DAY 5: More travel within this big land, today's highlight was the train ride on tracks running for some distance parallel to and just a few yards off the coastline of Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska as we approach Anchorage to join our ship.
The Cook Inlet Beluga whale, isolated from the others of its kind, is genetically distinct and considered by some a separate sub-species. It is exceedingly rare, with a total population counted in the few hundreds (one estimate you hear frequently is a total of just 312 animals).
And today they've come here to hunt for salmon.
The lines of cars parked along the road were the first sign that there was something special here to see. We soon spot a small pod, perhaps four or five snow white adults and a blue-gray juvenile. One doesn't stop a train even for whales, sadly, but we do get a perfect white fluke just outside our window as we travel on.
Whales are of course among the animals we've come here hoping to see: our list is Humpback and Orca, and we'd not thought Beluga likely, much less the Cook Inlet Beluga. Stark white with a very prominent, globular forehead, no dorsal (back) fin, this is a small whale (15 feet long on average, weighing about a ton and a half). The name means "white" in Russian (and, I'm told, is similar to my original surname, changed by some efficient bureaucrat when my great-grandfather came through Ellis Island).
An especially social, even playful animal, Belugas are sometimes called the "canaries of the sea" because of the whistles, chirps, squeaks and clicks they make. They are protected throughout their range but the Cook Island group is considered severely depleted and is on the endangered species list. I wonder how many more generations of travelers will have this same fortunate experience....