Kenai Fjords: Whale Watching among the Glaciers

                Having returned safely to the truck, still free of bear chew-marks, we headed into Seward to get dinner. Aside from Anchorage, Seward is the most town-looking town I’ve seen so far in Alaska. There is a main drag with a few shops and restaurants, all leading to the Alaska Sea Life Center on the water. It makes sense that Seward feels more like a town. It was a huge port until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake demolished its waterfront. It still is to some extent. There are port facilities at the northern end of Resurrection Bay. Seward reminded me a bit of Galveston, Texas (where I lived for one memorable year in the mid-2000s),a tourist town with grand memories of dominance before a disaster dashed its hopes.

                We hit the Seward Brewing Company for dinner. I tried a few new brews and helped my son with his junior ranger book. It was a nice, relaxing follow-up to a strenuous day. I love to cap off a day of hiking with a brewery visit. After dinner, we took a long walk along the waterfront, watching kittiwakes and sea otters, hoping for a glimpse of whales, porpoises, or seals. We ended up traveling about two miles north. In the little tide pools, we found isopods and crabs. There is a huge marina in Seward, and we walked around the boats for a bit. We were surprised to find a sea otter floating just feet away from us. Someone had caught a good size halibut and had either thrown it to the otter or had it stolen. He was rolling on his back, tearing into the fish and eating big, white, jiggling chunks. From time to time, he would drop his meal and dive to retrieve it. I couldn’t tell if it was a genuine mishap or whether he was playing with his food.

                Even with the midnight sun, we could tell it was getting late, so we trudged back to the truck. My whole plan was finding a quiet spot to park and camp. We ended up partway up the road to the national park in a little pullout. I hollowed myself out a little area in the bed of the truck and had a fitful night sleeping diagonally in a space that must have been exactly my height.

                The next morning, we had a fun adventure planned with a cruise into the glaciers and fjords. I got myself some much-needed coffee and then we met up with all the other tourists on the docks. For such a large boat, I could tell there were far fewer passengers than the company would have liked. That’s good for us though I suppose.

                As we steamed out into Resurrection Bay, we were surrounded by spectacular scenery. Everywhere I looked, there were glaciers, bright blue water, and the Bob Ross dots of spruce and hemlock covering the mountains. The captain, or at least the guy on the loudspeaker, was a park ranger and he seemed to know everything about the area. I had a moment of worry when he stopped the boat and made a big deal about a pair of bald eagles on the cliffs above. Bald eagles are beautiful, impressive birds and I’m as much of a patriot as the next guy, but they’re incredibly common in Alaska. You can go to the town dump in Kenai and see a hundred bald eagles. I hoped we were going to see better.

                We were. Just past the eagles, we came to a group of islands that shield the bay from the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Apparently, in 1964, these islands stopped a 100-foot tsunami from completely obliterating Seward. 100 feet, think about that. It’s hard to imagine. As we approached, we saw a group of boats floating and an absolute horde of kittiwakes circling above the water. What had attracted them was a small group of humpback whales. As we learned from the park ranger, this is not common behavior. Humpbacks are normally solitary, and this was a strange and rare group strategy called bubble net feeding. The whales dive and blow bubbles, stampeding fish into the mouths of their… I don’t know what to call them, friends? Compatriots? Co-conspirators? I didn’t even know big baleen whales ate fish. Each flamboyant dive gave us a perfect view of the tail flukes. Flukes are like fingerprints for humpbacks, no two are the same. It was like the whales were waving and saying, “Hey, make sure you remember it was Paul the Whale you saw. I’ll be here all week. Tip your servers!”

                We watched the whales awhile then moved on past the islands where we headed out into the open Gulf of Alaska. The captain claimed that from here you could travel south for ten thousand miles before hitting land in Antarctica. Whether that was true, the seas were pretty serious. We rolled and pitched so much that for the first time in my life I could at least understand the concept of getting seasick. My son was not so lucky and got hit with a full lesson. I had to let him lie on my lap with his eyes closed all the way until we sailed into the calmer waters of Aialik Bay.

                He perked up when we passed a rookery of Steller’s Sea Lions barking and lounging on the rocks of a craggy island. We’ve seen sea lions before in California, but these dwarf them. The endangered Steller’s is about four times the size of the California Sea Lion. We also got strafed by a horned puffin zooming by from its own nesting site on the same island. Puffins were one of the big reasons we wanted to come to Kenai Fjords.

                The hit list didn’t stop there. As we went into the bay, we saw a small pod of Dall’s porpoises racing the boat. Through the waves you could see their striped bodies hurtling through the water at thirty knots. They were considerably faster than our boat and they were having fun with it. Through the superior set of binoculars we had borrowed, my son spotted a sea otter floating several hundred yards from the boat. It was a mother with a little pup resting on her belly. When you pay a hundred bucks for a day at the aquarium you don’t see that kind of wildlife.

                At the end of the bay, we came to a narrowing of the fjord. I don’t know how to use those words. A fjord is a narrow waterway formed when glaciers carve out high cliffs. So, a bay can be a fjord and vice versa, right? Anyway, at the end of the bay/fjord we came to the intimidating bulk of Holgate Glacier. Our boat stopped several hundred yards away, just close enough that we were supposed to be able to hear the ice cracking. I heard nothing. There is a safety rule that says you should never get closer to a glacier than twice its height. We watched as a small sailboat shattered that rule and sailed in right under the ice. If the glacier had calved at that moment, they would have been done for. I was still jealous.

                We lingered there for a few minutes and the crew dipped into the sea for a hunk of iceberg. Then they sold margaritas on glacier ice for four dollars a pop. As I had slept in a car and skipped showering, and as it was just past noon, it didn’t seem like margarita-time to me, but that’s a cool gimmick. So, I had one. My rating: cruise margarita 4/10, glacier ice 10/10.

We came about then and steamed out of the bay. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride back when we struck wildlife gold yet again. Close in to a small, pebbly beach, we found a family of orcas playing about. There were at least five of them, and two were calves. Somehow, they were swimming about within about ten yards of shore. I gather that glacial bays drop off in depth sharply, but this must have been a dramatic shelf. The adult male with the group was huge. He swam around our boat as if scoping out a potential threat. With each dive, his huge dorsal fin stood out of the water at least as high as the lower deck of our boat.

After watching the orcas for a good twenty minutes, we headed back into the open sea to make our return trip. We passed floats of both types of puffin, horned and tufted, and made an even closer pass to the sea lions. The surfeit of creatures was exhausting, but we were happy. Back in port, I caved in and got us a motel room at a place across the street festooned with cartoonish drawings of most of the marine creatures we had just seen. Even the relentless midnight sun couldn’t keep us from sleeping early.

To be Continued…

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