Whale watching can be tedious--but I also find it oddly exilerating. Basically, this is the scenario: You catch sight of a black speck in the distance. The captain guns the motor and steers towards the point the whale was last seen. You look at the point where the whale was last seen and then someone catches sight of it 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The captain guns the boat for the point where the whale last went down and you wait around again for another five or ten minutes.
However, there is something thrilling when the captain has cut the motor and the whale surfaces within a few hubdred yards. The roar of the ocean parting so that the great animal can catch a few breaths is like no other experience in the world. I can only imagine the thrill of a full breach by a creature as large and magnificent as the humpback.
In our case, we saw several flukes, which is the whale showing its tail as it goes down for perhaps a ten to fifteen minute dive.
By the way, whales eat mostly krill, plankton and extremely small fish. It couldn't choke down a sea otter if it wanted to. Amazingly enough, a humpback can go through two tons of krill in a day. The Alaskan seas are just teeming with life.
I've always loved otters, both river otters and sea otters. What a fun-loving animal.
In the Alaskan oceans the sea otters get plenty plump as they spend most of the day dining on tasty crustaceans. They consume about a quarter of their body weight daily. That computes to some ten pounds of sea food. I'd like to see you walk about to the counter at a Red Lobster and ask for ten lbs of prawns and then gobble them down. So yes, you must not only admire their carefree attitudes, but also their voracious appetites.
What a life. Lying on your back all day, eating the bounty of the sea and when you've had your fill, there are countless otter companions with whom you can wrestle around.
If you have an extra 2 days in Alaska, I highly recommend Valdez! You can get there from either Fairbanks or Anchorage via car, motorcoach, etc. It is approximately 6 hours from Fairbanks driving. You can fish for salmon at the local docks or join a charter boat and try getting other tastey treats such as halibut, linkcod, snappers, etc. The scenery is beautiful although often rainy. Be sure to dress in layers including a light rain jacket and sturdy shoes. Look for Orcas, sea otters, eagles, dolphins and more!
Ok, so we've learned that the Alskan waters are a dangerous place to be a sea otter. But surely if you happen to be a stellar's sea lion, you are at the tip top of the food chain. Right?
Wrong. Orcas will also eat steller's sea lions, though they are much more likely to go after the pups than the big bull males. So as you can see in this photo the big bull male has positioned himself to fend off the orca while pushing the young high up the cliffs.
Er. Well not exactly. I guess chivalry has been lost upon the bull sea lion. It's the law of the jungle--every lion for his or her own self.
It was good to see healthy communities of otters in the Alaskan waters. Perhaps you remember the Exxon Valdez tragedy when tons of crude spilled into the Prince William Sound and decimated the water birds, the seals and the sea otters. Maybe you saw images of desperate volunteer workers trying to frantically wipe the crude oil off of the sea otter fur. It was a hopeless task and millions of otters succumbed to the cold ocean water as the crude oil permanently damaged their natural oil producing fur.
When we were in Seward several years ago we did not see sea otters except at the Marine Animal Rescue Center. But I can gleefully report that along the Valdez side of Prince William Sound--the otters are out in strength.
Ok, ok. I exagerated the blissful life of a sea otter in my first tip. Sure they get to eat all the shrimp they want. Yes they have a frolicking good time tussling with one another. And a nap on a floating iceberg is not a bad way to spend a late August afternoon. But, and this is an extremely huge BUT, they are also orca fodder.
Pods of renegade orcas ply the northwestern pacific these days. The renegade orcas seem to have made a game of otter eating. A little forty pound otter is like popcorn to an orca. What an orca really wants is a nice plump many hundred pound seal. Yet, the devient orcas have preyed on the defenseless sea otter.
One minute you are snoozing on an iceberg and the next you are swalled whole by an orca--life is not all sqid and roses for the Alaskan sea otter.
Photo: Hiking to Solomon Lake. The Solomon Lake hike begins from Old Dayville Rd at the Solomon Gulch water project. A fish hatchery is located across the street.
Other hikes in the area include the old gold mining road to Mineral Creek. You can also rent a mountain bike to go to Mineral Creek. Watch out for black bears!
Drive over Thompson pass. You have to if you're driving to Valdez!
The pass has an elevation of 2,678 feet/816m but remains above tree-line. You may find some wildflowers in bloom up here if you hike around a little. I think this would be mainly in July.
Snowfall extremes in Alaska have all been credited to the Thompson Pass station. Record measurements are: 974.5 inches for season (1952-53); 298 inches for month (Feb. 1953); and 62 inches for a 24-hr period (Dec. 1955). Snowpoles along the roadsides mark the road edge for snowplows.
