Glaciers and Wildlife a'Plenty
~Tuesday, July 26, 2022~
Day 36 of Alaska Trip
Today was absolute MAGIC and something we’ve looked forward to since we booked it in March. A fjord boat trip in the Kenai Peninsula, specifically Kenai Fjords National Park. We booked this excursion through Kenai Fjords Tours and can’t say enough about their outfit……the staff, their knowledge, their attentiveness. As expected the boat was full on all 3 levels. We always like to be outside so we aimed right for the top. All of the seats were taken. So it looked like we would be standing the next 7 hours. But that’s o.k. With all the distractions, we didn’t even notice tired legs.
But what is a fjord? It is a steep narrow inlet of the sea formed by glaciers. The Kenai Fjord estuary ecosystem is one of the richest ecosystems on earth, but not one of the most well known.
Found only in six locations around the planet, fjord estuaries require just the right combination of events for their construction. First, glaciers must form and carve deep u-shaped valleys along the seacoast. Then the glaciers melt and the oceans rise. These valleys fill with seawater, and become the fjord, home to rich and varied marine life. Resurrection Bay is as much as 900 feet deep and is ice-free year round, making it a safe channel for large ships approaching the harbor in Seward. We knew we’d be seeing glaciers. But what we didn’t know was that we’d see so much wildlife. Our captain did such a great job helping us locate and identify many of the animals that call this place “home”.
We witnessed Steller Sea Lions, sea otters, harbor seals, zigzagging Dall’s porpoises in front of the stern of the boat, puffins, bald eagles and the most exciting part…..seeing humpback whales on the surface.
Humpbacks have 4 things we can witness about their 45-ton body…..
🐳the “blow” (exhaling and replenishing oxygen through the blowhole). The spray can be seen for up to a mile
🐳The breach-where they push themselves at least 75% out of the water
🐳The fluke-where their tail comes out of the water usually preparing them for a bigger dive
We weren’t able to see them fully breach but it was still exciting to see them “blow” before taking their next dive. At one point, we were able to see one dive deep enough to show off its tail as if it was waving to say goodbye to us. The response by everyone on board was one of awe!
Early on in our journey, we dropped off a group of people at Fox Island for a day of kayaking before continuing on.
As we toured the rugged, rocky shorelines passing towering walls of rock and lush forests, calm bays and secluded islands, one thing is for sure…..everything was bigger and louder than we imagined. For example, from a distance on our approach to the Northwestern Glacier, it looked like a painting from afar.
But once we got about one hundred yards or so away from the glacier (yes we got that close with the boat), it was much BIGGER and more powerful than we envisioned, reinforcing just how small we really are. Then you add in the sound of the glaciers calving. In fact, we saw medium size breaks where the ice tumbled into the water, and were awestruck at just how loud it sounded when it hit the water. It was a show we’ll never forget in our 7 hours. Our captain sure went the extra mile (literally and figuratively), describing things with passion and knowledge. We were even served a lunch plate catered to our wishes…..Jeff had a chicken wrap and I had the hummus wrap served with a bag of chips, an Andes candy and an apple. And to cap off the day……freshly baked chocolate chip cookies which we could smell baking all afternoon. We can’t say enough about the service and experience that Kenai Fjords Tours provided.
If you’re interested in more details of what Kenai Fjords National Park is all about read on. We learned so much!
Approximately half of Kenai Fjords National Park is capped by glacial ice, with the largest single area being the Harding Icefield. From here nearly 40 glaciers branch out. There are 3 kinds of glaciers:
🏔Tidewater Glaciers-some glaciers flow right to the ocean, where the ice stops abruptly as it comes in contact with warmer ocean water. This results in calving: massive chunks of glacier rumbling and crashing into the water.
🏔Alpine Glaciers-Looking up from the deck of your boat, you’ll also see the enormous white gems that are the park’s alpine glaciers. They are formed on the many mountainsides and push slowly down, through the valleys.
🏔Valley Glaciers-These are nestled in valleys and don’t reach the sea. Often, they terminate in large, freshwater lagoons. A good example is Bear Glacier-the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Here are some interesting facts about the wildlife we encountered……
🦅Bald Eagle-produce just one chick per year. The signature white head does not appear until four to five years old
🦤Horned puffin-An amazing diver (estimates put the depth at 250 feet), this puffin pushes through the water with its wings (like a penguin), steering with its feet. Nests are camouflaged in rocky crevices and the single chick is fed by both parents
🦤Tufted puffin-only comes to land to nest. The rest of its time is spent out at sea. They raised just one chick, which both parents fed. Biologists estimate the tufted puffin can dive to 250 feet as well
🐋Humpback Whales-most spend June-September feeding in Alaska, then migrate to the Hawaiian Islands or California where they breed and give birth. They eat small schooling fish and animals by filtering them from the water
🦦Sea Otters-endangered in Western Alaska, very dense fur 1-million hairs per square inch
🦭Steller Sea Lions-they hunt for fish at night and haul out to rest during the day
🦭Harbor Seals-year round residents of our coast, this seal has no external ear flaps and exists on a diet of fish and shrimp
🐬Dall’s Porpoise-thick, robust bodies and tiny head, these powerful swimmers are known for their sharp, rapid movements. They often ride the bow waves of our tour boats.