Chris Condor knows that when people visit Juneau for the first (or fourth) time, there’s one thing they want to do: see whales. He’s operated whale watching tours longer than anyone in the capital city, and is so sure that his customers will spot a whale he gives them 100 percent money-back guarantee if it doesn’t happen.
But that’s rare. He knows how to find whales.
For the Southern California native turned Alaskan, the ocean has been part of his entire life, and he’s passionate about sharing it with others.
Conder operates Rum Runners Charters (907-789-5482) in Juneau. “When I came to Juneau I bought a boat and I was taking people out all the time, and I enjoyed it so I thought I might as well make a living doing it.”
Conder, “Captain Chris,” if you like, came to Alaska when he was working on a liberal arts degree at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in the late ‘80s, and he moved to Juneau to open Rum Runner Charters in 1993. Rum Runners Charters consists of two 31-ft. cabin cruisers, the Rum Runner and the Buccaneer.
“We like the pirate theme,” he explained, as if the skull and crossbones logo and the ships’ names didn’t already give it away.
Whatever you want to call the boats, Conder prides himself in the fact that both of them are squeaky clean and in ship-shape when passengers climb aboard.
“I don’t think anybody spends as much time and energy making sure the boats are clean and nice. We really work at that when they come on the boat it’s a top-notch experience. We really try to give an upscale trip.”
Part of the trip includes the experience of watching whales breach, seeing seals frolic and eagles fish. In fact, Conder is so confident you’ll see whales on your voyage that he offers that money back guarantee if for some reason they don’t show up.
“We go where the whales are,” he said. “They do a lot of breaching here. They’re here to feed. Our (whale) population comes from Hawaii and they come to feed on krill and herring. They usually show up in April and can stay until December.”
“We see orcas weekly and humpback whales every day, but we also run into porpoise pods, silver salmon runs. We see harbor seals, which are really cute, and white-sided dolphins.”
Conder limits the number of passengers on each boat to six, and “we love kids and families. We’re private. We don’t do big groups,” he said. “We’re very family oriented. We’re not particularly wheelchair friendly, but we can take them out if they’re not too heavy. We try to work with people and make our trips match our passengers’ needs. But watching a kid get his first fish is a memorable thing.”
If you’d like to go fishing, Rum Runner Charters offer combination trips, where fishing and photography are part of your day. “You never know what you’re going to pull up when you’re bottom fishing,” he said. “You never know what type of rockfish you’re going to pull up. They are really thorny creatures.”
You may even be joined on your voyage by Brandi, a yellow lab who loves fishing.
“The dog is very enthusiastic about the wildlife and the fish,” Conder said. “If she had thumbs she’d pull the fish into the boat for you.”
The boats themselves are well-suited to small groups of a half-dozen, Conder said, and they’re large enough to handle the 300-lb. halibut they once caught. (They didn’t keep the fish because at that size they’re not terribly tasty.) On another occasion, they caught a 64-lb. king salmon.
Meanwhile, a trip on the two ships is likely to be highly comfortable — seasickness is a rarity, Conder said.
“The boats are fairly heavy so they do take the seas well,” he said. “We’ve even gone back if somebody gets sick. There’s nothing worse than being seasick. We don’t want anyone to have a miserable trip. It happens but it’s rare. The seas are not that bad, and the boats are fairly heavy so they do take seas well. They’re all top-notch for safety, way above the minimum Coast Guard standards.”
During the winter, Conder teaches math and science at the Johnson Youth Center, a detention and treatment facility in Juneau. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching people about things,” he explained, and the experience allows him to put his masters degree in teaching with a specialty in sciences to good use.
Prior to opening Rum Runners, Conder worked in marine research on the Arctic ice pack.
“When I was working on the ice pack with the Naval Research Lab, I was a jack-of-all-trades up there,” he said. “We’d dive under the ice pack to measure oil toxicity, looking to see how it affected small marine life, small invertebrates, stuff like that. We’d go down and collect various critters and do some fake oil spills under the ice to see how the oil spread and how it behaves under the ice. We did a lot of deep water sampling, collected herring and kelp.”
While Conder had no harrowing experiences under the ice, he said: “It’s kind of like cave diving. You’d better be able to find the hole in the ice.”
As the season approaches, Conder is looking forward to being back on the water. In the meantime, there’s no place he would rather be than in Alaska and on its seas.
“I’ve always loved the ocean,” Conder said. “And I’ve got the mountains and the green. It’s green all the time here unless it’s white. In May and June it just turns emerald around here. Every time I go out the scenery is so spectacular. People say, don’t you ever just get used to it? No. It’s always different every time I go out.”