Posts Tagged ‘Stephens Passage’

So where were we when we had our wonderful encounter with whales?


Cargo Barge in Stephens Passage © JT of jtdytravels; P1130525

I knew we must be in one of the few main waterways that carve their way through the islands of the Inside Passage because, very early in the morning, before we saw the whales, I’d seen this cargo barge being pulled along by a tug boat.  As there are no roads into Juneau, this is the way most goods are moved around in this part of the world. 

Stephens Passage ©  JT  of  jtdytravels; P1130584

Stephens Passage © JT of jtdytravels; P1130584

Overnight, we had sailed 105 km (65 ml) south from Juneau along Stephens Passage, the main shipping ‘highway’. The expedition’s very jovial professional wildlife photographer, Steve Morello, marked up the map with arrows and a ‘whale tail’ to pinpoint our encounter! The map is in greens because we were passing through Tongass National Forest…  more about that forest later.


Five Finger Lighthouse © JT of jtdytravels; P1130577

On the map, right beside Steve’s whale tail, I noticed a lighthouse called Five Finger Lighthouse. Ah Ha! While watching the whales, I had spied that lighthouse in the distance and had taken a photo to try to pinpoint our position.  It pays to look up from the exhilaration of whale spotting and take a look at your surroundings… occasionally, anyway!

I’ve researched the Five Finger Lighthouse since and now know that:  it’s been an active navigation beacon since 1902. The original timber building was burned down in 1933… (timber and naked flames are a bit hazardous, are they not?) A new concrete building was built during the Depression. It was completed and relit in 1935. The last resident light house keeper left in 1984 when the lighthouse was automated. Now the Coast Guard is in charge of  maintenance. In 2004, Five Finger Lighthouse was put on the National Register of Historic Buildings. A Juneau based group of volunteers has taken on the task of restoring the lighthouse and out buildings. They hope to use the site as a whale research centre and for environmental educational purposes.

That’s the summary.  I’ve given the lighthouse web site at the end of this post. It includes some interesting stories for you to peruse at your leisure.


Map of Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound © Jt of jtdytravels; P1130581

While we enjoyed our breakfast, the Captain turned ‘Sea Lion’ away from the main shipping channel and began to sail through Frederick Sound, an area we were to explore for the next two days. First chartered in 1794 by two of Captain George Vancouver’s men, this sound was named in honour of Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

During the morning we cruised south towards Le Conte Glacier. Whatever the afternoon brought for us, we were already very happy and well satisfied with our first morning encounter with those whales. Anything else would be a bonus!


Brady on lookout duty! © JT of jtdytravels; P1130585

While many of the adults chose to spend the morning on the aft sun deck, young Brady found his special spot, perched in the bow with binoculars at the ready. He was one of 3 children on board, and by far the most inquisitive of the three. Brady’s dream is to become a naturalist and he certainly shows the right aptitude to reach his goal.

The age range on board was from 80 to 6 years old…. the latter was a bit too young in my opinion. But he came with his family group; grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and sister! There were quite a few smaller family groups, a great way to get together when family is spread across the length and breadth of the country. Most passengers came from the ‘Lower 48’ of the USA with one New Zealander and four of us from Australia.


David watches the world go by! © JT of jtdytravels; P1130596

The sky was a clear and blue, the waters flat calm, the surrounding mountains were topped with snow. Here, we were a long way from the busy and sometimes worrying and chaotic world we had left behind. Here, there was not a house, not a telegraph pole in sight, not even another boat or ship. David and I chose to watch the stunningly beautiful scenery slip by from the walkway just outside our room.


Our room on ‘Sea Lion” © JT of jtdytravels; P1140127

And what was our room like, I hear some say. Small, basic but comfortable. Two single beds with firm mattresses. A small shower/toilet room with a curtain to protect the latter from getting wet while we used the former. A basin in the bedroom. Plenty of hot clean water… potable water. A large window so that the scenery was always visible. All we needed.

