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Alaska’s Whales and the Alaska Marine Highway: In-Depth Study at Sitka’s WhaleFest

Program Number: 21638RJ
Start and End Dates:
10/31/2014 - 11/10/2014;
Duration: 10 nights
Location: Bellingham, Washington
Price starting at: $2,795.00 - Price may vary based on date, departure city
Program Type: On the Road; Festivals, Misc.; Natural History Activity Level: t (see description)
Meals: 29; 10 Breakfasts, 9 Lunches, 10 Dinners    
Meal Options: Vegetarian    

Join the intimate community of Sitka during WhaleFest, a celebration of the area’s diverse marine mammal population. Students and scientists from all over the world converge to discuss humpback whales and other Alaskan marine wildlife through lectures and discussions. Begin in Bellingham, Wash., onboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. Enroute to Sitka, travel the inside passage studying the culture and history of Alaska. While in Sitka, also learn about Sitka’s Tlingit natives, days of Russian rule and enjoy a wildlife quest as you share Sitka Sound with humpback whales!


• Ply the waters of the Inside Passage and be captivated by settlements enveloped within Alaska’s pristine natural wonders as you explore Juneau, Haines, Ketchikan and Sitka.
• Enjoy lectures and discussions on whales and their roles in the complex ecology of the Arctic, delivered by world-renowned scientists and experts in the field.
• Have your camera ready: Opportunities to spot wildlife abound, both from the decks of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and on a wildlife quest in Sitka Sound.

Activity Particulars

Walk up to one mile, some uneven terrain.

Itinerary Summary

Arrival Bellingham, Wash., embark Alaska Marine Highway ferry, 4 nights; disembark in Sitka, Alaska, 6 nights; departure.

Coordinated by Road Scholar.


Perched on hills overlooking a busy harbor, Bellingham faces the southern end of Georgia Strait, dotted with islands in the distance. This relaxed university town is 50 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia., and near North Cascades National Park.

Alaska Marine Highway: cabins aboard the ferry; lower and upper berths with ladder access, double occupancy only. Elevator access to decks. Sitka: convenient downtown hotel within walking distance of historical and cultural sites. Single occupancy applies to Sitka hotel only.
Meals and Lodgings
   Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
  Inside Passage, Alaska and Washington 4 nights
   Westmark Hotel Sitka
  Sitka, AK 6 nights
 Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
Type: Other
  Description: The Alaska Marine Highway provides an opportunity to experience coastal Alaska at an unhurried pace and in close-up detail. As your vessel glides through the waters of the Inside Passage or along Alaska's rugged coastline, you may see whales, dolphins, sea otters, eagles, and perhaps even bears. In addition to interesting ports of call, you will pass fishing outposts, small villages, and see Alaska's bustling maritime activity from the decks of the ferry. The Alaska Marine Highway has been named an All-American Road, a rare national designation that recognizes the spectacular and unique experiences it offers travellers.
  Ship Information: The M/V Columbia is the largest vessel of the Marine Highway fleet. Launched by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle in 1974, the Columbia is 418 feet long, with capacity for 499 passengers and 134 vehicles (20' lengths). Its 103 total cabins include 44 four-berth units, and 56 two-berth units. The Columbia boasts a fine dining room. Alternative ferries are the Matanuska and the Malaspina. The M/V Matanuska was built by Puget Sound Bridge & Dry Dock Company of Seattle and began service in 1963. In 1968 the vessel was lengthened and renovated. It now carries 499 passengers, and provides 4 four-berth, 21 three-berth, and 80 two-berth cabins. The Matanuska is 408 feet long, with capacity for 88 vehicles (20' lengths), and has a service speed of 16.5 knots. The M/V Malaspina was designed by Nickum & Spaulding Associates of Seattle, WA; and was built in 1963 at the Lockheed Shipbuilding Yards in Seattle. She sailed Alaskan waters proudly and well for nine years, then underwent lengthening and renovation which was completed June 6, 1972. When she left the Willamette Iron and Steel Co. shipyard in Portland, OR., she was indeed a “new ship”—she had been cut in two , and had 56 ft. added to her middle. The additions included the new solarium, and remodeling of the dining area, cocktail lounge, cafeteria, and all other public areas. Stateroom capacity was increased from 100 to 284 berthing accommodations. The Malaspina is 408 ft. long and 74 ft. wide, and her gross tonnage is 2,928. She has a service speed of 16.5 knots, and is driven by two V12-cylinder, 4000 HP Enterprise Diesel engines.
  Contact info: N/A
Juneau, AK 99801 USA
phone: 800-642-0066
  Room amenities: All rooms are double occupancy. If you have not specified a roommate, we will assign one for you. The berths are upper and lower bunk beds. The upper bunk is accessed by a ladder. Cabins are small and basic in nature with limited storage space. Cabins are made up with fresh linen at start of the trip, but daily housekeeping service does not exist. Fresh towels and sheets are available upon request. Linen exchange halfway through the trip will be arranged by the Group Leader.
  Facility amenities: A cafeteria, gift shop, cocktail lounge, solarium, and forward observation lounge round out the passenger amenities.
  Smoking allowed: Yes
  Elevators available: Yes
  Check in time: 4:00 AM

