Whales and Wildlife in Juneau: Orca Enterprises Teaches and Entertains

Alaskan moose visits AK Kid's school.

Alaskans do love their critters. From creekside to tundra, sea to shining sea, animals are an integral part of Alaska’s beautiful tapestry. Why, just this morning I witnessed a mammoth traffic jam due to a mama moose and her yearling calf ambling across a major Anchorage arterial; where else could one find that on the way to school?

AK Fam returns to southeast Alaska today (if only in our minds) to further the discussion on day cruises offering whale and wildlife watching, a must-do on the bucket lists of many an Alaskan visitor, but often a bit of a headache for parents wondering how the heck they’ll manage to keep small chidren (and sometimes the big ones) amused and safe during an hours-long tour.

We’d already experienced the fabulous hospitality of Allen Marine, a Sitka-based company who did themselves proud on a day cruise/lunch excursion in Juneau during our 2009 Holland America cruise. Friendly, knowledgable, and with panache, Allen Marine was a great first-time cruising experience for us, but, as with many things, a certain four-year-old did not last as long as we adults. So, for the 2011 Alaska Marine Highway adventure, we contacted our friends at the Juneau CVB in the hopes they could come up with a shorter option that might appeal to moms and dads looking to view sea creatures without losing their own sanity in the process. And in that search, we found Captain Larry.

AK Dad meets Captain Larry (right) aboard our Orca Enterprises day cruise out of Juneau.

Yep, this is Captain Larry, pictured here with AK Dad; a quiet, unassuming guy with a heart for seafaring animals and plants of southeast Alaska. Claiming 45+ years on the water, Captain Larry is the mind behind Orca Adventures, a four-boat flotilla of jet-powered vehicles that cruise Stevens Passage outside Juneau.

Our boat was the 42′ “Awesome Orca,” a purple creature outfitted with a big marine head (bathroom), small bar area for snacks, and ample seating for the lot of us, which actually turned out to be only about 25 people, about half of how many usually are aboard such tours. Score.

Not fancy, but perfectly comfy, Orca Adventures provides ample viewing space.

Plenty of window seating inside (hey, those windows also open, so watch your kids, parents!), plenty of deck space outside, the Orca was a marvel on our glasslike morning heading out of Auke Bay. Captain Larry himself was at the helm, with a wildlife biologist specializing in humpback whale research manning the microphone, teaching we greenhorns everything one might need to know (and the occasional TMI) about whale breeding, feeding, and, um, needing.

Humpback whales are fascinating creatures, noble to a fault and quite group-oriented when it comes to dinner. We saw a number of cows and calves diving beneath the surface then come up together for a little confab before swooping back below the calm, cool passage. But what really struck us was the method of eating called “bubblefeeding”, whereby a whole group gets together to stir up herring and really get the buffet line hopping. Mr. Biologist really earned his keep during this portion of the tour, showing our excited populous how to watch sea birds and their behavior just before the huge splash of water and whale faces rose above the bubbling sea. Incredible, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Bubblefeeding whales in Stevens Passage near Juneau.

3.5 hours went by in a flash as the whole family stood by the railing, scanning, searching, and squealing in delight as another pod came crashing out of the water with a mouthful of fish and a swirling mass of white gulls soaring just above.

Captain Larry’s staff offered us snacks and beverages to keep up our sighting energy, and we appreciated their attention. The seating arrangements were easy to navigate, and the upstairs deck was a nice option for far-off scanning. I don’t think the company sees too many kids, however; Mr. Biologist wasn’t quite sure of AK Kid’s safety and seemed a little nervous (we forgave him, however, since the opposite would have been worse). Overall, a solid experience with a casual, Alaskan, and decidedly non-shore excursion feel that we locals found very comfortable.

AK Kid climbs to the upper viewing deck to spy for whales.

Orca Enterprises will pick up and drop off passengers at most Juneau hotels, and all cruise ships. Tours last 3.5 hours and offer complimentary snacks and beverages, and feature guided commentary and access to indoor/outdoor viewing. There is no seating outdoors, however, but with such great viewing from those open windows, it’s not really necessary.

I’d recommend this trip for parents with kids preschool age and up. Bring AKontheGO’s recommended supplies of quiet activities, books, etc., and remember to rehearse boating safety before boarding.

Find Orca Enterprises’ website HERE. Planning a trip to Alaska in 2012? Check ’em out before booking with a fancier, more expensive tour company. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Spouting whales, happy family; what more could you want?

Posted in Alaska Marine Highway, Southeast Alaska, Wildlife/Glacier cruising and tagged , .