We've been to Sitka before, on an earlier cruise, and we checked out the land attractions then—the totem poles, the city, the Sheldon Jackson College which has since closed and the space is housing a museum /youth educational facility. So, this time we wanted to spend some time seeing wildlife. I'd heard about a shelter/rescue facility for orphaned bear cubs and had thought it was within walking distance from the town center, but that proved not true; it's more like 8 miles or so, one way. One of the HAL shore excursions paired a visit there with a small boat trip on the local waterways and that seemed the best solution since we wouldn't need to time the two activities on our own. The day in Sitka isn't that long and it's a tender port, besides.
We visited the Fortress of the Bear first, learning more about the city and life there from the excellent guide who accompanied our bus out to the Fortress. At the Fortress we learned that while orphan cubs aren't rare, there's no shortage of bears in the area so rescuing them can't be claimed to be saving an endangered species. Clearly their mission is humanitarian for those specific animals, but they have found a way to give those bears a useful life later; they can't all stay in the limited facilities that the Fortress has. Because most of their cubs were separated from their mothers before reaching full growth they are neither socialized to return to the wild or to interact with humans. But if the bears can learn to live comfortably and happily in the presence of humans, there is some need in public zoos (not animal shows!) for a few bears, so this is the approach they are presently using. They have placed two or three bears in city zoos within the last couple of years and have two more that are being socialized for eventual release to similar situations. The public-viewing area isn't large but there is more area "behind the scenes" and the bears can freely move between the two spaces.
We'd assumed that the water trip would feature whales and we did see many of them but the real highlight was the appearance of the sea otters. The boat came very close, silently, and various groups of otters would pop up in areas almost next to the ship. The pictures will suggest how fascinating we found these wild animals!