Gazing across the limpid, fathomless waters of Frederick Sound, one of the world’s richest feeding grounds for Humpback whales, these great behemoths had already announced themselves by the oily jets of their ‘blows’ still dancing in the moist air. Needing no second invitation, my fellow travellers and I aboard the very comfortably appointed 36 passenger boat Safari Explorer climbed aboard the zodiacs, hoping for a closer encounter.
This was my first exposure to Alaska, and to be honest I was still grappling with the sheer scale and vastness of this tangled, untamed wilderness. A land in which tooth, talon and claw continue to prevail and man’s foothold along this labyrinthine coast remains tenuous. Lured by Alaska’s treasury of natural riches – dramatic landscapes, world-beating whale and bear populations and towering glaciers – it had already been an eventful first few days.
With the outboard engine cut and the zodiac now bobbing gently, the wheezing trumpet of the whale’s two-hundred mile an hour exhalations as they surfaced from a dive drifted audibly across the stillness of the bay. They seemed all around us. We were specifically on the trail of two adult humpbacks who we had watched gracefully turn tail and slide down into the impenetrable depths just a few minutes earlier and now hoped would re-surface nearby. Feet shuffled impatiently, hushed conversations and almost tangible stifled excitement as we waited.
And then without warning, rising up almost directly beneath us, 40 tonnes of surfacing cetacean suddenly erupted with a great triumphal bugle just feet from the edge of our rubber boat, scaring the hell out of all onboard! The joker in the pod and clearly enjoying his practical joke, the humpback then circled us once in what seemed like a salutary wave, before sliding away into the inky depths. A rare fleeting encounter forever bored into the mind’s eye, and at the same time neatly encapsulating the very essence of this rugged land: wild, beautiful, unpredictable.
The Russians must be truly gutted having sold it to America for just 2 cents an acre in 1867!