Marc Donadieu/Turnagain Times
An orca whale cow and calf surfaced very close to the boat during a Major Marine Tours cruise into Aialik Bay. If you look closely, you can see the blowhole just beyond the cow’s dorsal fin.
Aialik Glacier was actively calving during the tour, as this photo shows. Large chunks of light blue ice tumble with a splash into Aialik Bay while Harbor seals rest on large, bobbing ice chunks in the foreground.
By Marc Donadieu
Turnagain Times Correspondent
Kenai Fjords National Park has many amazing views of glaciers, wildlife and coastline. First time visitors and long time residents gaze with wonder at these summer sights, as they are never dull or predictable. What the 1,047 square mile park doesn’t offer is easy accessibility to its glaciers, coastline, or ice field. Taking a day cruise is a convenient and comfortable way to see this park’s spectacular highlights.
This reporter was able to discover this summer that Major Marine Tours offers an engaging, seven-and-a-half-hour cruise out of Seward Harbor on The Spirit of Adventure. It costs $169 for adults and $84.50 for children, which includes a prime rib and salmon buffet that is served after the cruise is underway. Passengers are also given an attractive 37-page booklet that contains photos and detailed information about the marine animals and scenery seen along the way.
A national park ranger is also aboard to educate passengers about what they are seeing, to give useful information and to answer questions.
On this cruise, the ranger was a retired principal and Alaska studies teacher who knew how to narrate the journey effectively and supplement the experience without interfering with it. He was a beneficial resource, especially for those visiting from elsewhere.
The cruise goes from the Seward Harbor to the end of Resurrection Bay and turns right into Aialik Bay. The late July day that I went was a gorgeous, sunny one with a touch of clouds covering the peaks, making them photogenic. The mountains along the bay were deep, vibrant green with trees and vegetation broken up by occasional patches of lingering snow.
As we were passing by Bear Glacier, the longest one in Kenai Fjords, there was a humpback whale cow and calf diving and feeding near the shore close to the glacier.
Captain Laura Portscheller, who did a fine job navigating and occasionally narrating, slowly and carefully maneuvered the vessel to anticipate where the humpbacks might surface. There was also a lone humpback in the distance.
After about 15 minutes, we moved on to a short detour into Spire Cove. Large, granite towers of rock are topped with a pine tree or two and green vegetation above the bluish, silt filled water. We passed through two larger spires and saw horned puffins in nesting sites in the rocks. It is the only time these aquatic birds are not in the water.
Then we went slightly off course to see a pod of Dall’s porpoise. These small, lightning fast mammals were feeding on some fish. As the vessel approached, some of the porpoise swam next to and in front of it. These porpoise are difficult to photograph due to their rapid swimming speed and their brief surfacing time. The best way to photograph them is to see them underwater and start clicking the shutter before they surface.
By the time we turned into Aialik Bay, the buffet was ready. Prime rib and Copper River silver salmon were featured. They were accompanied by a mixed salad with an onion vinaigrette, rice pilaf, sourdough bread and a cranberry horseradish sauce for the beef. It made for a tasty meal to fortify us for the remainder of the trip. Shortly after the buffet opened, we were traveling off our intended course once again.
This time it was to see a dispersed pod of orcas. The vessel was maneuvered near where an orca cow and calf might swim, and the engines were shut off. The orca cow and calf periodically surfaced as they approached us. The highlight was when they surfaced right next to the vessel, giving us a brief close-up glimpse. There was also a male orca with an impressively large dorsal fin surfacing in the distance.
After the orcas swam away, the captain eased close to Holgate Glacier, which is a tidewater glacier. During the 20 minutes there, very little calving occurred. Still, the glacier was impressive to be near and study its many features from top to bottom and side-to-side. Shortly after we left, a black bear was spotted wandering on the shoreline.
Up next was massive Aialik Glacier, another tidewater glacier. Along the way we stopped for a pair of sea otters bobbing on their backs and rolling about by using their tails to flip over. Then the vessel slowed as we approached.
In front of Aialik Glacier was a large patch of glacial ice chunks that had accumulated. There were 30 harbor seals resting on the larger pieces of bobbing ice, while a few others were sliding into the water or climbing onto ice. We witnessed some fine calving as well. We heard a thunderous crack preceded by a spray of falling ice and an immense splash. More large calving followed.
Aialik Glacier is colossal in size, which makes it challenging to grasp it in its proper perspective. Its foot is a mile across, and it rises a few hundred feet up. These dimensions make it difficult to fathom just how much ice is contained in this glacier.
On the way out of Aialik Bay, we ducked into a cove that contained a smack of jellyfish, which is what a large group of them are called. There were thousands of them pulsing about in this spot, creating a bright green patch that contrasted to the dark green sea around it.
After leaving Aialik Bay, we crossed the mouth of Resurrection Bay to its eastern part to view a bird rookery and sea lion sanctuary. Around 20 sea lions were slumbering and rolled into all sorts of contorted positions on the rocks while catching some sunshine. Their rock climbing ability is amazing since they use their flippers, tail and body propulsion to ascend smooth, slippery rocks that are sometimes steep.
Returning to Seward, we saw two more humpback whales and a pod of Dall’s porpoise in a feeding frenzy. The ranger suggested the fish were probably either herring or eulachon (hooligan).
On the Spirit of Adventure cruise, we saw just about all of the major marine mammals along the Gulf of Alaska coast that can be observed as well as some amazing glaciers. It was exciting to see these marine creatures up close in their natural environment, which made the cruise memorable. What also made the trip enjoyable was the friendly, helpful staff, the park ranger and the captain. Their good-natured attitudes kept the cruise entertaining and interesting.