 Westmark Hotel Sitka
Type: Full Service Hotel
  Description: Convenient downtown location within walking distance of historical and cultural sites and shopping.
  Contact info: 330 Seward St
Sitka, AK 99835 USA
phone: 907-747-6241
  Room amenities: Flat screen TVs with cable, free high speed Internet access, in-room coffee makers, hairdryer and iron / ironing board.
  Facility amenities: Room service, fitness center, on-site restaurant and lounge, complimentary high-speed wireless Internet throughout hotel, guest computer available, coin-operated guest laundry and free airport shuttle (for scheduled flight times only).
  Smoking allowed: No
  Elevators available: Yes
  Additional nights after: Contact the hotel directly Please make arrangements for additional nights directly with the hotel.
  Check out time: 11:00 AM

Travel Details
  Start of Program:
Meet at Alaska Marine Highway Terminal (Bellingham Cruise Terminal) at 4:00 PM for an introductory program. You will be staying at Alaska Marine Highway Ferry that night.
  End of Program:
Program ends after breakfast at the Westmark Hotel in Sitka You will be staying at Westmark Hotel Sitka the night before.
  Required documents:
The Participant Information Form is required. A photo ID (drivers license or passport) is required each time you board the vessel. The Coast Guard requires some basic information about who will be onboard the ferry. We ask that you complete the enclosed Required information for ferry boarding form and return it to the program provider in advance of the program.
  Parking availability:
Parking is available at the ferry terminal in a locked facility. Payment for parking is by cash or check. A self-pay station is located at the entrance (currently $30 per week). For additional information, call the Port of Bellingham at 360-676-2500.
To Start of Program
  Location:  Inside Passage, Alaska and Washington
  Nearest city or town:  Seattle
  Nearest highway: I-5
  Nearest airport:  Bellingham International Airport
  From End of Program
  Location:  Sitka, AK
  Nearest highway: Alaska Marine Highway Ferry. No land connection.
  Nearest airport:  Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport (SIT)
Travel Details



From Train Station






The Amtrak and bus station is within 0.25 miles from the ferry depot.


Sitka, AK


To Airport




Hotel Shuttle
Westmark Sitka Hotel
phone: 907-747-6241
Advanced Reservations Required


Per Person/One Way:


Prices are subject to change.


Travel Time:


5 minutes 




1.5 Miles


You can place your reservation for the shuttle at the hotel the night prior to your departure. They have pre-scheduled shuttle departures based on the airport's Alaska Airline flight schedules.


SeaTac Airport


From Airport




Commercial Van/Shuttle
Bellair Airporter Shuttle
phone: 866-235-5247
Advanced Reservations Required


Per Person/One Way:


$37 one way, $68 roundtrip
Prices are subject to change.


