Whittier | Prince William Sound
A popular day trip from Anchorage is the little town of Whittier, which is short drive or train ride past the Alyeska resort at Girdwood. The town is less scenic than its Kenai Peninsula cousin, Seward, largely because it was built as a military base and most of its roughly 200 permanent residents live in a single large condominium building.
During World War II, Alaska came under attack and two of the Aleutian Islands were occupied by Japanese forces. Whittier was developed as an all-season warm water port to bring soldiers and war materiel to Alaska by sea. Unfortunately, it was on the wrong side of the mountains from Anchorage, so army engineers had to excavate a tunnel, more than two miles in length, in order for the troops and provisions to reach their ultimate destinations. Today, the tunnel is used by the Alaska Railroad and is also open to private vehicles, making it very easy to get to Whittier from Anchorage. Visitors need to check the schedule of tunnel opening for vehicle traffic in each direction.
Whittier has an active boat harbor from which it is possible to embark on organized tours of Prince William Sound for glacier and wildlife viewing, to charter a small boat for a private tour, or to arrange a water taxi to be dropped off for kayaking. Each of these alternatives offers the opportunity to explore the rich waters of the Sound and to make a personal assessment of the residual impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. There is the certainty of seeing tidewater glaciers and the possibility of encountering interesting marine wildlife, including sea otters, seals, gray whales and killer whales.
A number of years ago, my son and I invited two friends to join us on a small boat charter out of Whittier. Our main purpose was to explore some of the bird rookeries that abound in the waters of the Sound, but we were also on the lookout for other wildlife, including marine mammals. As we were returning to the harbor in late afternoon, I remarked on feeling some surprise that we had not seen any whales close up, but just the hanging mist of some plumes on the horizon. As if on cue, only minutes after that comment a gray whale rocketed out of the water less than 100 feet from the boat.
It was a testament to the animal’s underwater swimming capacity that it had been able to swim so close to the boat without our seeing his spout beforehand. The whale then checked us out thoroughly, swimming closer and clearly giving us a good going over with one of his big round eyes before sounding deep, not to be seen again.