And, what we really loved was this… there were no locks on any doors! Oh, what a feeling of freedom! It was wonderful to be in an environment of complete trust. It reminded me of my life as a child, living in a tiny country village where no one had a lock; no one owned a key! We lived in trust, without fear of robbery or of ‘strangers’ who might wish us harm. How different the world is today.


Purse Seine Fishing vessel © JT of jtdytravels; P1130593

About halfway down the Sound, we caught site of a purse seining fishing boat. It had already strung its net in a circle, floats on the top side, weights below.  The crew was waiting for the fish to gather within the circle. Then they would pull on the ropes attached to the lower part of the net to make the ‘purse’ that traps the fish. We cruised on, leaving them to their task.

Diagram of Purse Seine Fishing

A description of purse seine fishing with good photos of each of the stages in the catch can be found on the web site given at the end of this post. The diagram above is taken from that site.


© JT of jtdytravels; P1130638

Back to the peace of quiet cruising.

Small ice chunks floated by, some in fantastical shapes.


Ship’s wash © JT of jtdytravels; P1130599

I lost my thoughts in the rhythmic movement of water patterns.

Ever changing abstracts.

I realised anew that each of us needs ‘time out’ to withdraw from cares;

especially from those cares that will not withdraw from us.

Water abstract ©  DY  of  jtdytravels; P1100286

Water abstract © DY of jtdytravels; P1100286

David was also looking for water abstracts.

I love this one.


Harbour Seal on ice flow © JT of jtdytravels; P1130604

A harbour seal floated by

taking a ride on a small ice flow… what a way to go!


View from the bridge © JT of jtdytravels; P1130606

I moved back to my spot in front of the bridge.

This was a much wider view.

How peaceful is that?


Small ice flow © JT of jtdytravels; P1130607

Many of the ice flows were now larger.

We were getting ever closer to Le Conte Glacier Bay.


Panorama © JT of jtdytravels; P1130613

The mountains were closing in on us… more ice flows appeared.

And then lunch was served!

More anon

Jennie and David

Photography © JT and DY  of  jtdytravels

Our other travels sites are:




The Five Finger Lighthouse web site is:


The Purse Seining fishing link is:


or Google

One Way to Catch Salmon In Alaska:

Onboard the Purse Seine Owyhee

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When I woke early on the morning of 22nd June, 2015 and popped my head out of the door to see where we were, I saw that we were in a very special place.


In the dawn’s early light © JT of jtdytravels; P1130527

The dawn’s early light was just enough to pick out the snow covered mountains beyond the channel we were passing through. The air was fresh and the peace of the place filled me joy.

As I stood there in my reverie, and I might add, dressed only in my nighty, I was startled to hear a voice beside me. ‘Why don’t you get dressed; whales ahead!’ I turned to see one of the ship’s officers standing beside me. I don’t believe I have ever thrown clothes on as quickly in a long time. Leaving David slumbering, I was soon standing in my special spot, on the walkway just in front of the wheel house looking at some bubbles in the water!


Whale surfacing © JT of jtdytravels; P1130535

A spray of water, a grunt and a hump slowly arose from the water right in front of the ship. Then, quietly and gracefully, the whale slipped away again.


Curtain of water drops © JT of jtdytravels; P1130536

A few seconds later; another whale; very close. A flick of the fluke and a curtain of water droplets, and it too was gone beneath the water. How good was that for early morning of our first day aboard “Sea Lion”. But that was just the start!


Sun rise © JT of jtdytravels; P1130528

I hurried back to our room to waken David as others appeared on deck, most with a warming cup of coffee in hand, or a very long lens camera. It was now 5.46am. The sun had risen over the mountains and was sending a long golden shaft of light across the water.

I was standing just outside our door at the railing of the deck. The ship had all but stopped. Everything was very quiet. Then something magical happened.


