Day 33 (Friday July 31) was devoted to an all day boat trip to view some of the Kenai Fjords National Park. We departed the RV park about 0900 for an 0930 underway time on the Coastal Explorer which is run by the Kenai Fjords Tour Company for the National Park Service.
Our planned trip had two major highlights (other than the dinner at Fox Island on the way back that is). First up was a round down Resurrection Bay which is where Seward AK is located for wildlife viewing. Second was a short trip out into the Gulf of Alaska westward to the next bay over…Aialik Bay then a trip up to the north end of Aialik Bay to view the Aialik Glacier, which is the largest tidewater glacier in the park. The park contains 3 different kinds of glaciers…tidewater which eventually touches the salt water, alpine which does not but just has a melt stream runoff to the ocean, and cirque which are circular and contained entirely in depressions in the mountains. Both Resurrection and Aialik Bays…despite the Bay in the name…are true fjords…which is a Norwegian word for a U-shaped glacier carved valley leading to the sea that is filled with salt water and tidal.
Kenai Fjords NP includes almost 700,000 acres and over half of this is covered by the Harding Ice Field…this is a remnant from the last age and is the largest ice field in North America…covering the mountains to a maximum depth of about 3,000 feet…so it’s got a lot of ice in it.
After our stop at the foot of Aialik Glacier…we retraced our path southwards through the bay and then over to the Chiswell Islands which contain the rookery for the local population of Stellar Sea Lions…we had seen some adults earlier but found the pups at the rookery. After that we headed back for Seward with a stopover at Fox Island near the mouth of Resurrection Bay for a salmon and prime rib dinner before arriving back at the dock in Seward about 1815.
The weather was beautiful today…high was in the mid 70s, sunny, few clouds and not much wind…although up at the foot of the Aialik Glacier it was quite a bit cooler, probably in the 40s at our viewing location 300 yards or so from the foot of the glacier. The reason for this is that the air up on top of the glacier gets cooled by the ice…then since the glacier slopes downhill the cold air rushes down and turns into a cold air waterfall over the lip of the glacier. Up close the breeze was 20-25 knots and temperature was in the 40s so that portion of the trip was mighty brisk…although as soon as we turned south and headed out into the bay away from the glacier it warmed right back by the time were were a mile or two away. In addition to the beautiful day…we also arranged a very rare calm day in the north Pacific Ocean. Although we were actually in the Gulf of Alaska…it’s connected directly to the Pacific and we had almost no swell and only maybe some 8 or 9 inch chop on the surface…we really couldn’t have asked for a better day on the water…and Connie really, really enjoyed it. Even Neil had a good time…he said that (for a boat trip) it was great albeit having two strikes against it just because it was a boat.
Ok, another blathering already…on to the pictures. Like yesterday’s bear trip post…lots of cool stuff to see in this one. Here are a few shots as we pulled out of the harbor and into Resurrection Bay.
The Seward City RV Park with the house just below the brown house immediately left of center. Another great view of the water here although it would have been better if our rear end was toward the water for views from inside. Sitting outside it is pretty nice.
The view behind the park.
And the view looking east from the boat…this is what we see when we look out. Pretty nice, eh?
First up…right off the bat about 10 minutes out from the dock we spotted a Pacific Humpback Whale although we never got any closer to it than a couple hundred yards it was cool as it was feeding and kept leaping out of the water and slapping the surface with it’s pectoral fins. Humpbacks leap when the feed as the approach their meal at high speed from below…the leaping is a side effect of this eating style. We got several other Humpbacks along the way as well and those photos are mixed in with the first one. Although a lot of the shots look similar there are actually 3 or 4 different individuals in them and we saw about 30 or 40 breaches in total…the difference in background and water color sort of gives that away if you look closely.
This was the first breach of the first one we spotted…about 200 yards out from us.
The “gotta have it” whale tail shot.
About to slap the surface which is part of the feeding process…about 100 yards out here.
Mighty close to that other boat.
The next seven shots are all of the same individual in a single breaching sequence…about 100 yards out at this point and Neil cropped them all in the same so ya can see the whole sequence. Didn’t quite have it framed perfectly as the pectorals extend out of frame on some of the shots…but the sequence was so nice overall I just had to post it. That’s probably 30 or 40 feet of whale weighing 30 or 40 thousand pounds out of the water about 18 or 20 feet to the top of the chest…they almost always breach and fall over back first.
Next up after a couple more nice glacier shots were some Stellar Sea Lions…
These two were having a disagreement over something.
This big male roared at us…sounded like a lion, hence the name.
Gave us the stink-eye.
And went for a swim.
Another disagreement…3 of them this time it looked like.
This one sort of looked at us like “what the heck is that?”
