Picture-perfect excursions in Juneau, Sitka

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Passengers spot a humpback whale during Allen Marine Tours’ Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest.
Passengers spot a humpback whale during Allen Marine Tours’ Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

During my Alaska cruise with Cunard Line late last spring, a few of the crew members were practically apologetic about the weather; earlier in the sailing season, previous Queen Elizabeth passengers had apparently lucked out with sunnier skies than we were encountering on our mid-June itinerary.

But if some of my photos were ending up with gray skies instead of blue, I wasn’t particularly bothered. In fact, the unpredictability of an Alaska sailing was part of the charm, I figured.

Of course, passengers spending their hard-earned money for shore excursions might feel otherwise. Luckily, nature overall proved surprisingly cooperative during our times in port, especially when it came to wildlife sightings.

For our call in Juneau, I chose the Whale Watching and Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari conducted by Gastineau Guiding. Our five-hour excursion ($215 per passenger) would mostly be spent in search of humpbacks; that would be followed by a quick hike in the Tongass National Forest to view the Mendenhall Glacier.

All of this was under the tutelage of Skip Gray, our guide and photography coach. During the 20-minute ride from the cruise ship dock to the pier where we would begin our excursion, he shared a few of his own photos (his work has appeared in National Geographic) and offered a short but thorough tutorial on photography fundamentals.

Surprisingly, though I’d spotted plenty of passengers with high-end cameras on the decks of the Queen Elizabeth, there weren’t many photography enthusiasts on this excursion. One passenger with a brand-new, high-end camera benefited from the extra attention from Skip, who advised the passenger that a high shutter speed (1/1000 of a second) would best capture any breaches or other aquatic action we happened to encounter.

We arrived at the pier and were greeted by our captain, Mac Robinson, then boarded his boat, which comfortably sat our group of 11 guests. There was plenty of room to cross from port to starboard to get that perfect pic, and the passenger windows opened wide, enabling great views for those who didn’t want to crowd the bow.

As we started our journey in the waters of Stephens Passage, Captain Mac shared two of the rules that tour boats must obey: Don’t get within 100 yards of a whale and don’t linger in one spot for more than a half-hour.

An orca spotted in Stephens Passage during the Gastineau Guiding tour.
An orca spotted in Stephens Passage during the Gastineau Guiding tour. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

We hadn’t been sailing long -- 15 minutes or so -- when Captain Mac informed us that our first whale sighting was imminent. But he wasn’t referring to humpbacks; orcas had been sighted nearby. We slowed down and saw the vapor from a whale’s blowhole, then its distinctive, gloss-black skin. We wouldn’t be treated to a full breach, unfortunately, but the killer whale’s signature, eye-like white marking peeked out long enough for me to get a shot.

As exciting as the orca encounter was, it was humpbacks we were really on the lookout for, and soon enough, the excursion made good on its promise.

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 position some mountains as the perfect backdrop for a particularly boisterous pair.

They ended up putting on quite a show, and most of us got a full-breach shot or two; even smartphone and tablet users were getting pics that would certainly be the envy of their social media followers.

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

Throughout it all, 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 -- and I came away really pleased with several of my shots.

As we returned to the dock, passengers shared their photos with one another and readied for the conclusion of our excursion, a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier. Captain Mac joked that given our luck thus far, “You’ll probably see a porcupine riding on an iceberg.”

Things didn’t prove quite that eventful during our visit to the glacier and Tongass National Forest. I’d hoped for a bear sighting, but none of the forest’s residents obliged on our late-afternoon visit.

Still, Gray kept things interesting by sharing facts about the forest’s flora during an easy stroll along a mostly flat trail. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was closed by the time we reached the observation deck, but our group was more than content with snapping pics with the glacier and Nugget Falls as the backdrop.

Sea otters in Sitka Sound.
Sea otters in Sitka Sound. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

You otter be in pictures

In Sitka, I went on a Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest ($135) with Allen Marine Tours. Our boat, the St. Tatiana, held roughly 10 times as many passengers as the Gastineau vessel in Juneau, and as one might suspect, the two-deck vessel proved to be a less intimate experience. But in terms of making good on its wildlife promises, this tour delivered, and then some.

We spotted the promised otters almost immediately, with the ship’s crew pointing out the “rafts” in which the creatures congregate. A pamphlet included a map of our route through Sitka Sound; tips for the optimal viewing experience, such as turning off camera flashes so as not to startle the animals; and a couple of paragraphs about each of the species we could potentially encounter.

When we spotted wildlife, the ship’s captain would idle for a few minutes, then reposition the vessel so passengers seated on the other side could take in the view.

On this excursion, the humpbacks obliged once again with a few breaches, but this time I mostly stayed out of the way of the other passengers so they could get their Instagram-worthy pics. Thanks to Gastineau Guiding and Allen Marine Tours, I’d have plenty of photos to pick from.

Exploring Alaska with Cunard

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