One of the reasons we are here in Alaska is because we love animals, and we especially love seeing them in the wild. We feel a special connection to and are often in search of wildlife. And our second cruise to the Kenai Fjords was an extra special one.
There is something about the whales that especially captivates us, perhaps their intelligence, the way they form social structures, the sounds they make to communicate, or maybe all of those things and others that we just cannot put into words.
So each summer when we have been by the northern seas on our walkabout, we have devoted quality time to whale watching. Going out looking for the whales in kayaks, zodiacs, and small to large motorboats. And we have seen lots of whales; blue, fin, humpback, minke, beluga, gray, pilot and orcas (although technically pilot whales and orcas are part of the dolphin family).
Our goal in Seward was to go on several wildlife cruises. We were interested in some of the longer cruises, but not sure we would be able to go because of Angel. But we found a pet-sitter to walk Angel during the day. So after our six-hour cruise earlier in the week, we booked two other full day wildlife/glacier cruises, one with each of the two major companies in town.
Unfortunately, rain was on the forecast every day of the week. We spent time on the harbor checking out marine weather forecasts and cruise availability. There was a small window of slightly better weather in the middle of the week so we chose that as one of our days to head out on the water.
We embarked on a nine-hour cruise on the Tanaina with Kenai Fjords Tours to the Northwest Glacier.
This was a different route than our first tour and cruised deeper into the Kenai Fjords National Park covering 150 miles or so.
The morning was partly sunny and the seas were completely calm although rain was forecast for the afternoon. But we were prepared for all weather eventualities.
Once again we found adorable sea otters just outside of the harbor. They were eating and grooming, their two primary activities. Sea otters’ coats have the greatest density of fur of any mammal, with 650,000 hairs per square inch. Since they have no blubber, they have to keep their coats clean to maintain their insulating properties.
Their luxurious fur was the cause of the initial trapping expeditions by the Russians in the 1700s and the later trapping by the Americans that ultimately led to near extinction. So nice to see this beautiful creature’s numbers at least somewhat recovered.
As we continued our cruise, we passed by several glaciers. Kenai Fjords National Park protects 669,983 acres or more than a thousand square miles. Ice, which once covered this entire area, now covers 51% of the park.
The fjords that we cruised in are bodies of water that flow to the sea surrounded by rocky cliffs. These valleys were carved by glaciers leaving jagged cliffs near the sea. When the glaciers receded seawater entered the valleys, mixing with melting glacial water. These waters are rich in minerals, have abundant plant and animal life, and are considered fjord estuaries.
There are thirty-eight known glaciers in the park that flow out of the Harding Icefield. The icefield comprises the center of the Kenai Peninsula. The largest of the glaciers is Bear Glacier, thirteen miles long and a mile wide. More than just ice, this place is a fascinating ecosystem.
We arrived at the Chiswell Islands, located in the Alaska Maritime National Widlife Refuge, adjacent to the national park.
Both tufted and horned puffins flew all around and nested in the rocky cliffs. These bright bills and crazy orange feet are not a year round thing, this is their breeding plumage. The rest of the year their colors are more subdued.
The Northwestern Fjord, our furthest destination, was covered in ice one hundred years ago. There are eight major glaciers here, and our next stop was the Northwestern Glacier, an active, calving tidewater glacier. Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that extend out to the ocean. Yes, it was cold.
As we arrived at Northwestern Glacier, we got a glimpse of the boat that we were due to go out on next, the Viewfinder – more on that in the next post. This was the only other boat we saw all day in this remote place.
This is thought to be a feeding behavior to stun fish, or an aggressive behavior, though we saw no other whales nor boats nearby. The whale then dove and was gone.
Sooty shearwaters, which tend to arrive ahead of storm systems went flying by.
Then our captain said that he saw a humpback whale breaching in the distance. This was incredibly exciting. We were quite far, and I am so impressed that he saw it. He sped up the boat to get closer to the whale and even then it took a while to get close enough to see her with the naked eye.
By the time we got close, she was still breaching, although only about half of her body came out of the water. It is still such a sight to see these giants hurl any part of their bodies above the water.
It really took our breath away. Everyone was entranced watching her. Many times she came down on her back and then did what is called pectoral slapping, throwing her long pectoral fins above the water and slapping them against its surface.
She continued to breach and slap her fins for what seemed like a long time. Theories about breaching include that it is also used for foraging (stunning prey so that the fish gather closer together), communication (the slap is heard by other whales miles away), courting, or as play. It is yet another mystery of the whales.
It was incredible that this immense creature could breach and remain this active for so long. And we were so thankful to be a part of that experience.
We watched for a long time, then it was time to head back, but this beautiful breaching whale was truly the highlight of our cruise.