Exploring Alaska


Ocean Conservationist, Lauren, tells us about her very special summer in Alaska as a part of a new programme helping to protect whales in the northeast Pacific.

From rich culture to the spectacular scenery and the abundance of wildlife, it is easy to see why a cruise in the Pacific Northwest appeals to thousands of cruise passengers a year. I am no exception. I have dreamt of the day I would be able to traverse the Inside Passages of Canada and Alaska, keeping my eyes open for the tell-tale signs of whale presence.

During the summer months, the waters of Alaska in particular become inundated with baleen whales who have travelled north from their winter breeding grounds. They are here for one thing and one thing only. Food. The sun’s seasonal intrusion into the hours of the night mean the phytoplankton have all the sunlight they need to flourish and bloom. In turn this supports animals further up the food web including grey and humpback whales. Humpback whales in particular, gather in Alaska in vast numbers, making them the most frequently sighted whale on cruises here.

The popularity of Alaska for both people and whales however, presents a problem. Alaskan waters are already busy with boats used for local transport and trade; in fact, many towns are only accessible by either air or water. But between May and September each year, vessel traffic significantly increases as cruise ships arrive in their masses, bringing those who wish to experience the Alaskan wilderness. And for the whales, notably humpbacks, this means the chance of being struck by a ship, increases drastically. Research regarding large whales and ship strikes is one of ORCA’s key research areas, one which is of increasing importance as ocean traffic increases on a global scale. Many factors can contribute to a collision between a ship and a whale. Vast numbers of whales in an area, such as some locations in Alaska, can make it difficult for ships to avoid them.

Poor weather conditions can make it difficult for a ship’s crew to spot whales. One of the most surprising facts to many, is that when a whale is positioned straight ahead of a vessel, there is an acoustic ‘dead zone’ which makes it hard for whales to actually hear a ship heading their way – this is called the ‘bow-null effect’.

The incidence of ship strike is one which was noted by the United States National Park Service many years ago. Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska, is a renowned area for large gatherings of feeding humpback whales during these summer months whist also being an ecologically important area warranting high levels of conservation-focused protection. As a result, any visiting cruise ship must apply for a permit which, if approved, states a strict set of guidelines which must be followed by the ship at all times. The Queen Elizabeth, owned and operated by Cunard, is one ship in the fortunate position to have one of these permits. To ensure that the whales are kept as safe as possible, it is a requirement that there is to be a dedicated Marine Mammal Observer (MMO), to look out for whales at all times whilst in Glacier Bay and ensure correct protocols are followed should whales be spotted. And this is where ORCA come in. Through a partnership with Cunard, ORCA have been given the unique opportunity to provide the required MMO for the Queen Elizabeth’s Alaska season in addition to providing training for the crew to reduce the probability of ship strike events.

And this is where I come in! Having worked as an Ocean Conservationist for ORCA for a number of years, being offered the opportunity to undertake the role of the Queen Elizabeth’s MMO is one I could not turn down. I have been living on board for just under a month now, and it is safe to say Alaska has not disappointed. Sometimes it seems like there is a humpback whale around every corner. Bald eagles appear to fall out of the sky and on the rare occasion, bears are sometimes evens spotted from the ship! But one must not forget the importance of the work that I am here to do. Over the next couple of weeks I will be keeping you up to date with how things are going here in Alaska, insights into the training and of course, the fantastic work which is being done in Alaskan waters to protect cetaceans. But for now, thank you for reading, and until next time, goodbye!