Day 12 – June 10, 2009
Today was another early morning as we had to be down at the harbour by 7:00am. We quickly hiked it from our campsite to the Kenai Fjords Tours at the harbour. Within about 10 minutes of being there we were all loaded up onto the huge 150 passenger catamaran vessel. Our boat was called the Orca Voyager and it was a very beautiful boat. We opted for the early sailing as the later sailed in the day is much more crowded. Our boat only had 60 people so there was lots of room and no one had to worry about getting a window seat. The boat had two levels and the lower level had a 360 deck. The boat had super comfortable seating and tables for every seat. They had a snack bar and were also giving our free coffee; needed for some at this time in the morning!
After a quick orientation we were only our way out to the ocean. Unfortunately it was a very foggy morning and we were not able to see much of the coastline. The boat is equipped with a number of flat screen TVs and the captain displayed various navigational aids like GSP position and depth mapping sonar. It was pretty cool because we could see the shape of the sea bed and also our position in reference to the coastline. He also had underwater radar for finding pods of whales; something we didn`t see on the screen, but most likely not the most graphical and exciting thing to see. More like blips with numbers by them!
After driving thought the fog for about an hour, we came across the first sighting of the day. We saw a group of about 20 or 30 Harbor Seals all perched up on the rocks. It was odd for them to be out of the water because unlike the sea lions, they do not have dexterous front flippers and as such, they can`t climb. They have to launch themselves up onto the rocks and flip around until they are in a comfortable spot. They looked like big blobs as they tried to move on the rock. It was kind of comical. The male Harbor Seals can weigh in at over 350 pounds so they are fairly large in size.
Shortly after visiting the Harbor Seals we encountered a group of Humpback Whales. We saw mostly likely 3 whales; it was hard to tell if we were seeing the same ones or new whales. The captain said that they usually see a mother with calf, and another escort whale in that area. We first noticed the whales because we would see the water blow high up into the air. They say that the blow can be seen for about a mile away. They actually don`t blow out any air from their internal systems, but rather the water that pools on top of their blowhole, so they that they can replenish their oxygen. The blow of a Humpback is about 3X as powerful as a human sneeze.
We could watch the whales dive down for food. When this would happen we would see the back of the whale rise high up out of the water followed by the lifting of their tails. When the whale tail is out of the water you are seeing the tail fluke. After this dive they can stay under the water for about 10 minutes eating the small fish. Humpback whales can even stay under water for longer if they choose, even up to 45 minutes. An interesting fact: the tail fluke is like a fingerprint for a whale and the marking and colorations of them are different for every whale.
The captain told us to look out for flocks of bird swarming in one area. This usually indicates schools of fish all together just under the surface of the water. They call these bait balls. We watched as a whale came up from underneath and swallowed the whole bait ball! The captain told us that we would know that the whale is coming because all the birds fly away just a split second before the whale appears. There are situations where the birds get swallowed up with the fish, so I guess the birds get smart about that. Of particular interest was the fact that the whales throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, so even if it does swallow a bird, it has to spit it back up. The whales use baleen to filter in small fish, so these huge giants can`t even eat anything much larger than a small schooling fish.
After watching the whales for a while we toured many of the small bays in the area. They are jammed packed full of various species of birds. Of particular interest to me were the Puffins. They are cute little diving sea birds with white faces and bellies, black bodies, and bright orange bills and feet. We first saw them floating around in the water, but when they would try to get flying they were hilarious; shaped like elongated lemons. Really smooth taper and a fat body middle section, and their wings looked like they should be flippers. When they would try to start flying they would scoot along on their bellies rowing with their wings trying to get enough speed to get airborne. They were really funny. Every time it would seem like they just were not going to make it, but in the end they did. They had classic Donald Duck flapper feet which made for some hilariousness when they would try to climb the rocks.
There are two types of Puffins; Horned and Tufted. The puffins nest high up in the coastline cliff with their nests in the crevices. Also in this area were Cormorants; lanky black birds with red faces and colourful tails. Also, most likely do not even have the mention the bazillion sea gulls. With all these species of birds circling the boat, you can imagine that there was some nasty stuffy falling from the sky. Jason just dodged a bullet by a hair!
