Thursday, May 10, 2007

Alaska -- on the way

Yesterday, our embarkation day, was a lovely sunny spring day in Vancouver and after arriving at the Zaandam in the early afternoon, we spent a few hours on the deck,watching the activity on the harbour. The ship was docked at the pier of the downtown Convention Centre, near a little cove off the main harbour, called Coal Harbour. Many small float planes took off and landed there and it was a beautiful sight to see them roar across the surface of the water and soar into the air, banking around to head out of the harbour while outlined against the backdrop of the still snow-covered mountains which rise out of the Vancouver harbour.

Due to a problem with a lifeboat which needed a repair, we did not leave the dock until 8 pm, three hours later than scheduled, so instead of being on deck, we were actually at dinner when we departed. However, we were very fortunate to have been assigned a splendid table in the dining room, right by the window, at the rear of the ship. So we dined well while seeing a different view of the harbour which we know and love so well. At our table were some New Zealanders who were happy that we were able to point out to them some of the points of local interest.

Of course, besides the magnificent scenery we expect to see on this cruise, we are looking forward, as always, to see the distinctive wildlife of the region, while on this cruise. Everyone knows we are animal freaks and I have talked about this before on my blog, how we visit all the zoos and aquaria we come across in our travels. So this morning, on our way to breakfast, we were very excited to see two orcas or killer whales travelling along in the same direction as the ship. At the time, we were sailing through the Johnson Strait, which is well known for orcas. There is a pod of about 40 orcas which live there permanently. and this pod has been very well studied for many years, including their vocalizations and with all the members being named and identified, including their family trees. One of the males was first photographed in 1964 and he is still seen there. We soon left them behind but later on we saw probably fifty or so dolphins off the side of the ship.

This afternoon we attended a talk given by the naturalist on the ship, called "Fins, Flukes and Feathers", which was extremely interesting, with many slides of the wildlife that he has taken himself on his many trips as a shipboard naturalist. I am not going to bore you with the whole thing, but I will tell you some things that I hope might interest you. Every one mistakenly thinks that there is more interesting marine life in warmer waters than in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest Coast, but in actual fact cold water contains more entrapped oxygen and consequently the marine biological diversity here is enormous. The cold Japanese Current crosses the Pacific and at about the border between Canada and the United States, it splits into two circles, one going clockwise and stretching down to northern California and the other going counter clockwise and swirling around up to and around the Gulf of Alaska. Consequently the water temperature is a fairly consistent 13-
15 degrees Celsius and this allows an abundance of marine life which produces the food chain all up to the larger marine mammals like the grey whales which migrate from the Baja and Southern California and the humpback whales which migrate from Hawaii, both of which come to feed here in the summer.

I'm just going to talk about one other marine animal, which is unique to the area which stretches from the islands off the coast of Russia, across the Gulf of Alaska and all the way down to California. Everyone loves this animal, unofficially known as the teddy bear of the sea. Yes, folks, it's the sea otter. That adorable animal which floats on its back with its light grey furry head sticking inquisitively out of the water along with its feet which have no fur. Although they were almost hunted to extinction, they have been protected since 1911, the first animal to be given official government protection and they have made a tremendous comeback. Since they have no blubber their bodies are kept warm by their incredibly thick fur, which they are constantly grooming and supposedly the fur has 1 million hairs per square inch compared to a dog which has 6-8000 hairs per square inch. These animals are not exactly small but can reach up to 4 or 5 feet in length, and with their
incredibly high metabolism they are required to consume 25% of their body weight every day. Their food consists of sea urchins, crabs and clams and, of course, they are the animals who have adapted for their use a very primitive tool, using rocks to crack open the shells on their chests.

Just before I left Vancouver there was a video, taken at Vancouver aquarium, uploaded to YouTube, doing the rounds of the internet, in which two otters are floating around on their backs holding hands. Hopefully this is the link. I think you will enjoy it, keep watching until the end.

Tomorrow we land in Juneau, and we are splashing out and taking a tour of the Mendenhall Glacier followed by a whale watching trip, guaranteed to see whales. Well it should because it's costing a fortune. I'm now crossing my fingers and toes and eyes, literally of course, that this post will appear on my blog. If it does, there will be more tomorrow, if it doesn't I will have wasted the other fortune that I spent to get this internet access.


Lee said...

A great post and I'm glad you're taking me along with you on the cruise, jmb...thank you! :)

I ran into a friend this morning while I was out shopping. I'd not seen her for quite some time and she was telling that she and her husband did a cruise similar to the one you're only last year. I mentioned to her about you and your trip. She loved the trip...and loved Alaska.

I'll be waiting eagerly for more tales from you.

Janice Thomson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janice Thomson said...

Sorry JMB I hit publish instead of preview before I was done LOL

I love the sea otter and had the good fortune to read the book about the transplantation of them off Vancouver Island from 1969-1972. The authors, whose names I have since forgotten, were part of the transplantation process. They took 89 otters and in 1977 finally recorded seeing a colony of them near Bunsby Islands. Two previous attempts failed.
I can't imagine how awesome a sight seeing orcas must be and am green with envy...hope you got photos!
Thanks for this wonderful post...looking forward to the next one!

magnetbabe said...

Wow, what an adventure! I'm jealous. I would love to see Alaska and all its wildlife, the otters sound especially endearing. I know there isn't much darkness up there this time of year, but are you going to try to see some Northern Lights?

Eurodog said...

jmb, loved reading your post from the ship. Exciting I think and cool to think you are on the northern waters writing to us all.
I was lucky to see otters on Vanvouver Island when we were there. I seem to remember we were driving west (the sun was in our eyes and it was towadrs the end of the afternooon) and the road we were on ran parallel with a small river. Otters were swimming alongside us; it was wonderful.
Have a wonderful day.

jmb said...

Hi everyone,
I see that publishing by email eliminated my link to the sea otter video but now I have edited it and fixed it and hopefully you can see them
regards to all those following along with the image free posts, they look very bare to me.

mhr said...

Well, I'm happy to see you are able to post while cruising!
Your narrative can stand on its own, pictures will have to wait :)
I hope that you have taken enough memory cards and spare batteries with you!
A most interesting log book, I'm waiting eagerly for the next instalment.
Bon voyage, jmb!

PS: Not holding hands, yet... :)

jmb said...

Hi mhr,
What a lovely picture. I just love it. I have lots of memory and spare batteries which I do carry with me but poor weather for picture taking. But I'm doing my best.

mhr said...

Well, nothing you can do about the weather, but I'm glad to see you've taken good care of the technical side :)

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

jmb, fabulous post! I, too, feel that I am right there on the cruise with you! Your description of the sea otters is wonderful and I love the utube link. Hope you're still enjoying it!