Travel Time:


2.5 hours (could be longer with traffic) 


Bellingham drop off points are: Bellingham Airport, Guest House Inn and Bellingham Cruise Terminal (BCT). Pickups/drop offs at BCT are only on days the Alaska Ferry arrives / departs so bookings must be made in advance. Meet the Bellair shuttle outside of the baggage claim, door #00. Visit for additional information. The last shuttle departs at 1:00 PM, scheduled to arrive at the terminal at 3:40 PM. Please plan your flights accordingly. Earlier shuttles are available.




From Airport




Yellow Cab
phone: 360-734-8294


Per Person/One Way:


Prices are subject to change.


Travel Time:


20 minutes 




10 miles


When booking your flights for Bellingham, be sure to include additional time for unexpected travel delays. We encourage you to arrive early the day the program begins. We recommend that your flight arrives in Bellingham by 2:30 PM the first day of the program. Lockers are available on Fridays for ferry passengers for $1 per day (plus a $5 deposit). Lockers are roller bag sized. If you arrive early, we suggest walking to the community of Fairhaven to explore the cafés and shops.

Driving Directions
  Bellingham (from Seattle) Travel I-5 North to Bellingham. Take exit 250. Follow the signs to the Bellingham Cruise Terminal (approximately 1.5 miles). It is easy to find, and the route is well marked. The Port of Bellingham has a number of convenient parking areas near the Alaska Marine Highway Terminal (Bellingham Cruise Terminal) and Fairhaven Transportation Station. Payment for parking is by cash or check (made out to the Port of Bellingham) in US funds. The long term parking lot is located across from the Fairhaven Transportation Station on Harris Avenue. The parking lot gate is locked in the evenings between 10:45 and 11:00 PM and is reopened each morning between 6:30 and 7:30 AM. A self-pay station is located at the entrance. Pay slots correspond to parking stall numbers. Current rates are $6 daily and $30 weekly. For additional information, contact the Port of Bellingham at 360-676-2500.
The prices listed for commercial services and facilities that are not included in the program cost, such as airport shuttles or extra nights lodging, are subject to change without notice. Since Road Scholar cannot guarantee the accuracy of these prices, we strongly suggest contacting the companies directly for the most up-to-date information.

Daily Schedule

Day 1: Depart Bellingham. North to Alaska!
(Friday, October 31)
 Arrive To: Check in at the Ferry Terminal at 4:00 PM. The group will meet in the upstairs portion of the terminal which is accessible by elevator or stairs. The group will walk onto the ferry from this location.
 Afternoon: Board vessel, locate your room and orient yourself to the vessel.
 Dinner: Meals are taken in the ferry cafeteria. There isn't dedicated eating space for our group. Instead will take our meals with the general ridership. Food is ample and good and there are several choices, often including seafood.
 Evening: Orientation to program and introductions
Accommodations: Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
Meals Included: Dinner

Day 2: British Columbia's Inside Passage
(Saturday, November 1)

Note: We will be crossing open water today. If you are prone to sea sickness, you may want to have some Dramamine. It is also sold aboard the vessel.

 Breakfast: In the ferry cafeteria
 Morning: An introduction to Alaska terminology will start off our morning. An Overview of the State of Alaska will help orient you to Alaska's Inside Passage and the areas we will visit. Today we will be passing through British Columbia and we will not be stopping at any ports. Watching for orca and humpback whales as well as bald eagles will be high on our agenda. Several programs will be offered, but we always interupt them for wildlife sightings! Two open water crossings, Queen Charlotte Sound and Milbanke Sound are negotiated today.
 Lunch: In the ferry cafeteria
 Afternoon: Pre-port lecture for the city of Ketchikan. Late afternoon will include a Meet and Greet Reception in the bar.
 Dinner: In the ferry cafeteria
Accommodations: Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 3: Ketchikan's Native Culture/Brief stop in Wrangell (if port time allows)
(Sunday, November 2)

Note: There will be a 1/2 mile walk in Ketchikan. The stop in port will be based on the ferry's port schedule, but will be an early morning arrival with a stop of about 3 to 4 hours. The stop in Wrangell is very short, so we will disembark only if time allows, and for no more than 45 minutes.

