Kenai Fjords: The Four Ice Seals of the Apocalypse

                When I was in sixth grade, the Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound dumping ten million gallons of oil into the water. I knew about it, because Mrs. Winkler made us read about it in our current affairs unit. It was depressing, as was most of the news back then. We read articles in Current Science magazine about the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger disaster, the hole in the ozone, global warming, and lots of other cheery subjects for eleven-year-olds.

                The oil spill killed thousands of sea birds, marine mammals, and fish. It was upsetting at a remove, and now that I’ve been to Alaska to see these creatures in person, it seems like an unfathomable tragedy. But in Seward, we learned that some good did come out of the disaster. As part of their settlement for the damage, Exxon was forced to pay $37.5 million toward the construction of the Alaska Sea Life Center. A town like Seward, with about 2500 people, could never have built a state-of-the-art conservation center like this without that money.

                It may seem crazy after a day on a boat viewing wildlife, but my son and I decided to go the Sea Life Center the next morning. We’ve done this kind of thing before. In the environment of a zoo or aquarium, you can learn different things than you can in the wild. A smart phone helps enhance learning in the field, but the best places to see wild creatures are often the worst for cell service.

                Corona has severely limited the number of tourists visiting Alaska this summer, so we essentially had the aquarium to ourselves. At the first exhibit, we met a super helpful biologist named Derrick. He talked to us for quite a while about all the injured animals. They have otters and seals from all over the state. Our favorite was a little spotted seal who kept climbing out of his pool and doing little belly rolls for us. Like my kids, he knew exactly how cute he was, and he was milking it.

                My favorite takeaway from all the recovering animals was the existence of what Derrick called “the four ice seals”. Apparently, there are four species of Alaskan seal that live in the remote, icy Arctic and will basically never be seen by normal mortals like me. If I used footnotes, this would be the place for them, because I would like to leave it up to my reader to decide whether they care about the names of these seals. There is no way I’m not going to write them down. I’m bursting with it. They are the bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals. Somehow, someway, I’m going to see them. As yet another parenthetical, I’ll mention that when I googled “is there a ribbon seal in a zoo anywhere” I found that someone has looked up “is there a ribbon seal in the bible”. What the hell, people?

                I am equally obsessed with a new shark we learned about, the pacific sleeper shark. Apparently, scientists are only beginning to learn about them, and they are huge, as much as 23 feet long.  The biologist told us that the sharks can live for hundreds of years and that they feed on sea lions. I pictured them lurking around at the bottom of Resurrection Bay, which is one of the deepest bays in the world. They’re like an even more mysterious version of the Greenland Shark, which is one of my all-time favorites.

                We finished up the Sea Life Center with a swing through the lower levels where you can really get a good look at the marine mammals from underwater. My intuition about the California and Steller’s Sea Lions was dead wrong. From down there you could clearly see the that the male Steller’s they had was enormous. He must have weighed a ton, almost in the weight class of walrus.

                After the aquarium, we went back to the national park. First order of business, handing in the junior ranger book and getting sworn in. Through the corona-shielding plexiglass, he took his solemn vows and got his badge. Now when the park is in danger, they will light the junior ranger beacon and my son will have to fly back to Alaska to join with the other nine-year-olds in forming Voltron to protect the wildlife. Or is it Captain Planet?

                On our first visit, we had just sampled the trails around Exit Glacier. This time we wanted to make the difficult hike to the Harding Ice Field. The ice field is named for my favorite scandal-ridden president and my third favorite to die peacefully in office. Obviously, Harding trails William Henry Harrison (I died in thirty days) and FDR.

                We spotted a red-backed vole on the trail as soon as we started walking. Normally, I can’t tell one rodent from another, but there are signs all over the park announcing the existence of these little guys for some reason. As soon as we hit the steep portion of the trail, I realized my legs were dead. And it was a super steep trail. I brought three bottles of water and by the time we had hiked the two vertical miles to Marmot Meadows (great name for a British TV show) I had finished them. So, we pushed on a tiny bit to a point called Top of the Cliffs and called it a day. It was just high enough for my son to see his first glimpse of true, above-the-timberline, alpine tundra.

We were also within sight of the stunning expanse of the ice field. Until the twentieth century no one (and by that I’m sure they mean white people) realized that all the glaciers in the region were connected to a 700-square-mile ice field. It looked the way I imagine Antarctica looks, an intimidating blanket of whiteness dotted with crevasses, seraks, and other incomprehensible dangers. We got great pictures, but I was sad we couldn’t go any farther. Instead, we limped back down the mountain and made the long drive back to Nikiski. Tomorrow I’m rewarding myself with a lazy day around the cabin. Or at least that’s the plan.

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