Haines is about 70 nautical miles from the Auke Bay Ferry terminal. Auke Bay is home to seals, sea lions, harbor porpoises, eagles and myriad birds, including marbled murrelets and striking sea ducks such as harlequin and Barrow's goldeneye.
It's not unusual to see Dall's porpoises as you leave the bay and move into Stephens Passage. These energetic marine mammals create a characteristic "rooster tail" of spray when they swim at the surface. This splashing wave creates a hollow pocket of air that allows them to breathe while swimming.
Numerous small islands and reefs in the area draw birds and sea lions. Black oystercatchers and pigeon guillemots nest on these islands, and red-necked phalaropes and wandering tattlers may be seen in the area in summer. The water along the coastline to the east of Shelter Island is known locally as "The Breadline," and the productivity of the area draws fishermen, sea lions and whales.
Shelter Island and Lincoln Island sit a few miles north and west of Auke Bay. North Pass runs between these islands, and the area is a hot spot for marine mammals. A combination of seafloor topography, currents and upwelling creates a food-rich zone that attracts fish and mammals. Humpback and killer whales frequent the area in summer, and Dall's porpoises and sea lions are common. Local whale watching tour boats capitalize on the predictability of wildlife sighting in this area.
Lynn Canal is a 1,000-foot-deep, three- to six-mile-wide fjord running north to Skagway. Like much of Southeast Alaska, it was named by British explorer George Vancouver on his famed voyage of discovery to Alaska in 1793-1794. The term canal implies a human-made waterway for most people, but this is a natural channel. A strike-slip fault (the Chatham Strait Fault) running the length of the waterway created a pathway for glaciers during the ice age, and ice gouged a valley that flooded when sea levels rose.
Southern Lynn Canal is one of the few areas in Southeast Alaska where it's possible to find humpback whales in winter - most likely young or old non-breeding animals that don't feel the call to migrate to Hawaii. The number of wintering whales is small, and concentrations increase significantly in April and May when the migrants arrive.
Two glaciers are visible to the east: Herbert and Eagle Glaciers. These rivers of ice melt and form two rivers which converge into a common channel, Eagle River. The outwash has created Eagle Beach, a popular local recreation area. This river delta is worth scanning for birds and seals. Large rafts of surf scoters and white-winged scoters can also be found feeding and resting near the shore.
The lighthouse on Sentinel Island just north of Eagle Beach is a landmark for Benjamin Island, a quarter mile to the east. Steller sea lions haul out on the rocky faces near the southwest corner of Benjamin Island. Sea lions tend to move to rookeries on the Outer Coast in summer months, but in fall, winter and spring the haulout on Benjamin Island usually swarms with bellowing sea lions jostling for space on the rocks. The 600- to 1,500-pound animals are seasonally abundant in area waters.
To the north of Benjamin Island, about halfway between Juneau and Haines, is Berners Bay. Four large glacial rivers empty into the estuary and bay, and the area is popular with Juneau kayakers and wildlife watchers. In late April and early May, millions of six-inch-long fish called eulachon (or hooligan) migrate into the bay to spawn. After the slim pickings of the lean Alaska winter, this influx of high-quality food attracts tens of thousands of birds and animals to the bay. The timing of the run coincides with the spring arrival of migrants such as Arctic terns. Eagles, sea ducks, marbled murrelets, Bonaparte's gulls and other gull species abound. Bear and moose can occasionally be seen along the shoreline.
Sea lions form massive packs and hunt cooperatively, herding and devouring the oil-rich fish. Berners Bay is the only place where this kind of cooperative behavior has been documented. Studies indicate that up to 10 percent of the entire population of sea lions in Southeast Alaska participates in this spring congregation in the bay.
Humpback whales are abundant in the bay during the spring hooligan run and may be found in the area throughout the summer. Humpback whales are often sighted around Point Bridget, at the south end of the Bay, and Point St. Mary at the north end.
Lions Head Mountain is a prominent landmark rising a mile above Berners Bay, and the peak holds spiritual significance for the Auk Kwaan tribe of the Tlingit. It is the southernmost summit in the Kakuhan Range, a spur of the Alaska Coastal Mountain Range. These steep peaks provide a look at some of the most rugged country on the Tongass National Forest. Unlike most national forests, much of the Tongass is treeless, a realm of alpine meadows, bare rock, snow and ice. The mountains that rise above northern Lynn Canal are over 5,000 feet high, well above the treeline.
A lighthouse between Berners Bay and the Katzahin River warns mariners of Eldred Rock, a low island and reef. Harbor seals typically haul out on these rocks at low tide.
The Chilkat Mountain Range lies on a peninsula to the west, separating Lynn Canal from Glacier Bay. In recent decades, moose have followed the western shore of Lynn Canal south and colonized the Glacier Bay area. The Davidson Glacier descends from the Chilkat Mountains at the northern end of Lynn Canal almost to the water. At this point, Lynn Canal is divided into two arms: Chilkat Inlet to the west, with the Chilkat River at its head; and Chilkoot Inlet, which leads to Skagway.
About eight miles south of Haines, the Katzehin River cuts through the mountains to the east. Fed by the Meade Glacier, the silty gray water of the Katzehin stands out in stark contrast to the blue green waters of Lynn Canal. A major sea lion haulout is located at Gran Point near the river's mouth, and sea lions frequent the area. Researchers have counted 500 animals on this haulout in late spring.
Haines is on the west side of Lynn Canal. The ferry terminal is a few miles north of town, in Lutak Inlet. Skagway is about 15 miles north of Haines, at the northern terminus of the fjord. The steep, glacially carved walls of the fjord rise three to four thousand feet from the water.
In both of these ports, look for river otters and seals cruising near shore. The rattling call of kingfishers, which nest in the cliffs to the west, can be heard as the birds hunt in the harbor. Arctic terns and barn swallows swoop acrobatically along the water, and powerful bald eagles and ravens scan the tideline and wing up the river valleys.