 Breakfast: In ferry cafeteria
 Morning: During the night we crossed into Alaskan waters. An orientation talk will prepare us for the first port of call, Ketchikan. We will take an excursion through Ketchikan and learn about its history and lifestyle with an emphasis on the native culture.
 Lunch: In ferry cafeteria
 Afternoon: Back aboard, we make our way through the Alaskan portion of the Inside Passage toward Wrangell. The port talk will cover interesting items of Wrangell's history, including the John Muir connection. If time allows, we will take a brief walking tour in Wrangell, a logging community.
 Dinner: In the ferry cafeteria
 Evening: Free time--the observation lounge is a great place to spend an evening watching the lights as the ferry sails along. If you want to read a book the best location is the cafeteria area as the observation lounge lights turn off at night so as not to obstruct the navigation of the ferry.
Accommodations: Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 4: Mendenhall Glacier/Lynn Canal/Haines
(Monday, November 3)

Note: Walk from bus to glacier viewing area 1/4 mi. Walks in Haines will be no more than 1 mile total.

 Breakfast: In the ferry cafeteria
 Morning: The capital city of Juneau will be visited today. After the orientation port talk we will be on our way. Depending on the ferry schedule, our field trip will take us to the Mendenhall Glacier. After viewing the blue ice and the peaceful lake at the base as well as the visitor's center, we may be able to fit in a tour of the city.
 Lunch: In the ferry cafeteria
 Afternoon: Back on board we continue northward up the Lynn Canal, one of the most stunning fjords in the world. Instructors offer educational programming along the way on our journey to Haines.

We will make an 4 hour stop in Haines, an area known for the greatest winter gathering of bald eagles on earth! Our visit will explore several wildlife habitats including ocean, estuary, river, lake, muskeg, and rain forest. Spotting scopes will be provided as we search for wildlife. We'll catch the ferry as it returns to Haines en route to Sitka. We will pass back through Juneau during the night.

 Dinner: In the ferry cafeteria
Accommodations: Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 5: Disembark Sitka/Afternoon Excursion
(Tuesday, November 4)
 Breakfast: In the ferry cafeteria
 Morning: Watch for birds and wildlife as we approach Sitka.
 Lunch: In the ferry cafeteria.
 Afternoon: We will disembark the ferry in Sitka and transfer to our hotel for the remainder of our program. After checking in we will begin our exploration of Sitka in preparation for the WhaleFest! Our activity this afternoon will be dependent on weather, but will highlight the native Tlingit culture.
 Dinner: At the hotel
 Evening: Free Time
Accommodations: Westmark Hotel Sitka
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 6: Russian History/Historical Walk/Russian Bishop's House/St. Michael's Cathedral
(Wednesday, November 5)

Note: Guided walk in Sitka will be approximately 1/2 mile in length.

 Breakfast: At the hotel.
 Morning: This morning will include a talk on Russian history followed by a historical walk through Sitka. Although Sitka's location was originally settled by the Tlingit people over 10,000 years ago, the city's evident Russian influence began in the late 1700's. Sitka was an important governing site and its Russian rule ended with the signing of the Alaska Purchase.
 Lunch: Local restaurant.
 Afternoon: This afternoon we will step back in history to visit the Russian Bishop's House and St. Michael's Cathedral. The Russian Bishop's House is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. It was completed in 1842 and was the center of a Russian Orthodox Church diocese that stretched from California to Siberia. St. Michael's Cathedral, the earliest Orthodox cathedral in the New World, was built in the nineteenth century, when Alaska was under the control of Russia. It burned down and was re-built in the 1960's, but contains icons dating to the mid 17th century.
 Dinner: At the hotel
Accommodations: Westmark Hotel Sitka
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 7: Sitka National Historic Park/Sheldon Jackson Museum/Sitka Sound Science Center Activity/Film Festival
(Thursday, November 6)

Note: Today's activities will include a walk of 3/4 mile.