Also in this same area on the rocks were Stellar Sea Lions. They were mostly resting on the rocks, but we could hear the odd roar coming from their direction. The males, which are very territorial, can weigh over 2400 pounds. We did see a really big lone one on a rock. The Stellar Sea Lion is a protected animal, so if any of them were to come off of the rocks towards the boat, we would have had to leave the area. The Stellar Sea Lion population has decreased by 80% over the past 30 years. Since they are endangered, they are highly monitored and the small sea lions will receive a brand when they are born telling which pod they come from.
After all this excitement they served us some lunch on board before we headed off to the Holgate Glacier. The glacier had been calving and there was lots of ice in the bay which made it tough for the captain to get the boat into there. Catamarans are more susceptible to ice because it channels the water and ice in between the two hauls. We all had to stay seated so the captain could zig and zag away from the ice if he had to. He also mentioned that he had a camera under the boat so he could really see what was going on. Soon we were right up near the glacier.
The crew pulled up a chunk of ice so we could get our picture with the glacier ice. We waited there for a while, but there were no major calves. The face of this glacier was a little taller than Childs, measuring in at about 500 feet. The captain said that this glacier stretches on for about 20 miles back past what we could see and also that it had advanced in recent years about 400 feet forward. There were also some kayaking touring going on in that area at the same time.
After that we started to make our way back into Seward. As we were moving away from the glacier we could see beautiful waterfall cascading down towards the ocean. It was still fairly foggy, so we all headed back into the boat for the ride home. When we were about a hour out from shore, one of the gentlemen from another group mentioned that he thought that he saw some whales breaching (when they trust most of their bodies out of the water; trying to fly, HA, HA!!). We were a little sceptical as the captain at mentioned that they usually only do this in mating season in sunny Hawaii. We watched the water for a while, and sure enough, a huge humpback lunged out of the water. It was a fair ways away, but impressive none the less!
As we got closer into Seward the captain mentioned that we should be looking for orcas as there was a resident pod in the area. Sure enough, 6 fins all in a row were headed towards the boat. Orca sightings seemed to happen a lot fast than the whales as they are up and down really fast. Because there are so many in a pod and they surface much for frequently, we did get many good pictures. It is difficult to tell their size with no sense of scale, but their dorsal fin is about 6 feet tall. So if you were standing on their back, you wouldn`t even be as tall as the fin! They live in pods and the mother whale actually rules the pod. The male whales will go off and mingle with other orca pods, but in the end they always come back to where the mother is. Real mamma`s boys! Orca can live for over 70 years! These were really neat creatures to see.
Shortly after this we were back at the harbour. The Kenai Fjords Tour group was really good. I was impressed with the staff and the captain. The staff were very helpful and also knowledgeable in the various wildlife. The captain was light hearted and comical. He had also grown up here so it was nice to have a local guiding the tour. This was a really great way to spend a day by the ocean and I would highly recommend if even in Seward.
Throughout the tour Jason was rubbing shoulders with all the other long lens camera people and got to chatting with a fellow named Marshall. An engineer from Michigan, he was up for a week long fishing trip. He asked if we had seen the spawning salmon in the streams, and we said that was something we still really wanted to see. After the tour he gave us a ride back to our vehicle and we followed him to a stream near when he was staying. There were many silver salmon in the stream and many trying to jump over a man-made dam that is used as a counting station. The workers would weigh and measure the salmon in the stream and then release them upstream. Sometimes they would harvest egg and milk for the hatcheries. This is a government funded conservation effort. It was amazing to see all the effort that the salmon put in to try to get upstream. Some of the salmon had sustained major damage just to get to this point. Also, some of the salmon were already turning green as they morph into very ugly red and green salmon before they end their journey.
Marshall gave us a fillet of salmon that he had got the day before as he wanted to go out and catch fresh fish today. It was way too windy to cook the fish when we got back to the campsite, so it is on ice until tomorrow. That was super cool of him.
Tonight we decided to go out for a quick bite to eat. We so enjoyed Ray`s by the harbour that we decided to go back for the crab dip. Not as good as yesterday, perhaps because they were so busy since the cruise ships had come in. Headed back to the campsite to get some shut eye. It was a great day and so enjoyable to get out a see the sea creatures in the natural habitat. Tomorrow we will see them all up close and personal in the Sea Life Center.