Alaska Cruise, Day 6 – Sitka, Part 2

We started the second half of our day in Sitka with lunch at Victoria’s, a local restaurant near the church that was recommended by our tour guide. (Always, always, ask a local where the best place to eat is. It’s an eternal rule of travel.) The fresh caught halibut and chips there was delicious enough that I think it went straight from the hook to the coating to the fryer. Yum!

After that, we proceeded out to meet the fish, on a wildlife cruise. The tour company offered a refund if you didn’t see “a sea otter, a bear, or a whale.” For them, I think that’s like a New York City tour guide offering a refund if you don’t see a tall building, a bus, or a wino.

Almost immediately we saw a grey whale surfacing, which they said was rare in that area at this time of year. Then we went over to visit some sea lions and a raft of sea otters. The first group of otters we saw got scared off. The guides were saying someone in the general area of the boat I was in was using a flash, which they take great pains to get people not to do, including offering painters tape if you can’t or don’t know how to turn your flash off. One thing they hadn’t considered, I think, is the auto focus assist beam on most new cameras, which actually fires before the flash. It can be bright and fairly continuous on some cameras. That’s something I might drop them a note about.

Quite frankly, sea otters are the cutest animal on the planet.

After that, we moved into an inlet where the water was so clear you could see the jellyfish and sea stars under the water. I almost expected to see a sponge with a jellyfishing net. (It’s a Spongebob Squarepants reference…) There was also a fenced off area leading to an inland lake. They use the fences to run the salmon through some fish counters — only when the count reaches a point where they can sustain the salmon population do they allow salmon fishing there. Just seeing that gave me an appreciation for why eating natural and not farmed salmon is the way to go. They take great pains to try to maintain the natural population, but the fish farms that are dropped in areas like that cause all kinds of concentrated pollution that destroys the environment.

Going back our captain got word of some whales nearby. We pulled up near a fishing boat and got another spectacular view of a pair of humpback whales, probably a mother and a calf. Our knowledable guides were able to stay carefully behind the whales and time out exactly when they should be surfacing. At one point, the water just erupted a hundred feet or so off one side of the boat as the tale of one of the whales slapped the water! What an incredible view!

This was just the part of my appreciation of the natural wonder and uniqueness of Alaska that really changed the way I look at the world. While I intellectually know it’s important to protect the wilderness, coming this close to it gave me an appreciation for why. I had never seen anything quite at this scale in my life. And it speaks very directly to the soul about how important it is that we appreciate these areas more than any diamond they might be offering in the Diamonds International store back in the town.

Although, technically, there’s no DI in Sitka. Like I said, it’s a real town, with a tourist industry that is more homegrown than imported.

Alaska Cruise, Day 6 – Sitka, Part 1

Sitka was one of the most enjoyable ports we visited. Ignore my expression in most of the pictures; I really was having a good time, but I was at the absolute lowest ebb of my energy levels so I look grumpy. 🙁

The port is a tender port, meaning you have to take small boat from the cruise ship because the water isn’t deep enough for the ship to dock. That was especially fun since we got to ride in a life boat. Something I have secretly always wanted to do, except for the fact that if you’re riding in a lifeboat it’s usually not a good thing. Man, if they filled those things, it would be massively uncomfortable. Not to mention Natasha noted no rest room facilities. As a tender, they were great, though. Totally protected from the chilly winds of Sitka.

Making our trip by lifeboat even better was the sea lion siting we had as we rode in. There were a pair of them really close to the boat happily fishing! That was good to see, as there has been a tremendous (and complicated) reduction in the sea lion population. Everyone said it was amazing to see them in Sitka Sound.

This was our two tour day (adding to my tiredness, though I was still really excited to go) so we started out early with a Sitka cultural tour. First, we visited the National Historic Park, where we got to see more native artwork and visited a nature trail. There had evidently been a siting of a young bear there recently, but our guide and some of the local parks people pointed out that it was a while ago and the bear was gone. They pulled down the bear warning sign during our visit.

I can’t say enough about our tour guide, by the way. She helped us find edible berries on the nature walk, and had a lot of really interesting things to say about the wildlife and life in Sitka.

In fact, she told the story about her recent encounter with a mama bear and two cubs while camping, which a friend caught on this YouTube video.

It’s very scary to encounter a mama bear with her cubs, because, of course they can be very violently protective. Worst of all, the folks you here them talk about (one of whom was her husband) were down on the beach fishing with piles of fish next to them. Right in the path of the bears. Thankfully, they managed to slip away when the bears approached. Lost their fish, but it’s a good trade.

After the history center, we went over to the Alaska Raptor Center, where we got to meet eagles and other Alaskan birds close up. The raptor center cares for and rehabilitates birds, mostly for re-release unless for some reason they couldn’t survive in the wild. We met Sitka there, a bald eagle who had lost a toe, making it impossible for her to catch food on her own. She has become one of the newest representative birds there, who get to meet humans as a representative of their species. It was really breathtaking to finally see these birds close up and fascinating to get a chance to learn all about them.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Sitka was a show by the New Archangel Dancers. They are a group of ladies who perform traditional Russian dances. Great show, and our multi-talented tour guide even sang harmony on the Alaska State Song.

After that, to continue our dip into Russian culture, we stopped by the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church in town, St. Michael’s. The art on display there was amazing!

Our next stop was for lunch and then on to a wildlife cruise…more on that in the next entry….