 Breakfast: At the hotel.
 Morning: Today we will walk through the Sitka National Historical Park. The trails in the park along the coastline highlight Tlingit and Haida totem poles. We'll then visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum, the oldest museum in Alaska whose collection has been called "a jewel in the crown" of Alaska cultural collections.
 Lunch: Lunch at the hotel.
 Afternoon: This afternoon we will have an introduction to the Sitka Sound Science Center the sponsors of the WhaleFest. We will join with a member of their staff for a science based activity. This science center is dedicated to increasing the understanding and awareness of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the Gulf of Alaska which is the main focus of the WhaleFest activities.
 Dinner: At the hotel.
 Evening: Tonight we will join in the opening activity of the WhaleFest with attendance at the Maritime Film Festival. The festival will showcase student videos highlighting their diverse research in the marine sciences.
Accommodations: Westmark Hotel Sitka
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 8: History of WhaleFest/Introduction to the Sitka Sound Science Center Facility/Marine Symposium Presentations/Reception/Maritime Grind
(Friday, November 7)
 Breakfast: At the hotel.
 Morning: Walk to the Sitka Sound Science Center for a discussion of the history of the WhaleFest followed by a guided exploration of the center which continues the influence of Sitka in the history and study of marine biology in the North Pacific. Be sure to ask about the pet project of your program leaders!
 Lunch: WhaleFest Market Cafe
 Afternoon: This afternoon will feature the first 3 in our series of 9 lectures covering the focus of this year's festival. The lectures will be presented by world renowned scientists in the field of Marine Science. This will be followed by a special discussion session for our group with one of the visiting scientists.
 Dinner: Reception at Sitka Sound Science Center
 Evening: Attend the Maritime Grind, a Sitka Tradition which showcases local talent as well those of some of the visiting scientists. Enjoy an amazing voicing of traditional Sea Shanties to get the festival rolling!
Accommodations: Westmark Hotel Sitka
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 9: Wildlife Quest Cruise/Marine Symposium Presentations/Keynote Banquet
(Saturday, November 8)

Note: Dress warmly and bring a rainproof jacket to wear on the observation deck of the vessel during our wildlife quest.

 Breakfast: At the hotel.
 Morning: From mid-September until mid-January, the waters of Sitka Sound are home to many humpback whales. Cruise these waters in search of whales, sea lions, bald eagles and a variety of marine birds on a vessel equipped with a warm and comfortable cabin with large windows, a snack bar and restrooms. Visit the topside observation deck for photo opportunities. An on board naturalist will explain the workings of this remarkable ecosystem.
 Lunch: WhaleFest Market Cafe
 Afternoon: Attend the next 3 lectures in the festival series followed by another special discussion session for our group with one of the visiting scientists.
 Dinner: WhaleFest Keynote Banquet
Accommodations: Westmark Hotel Sitka
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 10: Free Time/Marine Symposium Presentations/Family Concert
(Sunday, November 9)
 Breakfast: At hotel.
 Morning: Enjoy some free time to rest and relax, explore the festival's market or take an additional wildlife cruise. The cruise will need to be booked in advance as it may fill up prior to the start of the festival. The cruise can be booked on the festival website,
 Lunch: WhaleFest Market Cafe
 Afternoon: This afternoon will feature the last 3 scientific lectures in our festival series. The lectures will again follow with a special discussion session for our group with one of the visiting scientists.

A family concert will follow the final lectures. Sing along with your new Sitka family!

