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Friday, August 28, 2009

Sitka Conservation Society

Before heading to the Raptor Center on Tuesday, we checked the weather forecast. Rain was predicted for every hour through Thursday morning. If we wanted to go to the Raptor Center, we couldn't wait for clear skies. And the marine tour we had scheduled for Wednesday evening promised to be wet.

Wednesday morning dawned with continued rain. When we set out for Whale Park, the rain had stopped, but the skies remained overcast. We wanted to looked for marine wildlife once more, but apparently the whales and friends didn't want to be seen. We saw lots of trees in the surrounding wilderness, some little ducks, and starfish.

Thursday morning brought strong winds that rattled the cottage, followed by steady rains. Somehow, though, when we walked down to the dock on Wednesday evening, the clouds had cleared out and the sun had emerged, as if on schedule. The air was cool, and the winds would be whipping on the boat, but at least we would be dry.

The three-hour tour had been originally scheduled for two weeks earlier. For some reason it had been postponed. This was the last tour of the season given by the Sitka Conservation Society. We had heard about the tour from a local bus driver, and at $30 per person, it was much more affordable than any of the offers from the tour companies we had researched. Most of the thirty or so participants were locals, and many of them had taken the tour before. We were thankful to still be in town to enjoy it.

We boarded the two-deck boat and found our spot along the rail outside on the upper deck. The boat offered warm beverages and snacks, along with binoculars for use, and educational materials. Of course, there was also merchandise for sale, to help fund the Conservation Society in its mission to protect the temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska and Sitka's quality of life. Off to sea we went.

Almost as soon as we were out among the islands, the boat slowed down and turned around. A small group of otters had been spotted, and the captain chugged back to give us a better look. They were difficult to see as they were among a patch of floating kelp, and they like to float on their backs. At one point, a harbor seal popped its head up and then disappeared.

The boat moved in and out around the islands. The views were similar to the ones from the ferry, but with a smaller vessel our captain had the ability to navigate into much tighter passages. The naturalist aboard provided an informational narrative about the features we saw along the way. Everyone was on lookout for wildlife. On a grassy beach in the distance we were lucky enough to spot through the binoculars a deer standing and observing her surroundings. Her colors matched the surroundings so well that we couldn't catch sight of her with our naked eye.

The water in the sound and channel leading away from Sitka had what we would call a light chop. The boat was not greatly affected. The water grew calm through the interior passages. Then as we turned to head back into open waters, the sea began to roll. At high speeds, the boat bounced along. We clung to the rail to get down to the lower deck and sit in the front. Out the window the water rose and fell around us in great but smooth peaks and valleys.

Back on the upper deck, we continued to scan the horizon for wildlife. We happened to be near one of the tour lookouts, who directed us to look in the direction she had spotted something. And sure enough, we saw the spout of a whale. After another moment, the captain cut the engines and turned the boat to move in closer. Another smaller boat had spotted the whale, and also pursued from the other direction. The naturalist counted six minutes, and then the whale resurfaced further to the left. Again the captain idled the boat closer. Everyone watched and waited for another six minutes to pass.

We continued to look all around for the appearance of other wildlife. While gazing out to the right, we heard the spout of the whale close on our left. We turned to see its back almost right beside the boat. The first attempt at a photograph was a failure. We recovered just in time to capture its fluke on the dive down.

The naturalist proclaimed that to be a final wave goodbye from the whale, and the captain turned the boat back toward Sitka. To the stern, the sun was setting behind Mt. Edgecumbe. As we watched the view, the whale made another sudden appearance. They are unpredictable and instantaneous, but once again we were able to capture its fluke as it took another deep dive.

We turned into the harbor. Just before crossing the breakwaters, we spotted another more active group of large otters. We watched them frollicking. After disembarking, we walked around to the closest point overlooking the harbor to continue watching the otters as they twisted and twirled and dove and flipped around in the dusk.

Like us, several other people climbed the bridge to admire the sunset. The great Raven had given us perfect weather for what had been a one-of-a-kind experience. Thinking back to the Raptor Center, we believe that it is not so much seeing the birds that people report is the highlight of their vacation; it is the up-close experience of any wildlife. Seeing the whales on the tour, and the ferry, even for just a few seconds, was the highlight of our vacation. The best had truly been saved for last.

Tomorrow, we will have some final thoughts about our Alaskan adventure.

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