Whale tail in morning sun © JT of jtdytravels; P1130530

A whale appeared right in the midst of the sparkles of sunlight on the water.

Then, silently, it was gone.


Golden shimmer on water © JT of jtdytravels; P1130533

But it left behind a golden shimmer on the still waters…

the water seemed to turn to molten gold.


Whale spouting © DY of jtdytravels; P1100241

David was quick to catch the next whale spouting in that golden light.

How many people only see whales spouting far out to sea?

Here, they were right beside us.

We could hear them.


Whale tail in sunlight © DY of jtdytravels; P1100275

Very soon we realised that we were surrounded by whales.

Seventeen were counted!

This was a truly remarkable experience.

And the early morning sunlight just added an extra special touch.


Sunlight on predominantly white fluke © DY of jtdytravels; P1100261

Sunlight seemed to make this fluke glow!

It’s a predominantly white fluke with just touches of black.


A white with black fluke; © JT of jtdytravels; P1130537

Another white fluke but with more black. This is an important difference.

Scientists recognise individual whales by their under fluke patterns; for these are the whale’s ‘fingerprint’. Each whale is different. These distinctive patterns allow the story of each individual whale to be documented. Young whales, brought all the way from Hawaii to South East Alaska by their mothers, will always make the annual return to South East Alaska. And they, in turn, will bring their calves. So the tale of whales relies heavily on patterns on tails!


Black and white fluke pattern © JT of jtdytravels; P1130550

Other flukes are more black than white in pattern.


Black and white fluke pattern © DY of jtdytravels; P1100244

A very different black and white pattern; it’s quite distinctive.


Sun on black and white fluke © DY of jtdytravels; P1100254

And yet another; we did have seventeen different whales around us.


A black fluke © JT of jtdytravels; P1130540

This all black fluke is not so easily identified. Researchers have found that almost 50% of flukes recorded are all black. So they have to identify them by the the width of the notch between each fluke.

Whale Fluke Patterns

Whale Fluke Patterns from Humpback Whale Research Program

Whale researchers of the group “Humpback Whales of South East Alaska” are compiling a Fluke ID Catalogue. Since they began the project in 1979, they have compiled a photographic record of 1,900 different whale flukes. That’s pretty impressive. These are just nine of them.   Every fluke sighted is given an identification number. This research group encourages visitors like us to send in our photos of whale flukes with place, date and time of the sighting. Every sighting and photo adds greatly to their research data. Who knows… we may have found a new whale amongst our sightings as there were mothers and babies together in the group.

You can see more flukes and more about the life of humpback whales on the web site for ‘Humpback Whales of South East Alaska”. (Link at the end of this post.)


Top side of whale’s fluke © DY of jydytravels; P1130556

How amazing to spend a couple of hours with whales so close. The big ships sail through at night and miss out. Even if they see whales, they just keep going to meet their next port deadline. Not us! We had no real deadline. Our Captain could respond to whatever the day brought. He, too, enjoyed the encounter. We had time to quietly observe these wonderful animals; animals so big, they are a third the length of our entire ship! What a priviledge.


Curtain of water droplets © JT of jtdytravels; P1130544

Like everyone else on board, we were mesmerised by this display. But eventually, our Captain called “Time!” and turned the ship towards our next destination. Breakfast was ready and it was a very happy group who farewelled the whales and trouped down to the dining room.

What a way to begin an expedition!

Our thought for the day comes from Pierce Brosnan

“We owe it to our children to be better stewards of the environment.

The alternative? – a world without whales.

It’s too terrible to imagine.


Jennie and David

All photographs copyright ©  JT and DY  of  jtdytravels

Photographs taken near Five Fingers Lighthouse,

at the confluence of Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound

in the Inside Passage of South East Alaska

More of our travels on:


More of our travel photos on:



“Humpback Whales of South East Alaska” Research Project


Photos of flukes with place, date and time of sightings can be sent to:



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