The thing about Alaska is you must keep your eyes open. If you don’t, you’ll likely miss something–that sudden flash of spray as a humpback whale rises out of the sea, the darting head of a sea otter investigating you from afar. The Safari Explorer that Sarah and I boarded last September for a week-long tour of the Inside Passage with 20 other passengers and a crew of about just as many promises one thing at least–Alaska without relent.
Our first morning, breakfast was left cooling on the table as Captain Scott Carden announced humpback whales in full sight just off the northern coast of Admiralty Island. And the thing you have to remember about Alaska is there won’t just be one whale…or even half a dozen. There may be 20 or even 30. They will be ubiquitous, outnumbering any human presence within 60 miles perhaps. The thought that once the whole earth was like this–dominated by wild creatures–gives one a little thrill. As does the sound. As a female rises to the surface in company with her calf, her blowhole percolates upward releasing a sound like the calculated whoosh of a hot air balloon passing overhead. Then another one rises several yards away, releasing the carol of a foghorn that echoes off the mountainsides, carrying away on the brisk air for miles. It seems the humpbacks surround us for hours, as we wind around into Icy Strait and the distant Fairweather Mountain range comes into view.
In the afternoon, we head out in kayaks to explore the little inlets around George Island. The silence is overpowering. There is nothing here at all, and as Sarah and I paddle around the edge of the island out of sight of the yacht, we leave all sight of humanity behind. The lap-lap of the water against the kayak, the stiff trunks of wind-battered evergreens, the swish of sea kelp in the water is all there is to life here. And then suddenly, the surface of the water breaks a few yards ahead of us, and the slick head of a sea otter appears, whiskers dripping beads of the tranquil bay. We approach. He darts under the surface, rises again a little further on, teasing us to follow, curious and elusive all at once. We stop paddling and listen to the perfect silence, taking in the vastness of a world where we are entirely and beautifully irrelevant.