We’re very excited to announce that Naturalist and seabird specialist, Dr. Alan Burger, will lead our up-coming small-ship adventure to Alaska’s Inside Passage this year! Alan answered our questions about Alaska and tells us what sets the American state apart as the next adventure cruising destination.
We know Alaska is rich in unique wildlife, but can you give us an overview of what wildlife we might see on our Alaska cruises?
Marine mammals and seabirds are abundant nearly everywhere we go. Humpback whales, harbour porpoise, sea otters and harbour seals are common in many places and you are almost guaranteed to also see Dall’s porpoise and the big Steller’s sea lion. Orcas (killer whales) are also regularly seen. On the bird side you will see 40 or more species of seabirds, loons, waders and waterfowl, including an excellent chance of tufted puffins in Glacier Bay. Many of these birds have their highest concentrations in southeast Alaska. Bald eagles are abundant. On land too there is a rich assemblage of forest and scrub birds – wrens, warblers, woodpeckers, thrushes, sparrows etc. There is also a reasonable chance of seeing both brown and black bears, as well as moose, deer, mink and river otters. Mountain goats can be seen on some steep cliffs. Squirrels are everywhere!
Will we see brown bears on our 2016 Alaska’s Inside Passage expedition?
Brown bears are common on many of the areas that we pass or visit, so there is a reasonable chance of seeing them, but the forests are dense and the bears are not always easily seen. Your best bet for brown bears is the special trip to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island (by float plane from Juneau). These bear-watching trips are run by Pack Creek Bear Tours who are excellent guides and they have almost 100% record of seeing bears at Pack Creek. Black bears are also common on some islands and on the Alaskan mainland, usually not in the same places as brown bears.
Apart from the wildlife, many of our passengers want to know the difference between Alaska and our other cold clime destinations, Arctic and Antarctica. Can you explain and give us an overview of what type of landscapes and environments we can expect to see along Alaska’s Inside Passage?
Southeast Alaska is not a polar or boreal environment – it is a temperate coniferous rainforest area. Even in winter, it rains more than it snows at sea level (but of course higher up there are many active glaciers and high snowfall). The entire area is very mountainous giving spectacular vistas wherever you go. You will see many snowy and glaciated peaks, some over 3,000 m (10,000 feet) and higher. At sea level the slopes are thickly covered with tall trees – a nice mix of spruce, hemlock, cedars and alders. At higher elevations the forest gives way to beautiful alpine meadows or rocky crags. Much of the wildlife (moose, bears and deer) is seen on the grassy flats around estuaries and bordering streams and rivers. Waterfalls are common and often spectacular. In several inlets there are wonderful glaciers – some of which reach the tidewater and can be accessed by boats. In spring there are many flowering plants in the forests and meadows.
Is Alaska as cold as the Arctic or Antarctica? What type of weather should our passengers expect?
Southeast Alaska has a mild, wet climate and is not nearly as cold as the Arctic or Antarctic. You won’t need down jackets but good rain jacket, rain pants and sturdy shoes are essential (gumboots are essential too, but are provided onboard Aurora Expeditions’ Alaska cruise). It can occasionally be cold and miserable when it rains and the wind blows so fleece jackets, beanie and gloves are essential too. But you can expect some lovely warm sunny days, so a sun hat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and shorts will be useful at times.
We’ll visit some local Alaskan Tlingit and Haida villages during the voyage, can you tell us a bit about Alaska’s native cultures?
This part of North America has the most highly developed native art, architecture and canoe-building skills. The rich environment, primarily the huge salmon stocks and other marine food, allowed the people to have time to develop these artistic and cultural skills. This is where genuine totem-poles are common along with many other forms of carving and painting (masks, huge canoes etc.). There is also a tradition of weaving using mountain goat fur and cedar bark strips. Five different species of salmon are a key part of their diet and culture and visitors can usually sample the excellent smoked salmon. Today the Tlingit and Haida live in western-style houses and do similar jobs to other Alaskans. Fishing for salmon, halibut and other fish is still a major activity, but they have maintained their language and traditions alive.
Snorkelling?! What can those that are brave enough to enter the icy waters see?
The shores of southeast Alaska are rich with many colourful and diverse marine creatures. There are big kelp beds in many areas which serve as nurseries for fish. On rocky shores expect to see huge and colourful anemones and sponges, big beds of mussels, many fish and crabs and, with luck, the giant Pacific octopus. The water is chilly (but nowhere near freezing – this is not polar at all!) and most snorkellers are able to stay comfortable in the water for 20-30 minutes. Wetsuits are provided for snorkelling on our Alaska Cruise.
What other activities can we do on the Alaska cruise?
Almost every day you will have a choice of activities off the ship, like hiking in the forest, exploring the intertidal shoreline and kayaking. There is no extra charge for any of these activities and even people who have never kayaked before can give it a try in the sheltered inlets where we anchor. Paddling quietly along the shore is a great way to experience the true wilderness of southeast Alaska. Hiking is a great way to experience the huge trees, colourful wildflowers and diverse wildlife of the coastal forests. Occasionally there are opportunities to hike near the glaciers too.
As an experienced naturalist and avid bird-watcher, what is your favourite Alaskan bird?
The tufted puffin is always a wonderful bird to see but has only a few colonies in the sheltered waters that we mostly travel through. My favourite is the marbled murrelet – a small, diving seabird in the same family (Alcidae) as the puffins. The amazing thing about these little birds is their nesting habits – they are the only temperate seabirds to nest in trees, in this case they nest in the upper branches of the huge coastal conifers along the coast. But these tree-nests are often far inland and extremely well hidden so you won’t see the nests. Southeast Alaska is the heartland of this species and you are guaranteed to see hundreds of them in a 2-week voyage. Their close relative, the Kittlitz’s murrelet is also found in more selective locations – they are highly specialised for feeding in the milky glacier-runoff marine areas and they nest inland on the bare glacier moraines.
Can you share with us your must-have travel items when visiting Alaska?
Bring a pair of good quality binoculars – ideally something that will let you see birds, sea otters, bears and other distant animals clearly. It can be very frustrating to have some animal in view but not have your own good binoculars. The tiny travel binoculars often don’t do the job – bring a decent pair (8×40 is the most recommended type – still fairly compact but with big enough lenses to see well). Good rain gear (Gore-Tex type) and warm fleece clothing are also essential.