Hit the Road

Alaska’s wildlife reveals itself in daylong cruise

A teen male humpback breaches in the waters off the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park – not an uncommon site in this part of Alaska. The area also is home to orcas, fin and gray whales, sea otters, Dall’s porpoises, sea lions, puffins and many varieties of birds. PHOTOS BY Jerry OndashCaptain Dan Olsen of the Orca Voyager provides a running narration throughout the eight-hour cruise off the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park. Because of his long-time whale research, Olsen can identify orcas by the markings on their flukes. Kenai Fjords Tours has a fleet of 10, 150-passenger boats that offer six-to-nine-hour tours in the park’s waters.Passengers on the Orca Voyager gather on deck to watch “calving” of the glaciers – the process in which large chunks of snow and ice break away from the glacier and fall into the Gulf of Alaska with a thunderous roar. Hours can pass between events, or a dozen can occur in rather rapid succession.This moose is a resident of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located on the highway that runs from Anchorage to Seward. The center rehabilitates wounded or orphaned animals, and when possible, returns them to the wild. 
An otter lounging in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward seems unbothered by the boatful of tourists trying to get his photo.These Steller sea lions, dependant on cold water for an abundant food source, could be endangered if ocean waters warm. These residents of Kenai Fjords National Park are most visible from early spring until late July. Male Steller sea lions weigh an average of 1,500 pounds, but cam weigh as much as 2,400 pounds. Guests at the Seward Windsong Lodge, just north of Seward, are greeted on summer mornings with this view of the Resurrection River.

We have barely pulled away from the docks at Seward when we spot a sizable otter, lazily cruising on his back in the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska. He seems not to be bothered a whit by the hundred-some tourists peering over the boat railing, all trying to capture a photo to text home.
My husband and I are as guilty as the next guys. We don’t want to miss a thing on this daylong cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park. A park only since 1980, Kenai Fjords encompasses 605,000 rugged acres, including the 300-square-mile Harding Icefield, which feeds 39 glaciers. Lucky for us, it’s a dry and cloudy day — great conditions for photos. Full sun creates way too much glare on all that snow and ice, and besides, the low-hanging clouds provide extra drama to the landscape.
Our boat, a custom-built, 83-foot catamaran named Orca Voyager, is operated by Kenai Fjords Tours. The company, owned by Native Alaskans, offers a variety of cruises along the magnificent real estate that is Alaska’s south central coast, also home to plentiful wildlife.
As we cruise toward the fjords, Capt. Dan Olsen entertains us with continual and humorous narration about what we are seeing. In the off-season, he conducts orca research, so we benefit from all he knows about marine life — including his extensive file of whale-tail markings. He’s been cataloging flukes for years, and when we spot an orca, he searches his database for the pattern, puts it on the flat screens located throughout the boat, and gives us a bit of a biography. When we spot an orca known as KFY72, Olsen tells us that the whale was last seen in these waters in 2008 and 2010.
I would’ve been grateful to see a whale or two during the daylong cruise, but by trip’s end, we saw eight or nine, including a breaching humpback. As the whale propels himself out of the water again and again, Olsen explains that “he is a teenaged male showing off.”
We see plenty of other marine and land life — otters, Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoises, puffins, eagles and cormorants — and then the boat comes to a stop for another once-in-a-lifetime experience: glacial “calving.”
I’m not sure who came up with this term, but calving occurs when chunks of ice break off into water at the end of a glacier, creating icebergs of varying sizes. This phenomenon is caused by the forward movement of the glacier, and when calving happens, it sounds like a tremendous roar of thunder — a drama to thrill anyone lucky enough to observe it.
Sometimes hours can pass between calving episodes, Olsen says, but today we have the good fortune to witness nearly a dozen.
Our day cruise includes a box lunch aboard the boat, and an excellent steak and grilled salmon dinner at a large rustic lodge on Fox Island, 12 miles south of Seward. During dinner, Ranger Ann Whitmore-Painter presents a brief slideshow and lecture about the area and the park service. A substitute teacher during the cold months, the born-and bred Alaskan tells us that, although she’s traveled to many places, “I would never want to live or retire anywhere else” — a common sentiment among Alaska residents.
Our 10-day, late-June Alaska adventure was based out of Anchorage, a great location for seeing many sites within a two-to-three-hour drive. For our fjord cruise from Seward, we spent two nights at the comfortable Seward Windsong Lodge, a collection of 15 comfortable cabins (180 units) with all the amenities. It’s situated on the Resurrection River just north of town. Snow-covered mountains stand behind the river, creating a scene that resembles an unreal backdrop — a glorious view that is difficult to leave behind.
Stop on the way: Don’t miss the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which takes in injured and orphaned animals year-round, and provides permanent, spacious enclosures if animals can’t be returned to the wild. Plan at least two hours and wear sturdy, waterproof walking shoes.
Kenai Fjords Tours: www.kenaifjords.com or (877) 777-4051. Fully narrated tours are six-to-nine hours and include meals.
Seward Windsong Lodge: www.sewardwindsong.com. Offers cruise and lodging packages. Rooms start at $158.
Seward, Alaska: www.seward.com
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: www.alaskawildlife.org.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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