Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise + a National Geographic moment

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Wow! What an amazing day!

Many of you know that we are NOT early risers, being more night owls than early birds, so this morning’s alarm at 5:00am was a bit unwelcome! However, with a 4-hour drive to Seward ahead of us in order to take the Kenai Fjords National Park (pronouned “KEY-nigh”) cruise, such an early start was required. So we rolled out of bed, cleaned up, grabbed Chase and the camera/fleece/water and hopped in the Ridgeline as quietly as we could, while the lucky RVers near us slept in. 🙂

The day was (guess what) overcast! Yes, just like every single day since we arrived in Alaska on July 27th. But the low-lying clouds were separated from the higher clouds, and the resulting appearance against the mountains was quite pretty.

The drive down Alaska 1 along the Turnagain Arm was again really beautiful, and just south of Portage Glacier (or half the distance to Seward) Tim took over driving and I fell asleep for about 15 minutes. I woke up to find Tim doing a u-turn in one of Alaska 9’s many the pullouts and saying to me, “Wake up! You’re going to want to see this!”

He drove back up the highway about 1000 feet and stopped in a narrow pullout along Kenai Lake, where we saw an amazing vista (represented in the first scenic lake/mountain shots below) of mountains and clouds reflected in the blue-green waters of the lake. What a sweet man! He had caught a glimpse of this spot and realized that I would want to photograph this kind of beauty, so he turned around and stopped for me to do so, even while I was sleeping! He’s the best!

So we stood outside in the pristine beauty and tried to record the beauty around us…even going so far as to stand up in the truck bed to get the best view possible from the road! We hope you enjoy the photos!

Continuing on to Seward, the sun appeared and we realized that Google Maps had lied to us: we didn’t need 4 hours, but rather 3.5, and so with the extra time we had built into our schedule to allow for stopping, checking in 1 hour early for the cruise, as recommended, etc., we had a chance to explore Seward by truck and still catch a 45-minute nap in the truck before catching the shuttle to the harbor. It was delicious! 🙂

Seward is a neat little town. With the harbor being very deep, something like 1000 feet, it used to be the only real port for supplies to be brought into Alaska. At one time the waterfront was apparently completely filled with all the accoutrements of an industrial port, including gas/petrol tanks to fuel the various delivery vehicles taking those supplies from the ships to the rest of Alaska.

That all changed on Good Friday in March of 1964, when the great Alaskan earthquake (aka the Good Friday Earthquake) took place, registering a 9.2 on the Richter Scale and shaking the earth for nearly 5 minutes. As you can imagine that created swells in the harbor that subsequently destroyed all the piers, etc., and pushed the demolished town and harbor elements inland about a mile and set the gas tanks on fire. Seward was burning on land and also the oil and gas that spilled was on fire in the harbor.

So Seward had to rebuild, and in doing so, they chose to not rebuild the entire waterfront area for industrial use, but instead left nearly all of it as a park and today it was bustling and active with tent and RV campers in the many sites that spread throughout the park.

Our cruise departed Seward at 11:30am, and the sun was shining. All the cruise personnel were congratulating us on having chosen such a rare, sunny day for the cruise, and we thought “Great! This is going to be an amazing day of weather and more!”

As our catamaran, the Kenai Fjords ToursOrca Voyager, pulled out of the marina, we spotted two sea otters just off the starboard (right) side of the ship, lazing along on their backs with paws and hind flippers crossed (why they do this), looking at us, occasionally rolling over and then onto their backs again, but generally just looking super-cute and relaxed. My zoom lens broke about a year ago and I haven’t yet replaced it, so we couldn’t get as close a shot as I would have liked. Check out Tim’s video of these otters on our Facebook page!

About 10 minutes into the cruise the weather changed, reverting back to full cloud cover and rain. But despite the weather, the captain remarked that this was a rather unique day in terms of how calm the Gulf of Alaska was today (very low sea state), and thus we were able to go a bit further offshore and try to see larger mammals in the water.

The captain was also the wildlife interpreter and did a fabulous job of both guiding the boat right up into the various coves to see wildlife as well as being entertaining and informative! We learned a lot, and saw lots of sea gulls (two types), crested and horned puffins, cormorants, and a majestic bald eagle perched high on a tree. We also saw common murres (pronounced “meers”), the northern hemisphere’s equivalent to a penguin that can also fly (“birds with solid bones, built for sinking,” as the captain described them), and learned that these amazing creatures can dive 600 feet underwater for food! He cautioned us that if we saw one flying toward us and looking like it might hit us to be aware that it might very well do so, as they are not very good at flying. They are also gluttons, and sometimes eat so much that they can’t actually take off from the water because “their payload is great than their thrust!” An entertaining description from the captain, once again. Indeed, we saw a few cases of that while we were out today!

As we worked our way through the small islands at the outer edges of the fjords, we saw numerous outcroppings with birds. Up close, it looked like the birds were on display, each in their own crevice of the rock as though in some kind of uniquely designed curio cabinet. It was pretty cool…a word that we kept saying and hearing for the entire 6-hour cruise!

