In Search of Wildlife

NW Fjord 98One 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.NW Fjord 83

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.NW Fjord 78

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).

NW Fjord 109Our 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.

NW Fjord 1Unfortunately, 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.

NW Fjord 8As with many times during visits to harbors, we found an adorable sea otter munching away.  They are so cute.  Making one funny pose after another.

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NW Fjord 9nwf_map_zoomWe 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.

And of course longer time on the water provides more opportunities to see wildlife.NW Fjord 13

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.

NW Fjord 14NW Fjord 15Once 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.NW Fjord 11

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.

NW Fjord 16NW Fjord 18As 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.NW Fjord 17

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.

NW Fjord 27NW Fjord 22As we continued our cruise and rounded Aialik Cape, we were greeted by sea stars peeking under receding waves.

We arrived at the Chiswell Islands, located in the Alaska Maritime National Widlife Refuge, adjacent to the national park.

Each of these rocky islands, spires and rocks is home to some type of wildlife, and we visited several of them during all of our cruises.NW Fjord 20NW Fjord 23NW Fjord 21NW Fjord 19

NW Fjord 29On this visit we saw a black oystercatcher and lots and lots of various seabirds.NW Fjord 28

Pigeon Guillemots

Parakeet Auklets

NW Fjord 30One of them, a glaucous-winged gull, was eating a sea star!  Gulp …

NW Fjord 60NW Fjord 58Both 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.NW Fjord 56

Bald Eagle perched at top.

Bald Eagle perched at top.

We continued on to an area called Cataract Cove, with two long waterfalls.  A  beautiful little spot on our way to Harris Bay.NW Fjord 32

NW Fjord 25NW Fjord 38NW Fjord 49The 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.NW Fjord 45NW Fjord 50

NW Fjord 39NW Fjord 37As 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.NW Fjord 40

NW Fjord 42NW Fjord 47We spent some time just floating around in front of the glacier.  There were lots of harbor seals on the icebergs all around.  We have never seen anything like it.

NW Fjord 44We waited and watched the glacier calve multiple times with ice falls big and small. There was one particular large chunk that was pretty impressive as it fell into the water.

NW Fjord 52NW Fjord 53It had gotten pretty cloudy as we drifted in front of the glacier, and just as we left, it began to rain. And rained on and off for the rest of the cruise – just as the forecast had indicated.

NW Fjord 54NW Fjord 61We returned to the Chiswell Islands and saw more horned puffins.

NW Fjord 64Then we found a humpback whale that surfaced with a peduncle throw, thrusting her fluke and rear portion of her torso out of the water sideways, then crashing into the water.

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.

NW Fjord 69NW Fjord 70We continued along and saw many more birds including many penguin-like common murres.  NW Fjord 67

Sooty shearwaters, which tend to arrive ahead of storm systems went flying by.

NW Fjord 74NW Fjord 76We stopped to watch the sea lions once again. They are very vocal, and the sounds they make sound like a roar, thus their name. The males also always seem to be angling for territory (and females).NW Fjord 75NW Fjord 107

NW Fjord 65NW Fjord 77We found more birds including double-crested cormorants and black-legged kittiwakes with chicks. The mama gulls stood between us and their white, fluffy chicks – adorable.NW Fjord 102

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NW Fjord 106NW Fjord 55NW Fjord 79NW Fjord 89Then 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.

NW Fjord 90NW Fjord 87By 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.NW Fjord 91

NW Fjord 82NW Fjord 88It 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.NW Fjord 86

NW Fjord 92She 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.

NW Fjord 93NW Fjord 95Then the whale did what is called lobtailing. Lobtailing is when whales lift their flukes out of the water and wave them around in the air then bring them back down in a loud slap.NW Fjord 96

NW Fjord 97Once again theories about this behavior include communication and foraging. And once again it is really a mystery.

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.

~ Brenda


19 thoughts on “In Search of Wildlife

  1. Spectacular! Hector, I love all your wildlife captures they make me want to go back there again. This was my favorite tour of all at the Kenai Peninsula. Brenda, I learned a lot about whale behavior especially that your narratives are accompanied with Hectors great photography!

    • There is one more tour out of Seward. We love the national park, it is an amazing place. Thank you, thank you!

  2. Wonderful shots! I especially like the puffins and whales-both so difficult to capture on film…but you did it again Hector!

    • Thanks! They really are difficult to capture, he is always chasing those puffins back and forth. It was great to have so many opportunities to photograph all of this wildlife, and I get to go along and enjoy them :).

  3. Wow, Wow, and Wow…….what a post! Thank you so much for sharing. You pictures are incredible Hector and Brenda, your narritive is fantastic.

  4. What an amazing day you two had! Could it get any better than this? Your photography is breathtaking Hector. And your narrative Brenda, you have a way of transporting me there. Can’t wait to see this beautiful country for ourselves.

  5. What an amazing day you two had! Could it get any better than this? Your photography is breathtaking Hector. And your narrative Brenda, you have a way of transporting me there. Can’t wait to see this beautiful country for ourselves.

  6. Spectacular and FABBYfotos!!!!! It did seem odd looking at you bundled up for winter-like conditions when we sit in nearly 100 degree heat… Missing you but loving “being with you” vicariously, photgraphically, and narratively! 🙂 Keep well and safe, Dear Friends. xo

    • I of course am a tropical person, so I layer more than most people, but people were pretty bundled up for the glacier. We do feel that you are “with us”. Thank you!

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