Humpbacks and tails of adventure

Posted: Monday, June 09, 2003

The tourists were quiet as the purple bus carried them out to the only purple boat in Auke Bay. Their final destination: out to sea for a glimpse of a 50-ton sea mammal.

As the bus sped away from the gift shops of South Franklin Street, the sightseers were given a quick tour of downtown on the way to Auke Bay. Their vessel, the 42-foot Awesome Orca of Orca Eco Tours, awaited. The company, owned by Carol Pitts, has been in business for seven years.

The ship's pilot, introduced simply as Capt. Larry, greeted the guests at the dock. He drove the boat out to the dark, still waters of Favorite Channel, between Shelter Island and the mainland.

Clad in crusty black cowboy boots, a black leather cowboy hat covered with shiny whale pins, old blue jeans and a purple Orca Eco Tours T-shirt, Capt. Larry Dupler pulled out of Auke Bay. He slowed down for a moment to point out a marbled murrelet.

"Hey, it's your first endangered species of the afternoon," Capt. Larry said over the onboard microphone.

The tourists snapped a couple of photos, but rubbernecking was at a minimum. They were looking for whales, not birds.

The Awesome Orca hit full throttle and headed out to the northern end of Stephens Passage, just outside Auke Bay. Onboard naturalist and tour guide Jeff Tillinghast described the physical makeup, migration patterns and eating habits of the humpback whale.

Full-grown humpbacks generally measure between 30 and 50 feet in length and about 20 feet in width, Tillinghast said. He also told the eager tourists that the whales can travel up to 25 mph and weigh up to 50 tons.

Humpbacks eat an average of 2,000 pounds of food a day, Tillinghast said. They swallow thousands of gallons of water and trap small fish and shrimp in the hundreds of strips of fingernail-like material that line their massive jaws.

As the sightseers silently listened to the presentation, Capt. Larry cut the ship's engine. A humpback had been spotted. The tourists scattered onto the deck with a complete loss of composure.

"Humpback at 11 o'clock!" Tillinghast announced.

About 50 feet from the boat, a full-grown humpback broke through the surface of the water, exposing its blowhole for a quick breath of air.

"That's a money shot! That's a money shot!" Tillinghast yelped as the tourists' camera shutters clicked away.

After a few minutes, the humpback disappeared and the Awesome Orca headed up Favorite Channel toward Shelter Island.

Out at Eagle Reef between Shelter Island and the mainland, a group of harbor seals swam near the reef. The seals seemed to be as interested in the Awesome Orca, as the tourists were interested in them.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are being watched," Tillinghast said, as the seals poked their heads out of the water for a glimpse of the boat.

An adult bald eagle sat on the reef, flying off soon after the Awesome Orca pulled up. The vessel headed farther up the channel to Sentinel Island in search of more whales. The tourists oohed and aahed over the Herbert and Eagle glaciers to the right, but their thirst for whales had not been satisfied.

Then, suddenly, a humpback shot out of the water in the distance.

Whale-watching tours in Juneau

• Dolphin Jet Boat Tours

Tourist price: $99.75

Local price: $78.75

Phone: 463-3422

On the Web:

• Four Seasons Tours

Tourist price: $127

Local price: $99

Phone: 790-6671

Days of operation: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

On the Web:

• Orca Eco Tours

Tourist price: $105

Local price: $95

Phone: 789-6801

Days of operation: 7 days a week

On the Web:

• Juneau Sportfishing

Tourist and local price: $99.75

Days of operation: 7 days a week

On the Web:

"Whoa! A breacher!" cried Forrest Witt, a tourist vacationing from Los Angeles.

A few hundred yards from the lighthouse at Sentinel Island, a playful humpback started the show. Then another appeared, and another and another.

The two dozen passengers on the ship grabbed their cameras and binoculars and hit the deck.

One o'clock, five o'clock, 11 o'clock - humpbacks surrounded the ship.

"Get a tail shot! Get a tail shot!" one woman squealed as her husband fidgeted with the camera.

"Don't waste your film on me," she said as he snapped a picture of her at sea.

As the tourists scurried around the ship shooting pictures and pointing, blasts of air shot out of the water from the humpbacks' blowholes. The "money shots," glimpses of flukes or tails, were plentiful.

"Y'all just got mooned by a humpback," Capt. Larry announced over the intercom.

The show lasted about 15 or 20 minutes, but for the tourists, it was over before it began.

Eva Felts, 42, of Winston-Salem, N.C., came to Alaska on the Dawn Princess cruise ship with her husband Steve, 45, son Drew, 16, and daughters Ashley, 14, and Brittany, 11.

"I told the kids we were going on a whale-watching tour and they said, 'You've got to be kidding, Mom,' " Eva Felts said.

But after the show near Sentinel Island the whole family was hooked, she said.

"I thought this was going to be boring, but it turned out to be really cool," said Ashley Felts.

Eva Felts said the family chose an Alaska cruise because Steve always had wanted to visit.

"We love natural areas," she said. "We just like getting away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and telephones - just getting back to nature.

"This is kind of a relief. We were really getting turned off by all the gift shops downtown."

Deborah Butler, 48, of Anchorage, said she's never come so close to a whale.

"They are really magnificent creatures and you usually only get to see them on television," she said.

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