We also saw several outcroppings covered with stellar sea lions, and even saw one sea lion using another sea lion as a pillow, lying completely on top of another one as they rested on the rocks. These sea lions are larger and lighter in color than the sea lions in California, and they were a beautiful creamy brown color.

There were several “bait balls” of herring/crill/etc. in the water today, and at one of them we saw lots of birds feeding and then a big treat: 2 humpback whales! A mom and her calf were also feeding there, with the mother hanging out just below the surface of the water skim feeding, and the calf making occasional lunges with its mouth up and out of the water. We stayed for a while and watched them feed from the port side of the boat, around the front of the boat, and then make a curiosity pass 5 FEET FROM THE BOAT (!!) on the starboard side, before continuing to feed behind the boat. Essentially they swam in a big circle around us as the motors were killed on our boat and we just floated there, watching. It was amazing to see, and a closer sighting of whales than we had ever seen in our previous 3 whale watching tours on either coast of the US. They never breached nor did we see the flukes of their tails, so there isn’t much in the way of photographs of this encounter, but it was amazing, even with the rain!

Next we saw a mother sea otter and her baby, swimming around the edge of one of the islands. So cute! And of course, lots of orange and purple sea stars (starfish) along the edges as well. We also saw several Dall’s porpoises, which look like small orca whales, but they were too busy feeding to be sociable today, sadly. However, we learned that they are the 2nd-fastest mammal in the ocean, behind their cousins the orca whales. Didn’t know that!

We cruised up one fjord to sit near the Aialik Glacier (pronounced “eye-ALL-ick”) to watch it calve ice into the water, and were not disappointed. On the way to where the glacier meets the water, we encountered a river of ice. The captain had to swerve, slow, and sometimes stop the boat in order to navigate through the chunks of ice in the water, the result of calving. We heard lots of thunks as the hulls hit pieces of ice, but made it through without a Titanic experience! 🙂

The glacier was really cool to see! We have some videos of it on our Facebook page, and it was sobering to me to realize that what we were looking at was 1.5 miles across from left to right, and extended nearly 3 miles back up to the Harding Ice Field (scroll down to the bottom), where it originates as one of several glaciers from that ice field. Oh, and here’s another quick piece of trivia for you: The Kenai Peninsula is almost 75% covered with glacial ice. The glacier was really, really blue (the captain said it appears more blue on overcast days), with some parts of a deep sapphire color, and the bulk of it a robin’s egg blue. Of course, the ice really isn’t blue. It’s just the result of refracted light, etc.

In the approximately 40 minutes we spent parked about 1/4 mile from the glacier (which seemed MUCH closer), we saw several small chunks break off and fall into the water, each with its own peal of thunder, and then, just before we were going to have to pull away to travel back toward Seward, a really large chunk broke off and slid down into the water. The roar was amazing! Oh, and we spotted a harbor seal hanging out beside a large chunk of ice in the water near the glacier as well!

At that point, we had only about 2 hours of time left in the cruise, which was about how far away we were from Seward, so we began traveling back. Suddenly, the captain announced that the 2-3 other vessels that were also out giving tours had discovered a “once-in-a-lifetime, National Geographic moment” taking place nearby. We headed over to join 2 other boats and observed from a distance at least 6 transient orca whales feeding on a porpoise they had killed earlier in the day. These transient orcas are not part of a family pod, they basically are a hunting party, as the captain described it, and he said he had only ever seen this type of activity 2 times before, and we were all hanging over the rails trying to see and photograph the fins and occasional rolls in the distance. I happened to look up to the upper level of the boat while this was happening and thought it was funny to see everyone focused on the same thing, which is why that picture is included below. 🙂

We sat across the table from an extremely nice and interesting couple from Chicago, Mike & Linda O’Brien, and had a great time visiting with these like-minded travelers! Upon returning to Seward (still raining!) we returned our rental binoculars and caught the shuttle back to the Ridgeline and our puppy, who had camped out there during the cruise, and drove the remaining 3.5 hours back to Wasilla and “home.”

Tomorrow we intend to go halfway back to Seward again, this time to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where we are told that we can photograph most of Alaska’s birds and animals in their natural environments, even without professional equipment like a long lens. Yay! So…recharging batteries tonight and looking forward to sharing pictures of moose, bear, common murres, elk, caribou, and more! Fingers crossed it won’t rain!

Ok. That’s it for today. Happy Sunday!

by candy

show hide 3 comments

08.08.2010 - 7:10 am

Cassie Wow! Sounds and looks like an amazing day!

08.08.2010 - 7:11 am

Joy Wow! Sounds like you had an amazing day! Sure glad Tim woke you up-those lake views are stunning!!!!!! And the otters are just too cute. Thanks for the photos!

08.08.2010 - 12:08 pm

candy Thanks Cassie & Joy! We had fun, despite the rain!

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