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What are the best places to see Whales in Alaska?

Posted in: Alaska

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Best places to see Whales in Alaska - Humpbacks Bubble Netting in Auke Bay, Juneau

We have been lucky enough to enjoy an Alaska wildlife holiday on multiple occasions and as well as some of the best grizzly bear viewing in the world, Alaska is also one of the best places to see Humpbacks (that most charismatic of the large whale species!). Of interest to us was the specific whale behaviour called ‘bubble netting’; which is witnessed on a regular basis by whale watching companies operating from Auke Bay, Juneau, Alaska. Although the weather can be very changeable in Juneau – even in the summer months of July and August – it rarely stops you from getting out on the water and witnessing bubble netting Humpbacks. Most of these whale watching companies organise 3 hour boat cruises and since it generally only takes 20-30 minutes to get out to where the action is, you normally get to spend 2 previous hours observing these magnificent whales. If you are very lucky as well as seeing bubble netting, you will observe a complete whale breech. Although this behaviour is generally more common in the warm waters of Hawaii (whales need to conserve energy like many animals), we did witness several humpback breeches during our two days of whale watching in Juneau.

Why do the Humpbacks in Auke Bay come from?

We are quite lucky that the population of Humpbacks which visit Auke Bay are one of the most studied in the world and they have a very predictable migration behaviour. They spend the northern hemisphere winters in Hawaii (this is where female humpbacks give birth) and the summers in Alaska. Since Humpbacks are easy to identify by their tail flukes, a database is used by both whale researchers in Hawaii and South East Alaska to keep a track of all the individual whales. This is particularly of interest when we observe bubble netting Humpbacks, as not all Humpbacks are ‘good’ at bubble netting and we can look at their age, sex and technique to identify which whales have mastered this efficient feeding technique and who is the leader of the Humpback Whales who initiates the bubble netting.

What is Bubble Netting and how do Humpback Whales do it?

Bubble Net Feeding is a feeding technique employed specifically by Humpback Whales, in which a group of Humpback whales swim in a shrinking circle blowing thousands of bubbles below a large school of fish- herring is a common prey species. This shrinking column of bubbles surrounds the school of fish forcing them upward into a tightly condensed ‘fish ball’. Sometimes the first clue you have from the whale watching boat is a few seagulls diving into the middle of this fish feast (although this is not a 100% accurate clue!) and then a few moments later multiple Humpbacks will surface, mouths open, scooping as many fish as possible before descending with their mouths closed to enjoy their fish supper. Since these 30 to 40 tonne giants need as much as 3000 pounds of fish a day to survive, the more efficient the bubble netting the greater amount of fish they will catch.

Best time of year for bubble netting Humpbacks in Alaska

The months of July and August are generally known as the best time of year to see bubble netting humpbacks, but if you only take one of two whale watching safaris you have to be lucky to get to see this behaviour first hand. We talked to whale watching captains about bubble netting and they told us that sometimes the Humpbacks go through an intensive period of bubble netting over several days and then you will hardly see any activity for the rest of the week. Whether this is due to the whale themselves deciding they don’t want to ’hang out’ anymore (Humpback Whales are normally solitary and only come together to mate or to practice bubble netting), or it is related to available prey densities is unclear. What is clear is that any person lucky enough to witness Humpbacks bubble netting in Alaska has truly been blessed with good luck.

Humpbacks like to sing for their supper!

It adds a huge amount to the humpback bubble netting experience in Alaska, if your boat captain places a hydrophone in the water. Although sometime the background noise of other boats can mask the whale’s song, if you get lucky you will hear a haunting and enthralling ‘whale symphony’ that reaches a crescendo just before the whale launch themselves in the sky. This is the best possible way of predicting - within a few seconds - when the whales will surface to feed and you have the best opportunity to take some great photographs.

How to organise whale watching in Juneau, Alaska?

It is not possible to drive to Juneau, so if you want to head to the whale watching capital of south east Alaska, you need to take a plane or boat. We like to fly-in with our clients and then take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry (no large cruise ship for us!) out of Juneau south; towards Wrangell or Ketchikan, where other bear and whale watching activities can be booked. The ferries don’t depart every day, so you need to be careful with your trip planning. If you would like us to organise a tailor-made grizzly bear safari or humpback bubble netting tour to Juneau contact us at [email protected] or click on this Alaska wildlife holiday.

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