Encounters with bears and whales on a thrilling Alaska cruise

·5 min read
Even if you don't see a bear in the flesh, they leave behind plenty of signs - sarkophoto
Even if you don't see a bear in the flesh, they leave behind plenty of signs - sarkophoto

Jane Archer embarks on a liberating solo voyage in America’s wildest corner

Mary-Jo is explaining a few of the bear necessities. “I’ll keep talking in case there’s one prowling around. If we do see one, don’t run. Stay in a group.” She waves the stick she’s carrying menacingly. If it’s meant to reassure us, it hasn’t worked. We’d all listened to Alaska wildlife expert Brent Dixon’s talk about bears the day before and there was nothing in that about waving sticks. Although his advice – stand firm and outstare the bear – didn’t seem much of a goer to me either.

We’ve come to Tongass National Forest, a little way outside the town of Ketchikan, to set out on a nature hike that had caught my attention because the write-up hinted at sightings of everything from bald eagles to spawning salmon. And yes, there was even a suggestion of bears – they just forgot to mention they might not be the cuddly teddy variety.

We had cruised into Ketchikan that morning on Celebrity Solstice, on day two of a one-week Alaska voyage that would also take us to Juneau and Skagway, through the Inside Passage – the name given to the scenic route between the islands off Canada and the US that ships take to avoid the open ocean – and to the Canadian town of Victoria, in British Columbia.

Our voyage began in Seattle, which had glinted in the hot sun as we sailed away through Puget Sound, and the blue skies had stayed with us the next day as we cruised north, into Alaskan waters. Sadly we woke to a misty drizzle in Ketchikan, our first port of call. “You should have been here last week. It was too hot for me,” our driver told us as we headed to the forest to meet Mary-Jo.

Ketchikan, Jane's first port of call - Credit: istock
Ketchikan, Jane's first port of call Credit: istock

Given the grey skies and the rain-o-meter in Ketchikan celebrating the town’s 12.5 feet of precipitation a year, I suspect he was joking. The day at sea after setting sail had proved a good time to find my favourite haunts and settle into holiday mode. I alternated between sunning myself on my cabin balcony – my room was at the back of the ship with a wonderful 270-degree view of the ocean over the wake – and listening to Brent’s talks.

Actually “talks” really doesn’t do him justice. These were shows that he threw himself into with gusto, leaping about the stage and imitating the sounds of the whales he was talking about in the morning and bears in the afternoon. It was very entertaining (“the best way to see a bear is to pour salmon oil over yourself”) but with a serious message.

That evening I joined a handful of passengers on whale-watching duty as we cruised through Snow Passage, an area said to be popular with cetaceans (tally: three humpbacks and one unknown). Next morning I was up with the larks to enjoy a scenic cruise along the narrow Endicott Arm to the Dawes Glacier, a massive piece of ice half a mile wide, rising 175ft above the water line (impressive enough) and extending 500ft below (wow).

bear with salmon - Credit: Getty
'The best way to see a bear is to pour salmon oil over yourself' Credit: Getty

I’ve cruised many times but I confess to having been a little apprehensive ahead of this trip, daunted by the prospect of joining a big ship on my own. Solstice holds 2,850 passengers and is marketed mainly for couples and families, so I was concerned I’d be lonely. In fact, by the end of the first day I was loving the freedom that comes with travelling alone. I could do what I wanted when I wanted.

As for being lonely? Not a bit of it. My AquaClass cabin came with perks including access to Blu, a small restaurant with lots of tables for two that are far enough apart for couples to have together time but close enough for them to talk to their neighbours if they wish. And they all wished. Every day at breakfast and dinner (Blu is not open for lunch) I met different people, all Americans, all of them as excited as me.

humpback whale - Credit: Getty
Whales flukes are as individual as human fingerprints Credit: Getty

There’s such a great variety of cruise excursions in Alaska – from seaplane rides and walking on glaciers to panning for gold – that choosing just one in each port is not easy. I went with two that the TV adventurer Ben Fogle had picked for the cruise line as his favourites, adding a celebrity endorsement for the British. The Tongass tour was one, whale-watching in Juneau’s Auke Bay was another.

There are no guarantees you’ll see either bears or whales on any Alaska tours, but around 1,500 whales frequent the waters around Juneau from mid-March to October, so the chances of spotting a few are quite high.

Experts identify whales by their flukes, which are as individual as our fingerprints. So when I snapped a great picture of a whale diving (one of four we spotted), our guide Becca was able to consult her well-fingered reference book and tell me the whale’s name was Flame and that she had first been seen in these waters in 2007.

We had less luck with the wildlife-spotting in Tongass – or maybe I should say extreme good fortune given Mary-Jo had no cause to wave her stick other than for pointing at plants. She showed us skunk cabbage flowers, used by bears as a laxative after their winter hibernation, and lichopodium, a lichen used by magicians and film makers for special effects because you can make it explode when it’s thrown into the air.

She also gathered us around a lump of poo on the path, “That’s from a bear,” she said. It was small, not quite what I’d expect from a big scary bear, but I’m counting that as a close encounter anyway.

Celebrity Cruises’ seven-night Alaska Dawes Glacier Cruise round trip from Seattle costs from £1,284pp, excluding flights, departing May 29 2020 (0844 493 2096; celebritycruises.co.uk).

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