Next up were some Orcas or Killer Whales…these are all female as evidenced by the shorter dorsal fin…males have a much taller fin. Orcas are the fastest swimmers in the sea at over 45 knots maximum…although this group was just lazily transiting somewhere a they did not appear to be feeding or going anywhere very fast. Mixed in with them is another couple of shots of a Humpback that was alongside us about 30 feet or so away…Connie got those as Neil was on the other side shooting Orcas at the time.
Connie got the best overall shots of the Orcas…happened to be on the right side of the boat at the right time and click the shutter at the peak of the roll.
Neil got this one of the closest Orca…maybe 15 feet out.
And Connie got one with her head out of the water.
Neil caught this shot just as the far Orca was exhaling…notice the water plume over his head.
Shortly after we left the Orcas we turned up Aialik Bay for a 15 mile or so transit up to the glacier…had a nice chicken wrap lunch while we were on the way.
Spotted a sea otter as we got close to the Aialik Glacier itself.
Then many shots of the glacier itself…although it was in the mid 70s elsewhere at the foot of the glacier it was probably in the mid to low 40s.
Ok, a little glacier education. The Aialik Glacier is a half mile wide and 13 or 14 miles long and about 300-400 feet thick at the face and about 3,500 or 4,000 feet thick back in the Harding Ice Field where it starts. So…looking at the photo below…above the rocks in the middle about halfway up the white you’ll see a grayish section with a sharply defined line…that’s the top of the glacier and is about 400 or 500 feet back from the base of the face. Everything from the gray line downs the collapsing face with the base actually in the bay. The brown stuff you see is not dirt but a fungus that’s eaten by ice worms that live in and bore through the glacier. This shot is about a quarter mile out.
A shot from about 200 yards out after we closed showing the fungus a little better.
A bergy bit that calved off the face earlier…there are actually 8 different names for icebergs depending on how large they are. This may be a growler instead as Neil can’t remember the exact details. Only the largest ones are called icebergs or floes depending on whether they’re flattish or roundish/peakish.
Several pano shots of the entire glacier face…about 150-200 yards away at this point.
Harbor seals that give birth on the floes near the face of the glacier.
The only calving we saw…the pieces falling down just to left of center broke off while we were watching. Doesn’t look like much but that’s probably a couple thousand cubic feet of ice chunks…the larger pieces you see to the right of the dust cloud are probably recliner sized pieces. The second photo is the landing splash…made quite a whump when it landed. Neil was really disappointed we didn’t get to record a big chunk falling off though.
After about an hour at the glacier we headed for Seward…from this point it was about 55 miles back through the islands to Fox Island south of Seward in Resurrection Bay where we were to have dinner.
Near the entrance of Aialik Bay we ran across the second fastest creature in the sea…Dall’s Porpoise which look suspiciously like their slightly faster cousins the Orcas. Dall’s Porpoises are found only in the North Pacific. They’re different from most other porpoise as they have very thick bodies and small heads…along with the Orca like coloration. Larger than most other purpose species…they grow to 7.5 feet in length and adults range from 300 to 500 pounds. They had quite a fun time surfing on the bow wake of our tour boat and despite the boat being at about 20 knots they had no trouble catching up to us…and came quite close as you can see the boat in several of the shots.
From there we headed over to the Chiswell Islands right off the mouth of Aialik Bay. Saw some Puffins on the way and got a few photos…sorry they’re not the best but even with the long bird lens on Neil’s camera it was difficult to get a decent shot of them.
On the Chiswell’s we spotted some Murres which are also known as the Emperor Penguin of the North even though they’re not related to penguins other than both being birds.
We got to the rookery for the Stellar Sea Lions and got a bunch of photos of both the cows and the pups…there was lots of roaring by the cows which is used to locate their offspring. Right after birth…the cow bellows in the pup’s face and this imprints it’s mother’s voice onto each pup for later finding for nursing. The pups are the small dark brown ones you see in these pictures.
This little guy had quite a difficult time getting up out of the water…took him 5 or 6 tries. He would hop out of the water and start waddling up the rock like seals do and by the time he got halfway up the next wave would come by and wash him off the rock. He finally made it though…I think his mother is the one above and to the right as that’s the direction he was moving when we lost sight of him.
After the Chiswell Islands we pretty much bade a beeline back to Resurrection Bay and stopped about halfway up it towards Seward at Fox Island. This is where the tour boats stop for dinner…which naturally was salmon and prime rib. Dinner was pretty good considering they were serving 300+ people and after that we headed home with a short stop in Thumb Cove were Neil got a shot of two cirque glaciers. You’ll recall from earlier that those are glaciers that exist entirely in bowls in the mountain side as opposed to alpine glaciers which have a downhill end where the meltwater runs out and tidewater glaciers that touch the salt water. Each of these two glaciers is probably 500 yards across…cirques are generally smaller than the other two types but it depends entirely on the size of the bowl it’s in.
That was our trip for the day…we were quite tuckered out. Our plans for the weekend were a rest day with some shopping and such and then a trip up to Exit Glacier on Sunday so you can get some photos of the third type…the alpine glacier.