 Dinner: At a local restaurant.
Accommodations: Westmark Hotel Sitka
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 11: Farewell and Safe Travels Home!
(Monday, November 10)
 Breakfast: At hotel.
 Morning: Independent departures and hotel check out by 11:00 AM.
Meals Included: Breakfast

Free Time Opportunities
  Sitka, AK Charter fishing
World class salmon and halibut fishing on a chartered boat with all gear provided. Non-resident fishing license may be purchased from captain. A list of charter operators can be found online. For additional information, visit
9 holes in a fantastic setting. Rentals available. For additional information, visit
There are hiking trails easily accessed from downtown Sitka. Maps are available.
Local rentals of sea kayaks and gear. They provide basic safety lessons and guides if needed. For additional information, visit
Three museums are located in Sitka: Sitka National Historic Park (concentrating on the local Tlingit culture); Sitka Historical Museum (concentrating on Sitka after purchase) and Sheldon Jackson State Museum (concentrating on the native cultures of all Alaska). For additional information, visit;
  Inside Passage, Alaska and Washington Alaska State Chamber of Commerce
For additional information, visit
  Bellingham/Whatcom County Convention & Visitor's Bureau
For additional information, visit
  Fairhaven in Bellingham, WA
The Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Terminal has luggage lockers that can be rented for a small fee from the terminal's front desk. If you arrive early, you may rent a locker for your luggage and walk to this area of Bellingham which is about 4 blocks from the ferry building. This area has many restaurants and shops. For additional information, visit
Important information about your itinerary: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information featured on this website. Itineraries are based on our best information at this time. Circumstances beyond our control may require us to adjust itineraries or other details. We regret any inconvenience this may cause and appreciate your understanding. Information will be sent to you from your Program Provider approximately three weeks prior to the program start date. The prices listed for commercial services and facilities that are not included in the program cost, such as airport shuttles or extra nights lodging, are subject to change without notice. Since Road Scholar cannot guarantee the accuracy of these prices, we strongly suggest contacting the companies directly for the most up-to-date information.

Suggested Reading List


Author: James Michner

Alaska Trees and Shrubs

Author: Leslie Viereck and Elbert Little

Best Tales of the Yukon

Author: Robert Service

Description: Robert W. Service, a bank clerk, began writing about the Yukon after he was transferred to the Whitehorse Branch of a Canadian bank six years after the Klondike Gold Rush. Inspired by the beauty of the Yukon wilderness, Robert Service wrote some of the most expressive poetry of his age. Many favorites from Service's poetry, which depicts the trials and tribulations of the Yukon gold mining life, are included in "Tales from the Yukon"-including such memorable poems as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," "The Law of the Yukon," and "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

Guide to the Birds of Alaska

Author: Robert H. Armstrong

Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast

Author: Hilary Stewart

Roadside Geology of Alaska

Author: Cathy Conner and Daniel O'Haire

The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush

Author: Pierre Berton

Description: In 1897 a grimy steamer docked in Seattle and set into epic motion the incredible succession of events that Pierre Berton's exhilarating The Klondike Fever chronicles in all its splendid and astonishing folly. For the steamer Portland bore two tons of pure Klondike gold. And immediately, the stampede north to Alaska began.

The Nature of Southeast Alaska

Author: Robert H. Armstrong, Rita M O'Clair & Richard Carstensen

The Sea Runners

Author: Ivan Doig

Description: In this timeless survival story, four indentured servants escape their Russian Alaska work camp in a stolen canoe, only to face a harrowing journey down the Pacific Northwest coast. Battling unrelenting high seas and fierce weather from New Archangel, Alaska, to Astoria, Oregon, the men struggle to avoid hostile Tlingit Indians, to fend off starvation and exhaustion, and to endure their own doubt and distrust. Although fictional it is based on an actual incident in 1853.

The Thousand Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians

Author: Brian Garfield

Description: The Thousand-Mile War, a powerful story of the battles of the United States and Japan on the bitter rim of the North Pacific, has been acclaimed as one of the great accounts of World War II.

Travels in Alaska

Author: John Muir

Description: Take a trip to last century's Alaska through Muir's clean, easy-going, enthusiastic prose. He wrote the way he took pictures, with insight, attention, care and genuine feeling.

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