Anadyr Adventures offers 1 - 10 day boat supported kayaking trips to remote and spectacular parts of Prince William Sound. We went on a day trip to Shoup Glacier. This involved a boat transfer to our starting point. This area is abundant with sealife, marine birds, sea otters, and harbor seals. What I remember most from the marine life are the harbor seals. They would bob up and down in the water to get a better look at us. Taking pictures is really not that convenient on a kayak because you need your hands free to paddle and your camera is stowed under the water guard. I enjoyed the experience and didn't worry too much about taking pictures. This trip, like many things in Alaska may seem expensive to you at $150, but it does include the boat transfer and kayak rental.
This glacier, located in Prince William Sound, is the largest and most magnificent of the tidewater glaciers along Alaska's coast. The Columbia Glacier has an area of about 440 square miles/1144 square km. The tidewater terminus which you see in the photo is approximately 3 miles/4.8 km across. By boat, you can get close up views of the glacier face and watch it calve ice sections the depth of its face and 1/4 to 1/2 mile wide! You can get there with a yacht or sailboat charter or on a flightseeing trip. The other option is to see it as I did, from the ferry going between Valdez and Whittier. The ferry moves in to the distance in the photo and then continues on. The ferry requires advance reservations.
I sure hope you are lucky enough to catch an aurora borealis. We were sleeping when the captain woke us up around 3 am. What a scare! He asked us to go on deck. And we did... what a colleciton of pajamas!
And there it was... Aurora... beautiful gfreens then oranges... you can get hypnotized just looking at it. It just happened one night... and never again for us.
Visit Worthington Glacier. It's about 30 miles from Valdez on the other side of Thompson Pass. It's and easy and beautiful drive. It's an easy walk from the parking lot to the glacier which your can walk right up to and touch if you want. Beautiful view with paths and benches. A little gift shop and glacier info signs are in the parking lot and there are public bathrooms.
A number of companies offer cruises on the sound, and it is an activity you shouldn't miss. I went with Stan Stephens Cruises, and was totally satisfied with their tour.
As we went out past the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Terminal, the boat captain told us a lot about the port and the tankers Sea lions lounged on the larger buoys, and we went past a group of otters just floating on their backs. Later in the cruise we saw an eagle in the top of a tree. The sound is really beautiful—waterfalls, glaciers, even icebergs--and the captain brought us as close as he could for great viewing. On our way back, the captain pointed out Bligh Reef. The Exxon Valdez hit it and spilled 11 million gallons of oil in the Sound.
The cruises run from mid-May to mid-September. Cost: $120 (Kids, $60)
Day trip from Valdez to Columbia Glacier - unbelievably beautiful, kayak between icebergs, calm water, no experience needed. We went in August 2006. Our guide, the company owner, and another guide we met were all very friendly, knowledgeable, and really seem to enjoy what they do.
Columbia Glacier is huge, so you will see it in the background, but you wouldn't be able to come close to it because of so much ice floating in front of it (for 8 miles!), so you will not see it calve. Since the bergs constantly move and can turn at any time we had to kayak fast and keep a distance from them. We heard them turn over (like thunder sound), but none turned over close to us. We didn't see any boats in the area because they can't go between the bergs there. We saw two other small groups of kayakers. Otherwise we felt like being in the middle of nowhere.
Please see tip part 2 for more info.
We went in August 2006. Please see tip part 1 for more info and photos.
Here is the basic schedule. We left Valdez on a boat trip out to an island, about 45 min. Then we kayaked towards the glacier. It was so interesting seeing it closer and closer. We saw some beautiful loons swimming very close to us. Depending on the tide times you would kayak between the bergs before or after lunch (which you might have on the glacier moraine or nearby island). You bring your own lunch. The guide brought hot tea and snack mix. We kayaked between the ice before lunch, saw a beautiful porcupine on shore just by the water, stopped at the moraine island for lunch and a quick hike up to the top to see the view of the whole area of bergs, and kayaked some more between the icebergs in the other direction while waiting for the boat to come pick us up. When we were walking on the moraine its shore was covered with ice and it was an interesting experience besides the kayaking that we got to walk between the icebergs and take some interesting photos through them and between them.
We then picked up other kayakers that camped on Glacier Island for several days and did day trips from there. It's a beautiful island, with puffins living on the cliffs, and a colony of sea lions. A stop there wasn't part of our day tour itinerary - we just got lucky to pick up the other group of kayakers. Ask if you could stop there after your kayaking trip. It's on the way.
We also stopped by Shoup Glacier to pick up another group of kayakers. It's much smaller than Columbia Glacier and doesn't seem to be as interesting place to kayak (and we didn't see ice chunks there). The scenery on the boat trip to Valdez was amazing - lush green mountains with many waterfalls.