said he figured our Mendenhall walk would be equally epic: "You'll probably see a porcupine riding on an iceberg," he joked.

Mendenhall, one of my favorite stops from my 2015 Alaska trip, proved to be a pleasant way to wrap things up, but the humpback sightings were hard to top. We took a few pics of the glacier and waterfall and made our way back to the bus for the drive to our cruise ship.

I made a beeline to Tracy's Crab Shack for a quick bite before returning to the Queen Elizabeth and ran into some of my fellow passengers who had opted for a different excursion. Their hike had proven somewhat anticlimactic, they confessed. Captain Mac's exuberance seemed to indicate that ours was truly an exceptional excursion, but that's the nature of Alaska. Weather can change on a dime, and animals certainly aren't waiting for you to figure out your camera settings.

Now, might we have been treated to that humpback extravaganza had a certain travel writer made it to the bus on time? Maybe, maybe not.

I'm going with not.

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