A mother Orca and her young offspring push through the cold, rich Gulf of Alaska waters just offshore from Kenai Fjords National Park.
Established in 1980, the park is home to the vast Harding Ice Field, the headwaters, so to speak, of 38 separate glaciers. Covering just over 1,000 square miles, the park and adjacent seas are home to a dazzling array of wildlife. Land animals include Mountain Goats, Grizzly and Black Bears, Wolves, Wolverines, Alaska Moose, Lynx and River Otters. Marine life includes a variety of cetaceans – Orcas, whales and porpoises – as well vast shoals of herring and salmon, seals and sea lions, sea otters nearly 200 species of birds.
Sea lion rookeries and haul-out areas can be raucous, with lots of bellowing and barking (and by the scars on some of these hides, some real fighting) as individuals vie for the top turf.
The best jumping off point for exploring the park is Seward, a coastal community of about 2,500 full-time residents, a number that grows considerably during the heart of the tourist season from June through August. If you’ve got the stamina, a hike up the nearby Exit Glacier trail to the Harding Ice Field is worth every step of the journey. Go early, and you’ve got a good chance of spotting Mountain Goats and Black Bears. Wildflowers seem to grow everywhere, and colorful warblers, sparrows and finches are abundant.
Once you’ve checked a trip to Exit Glacier off your list, go down to the Seward Harbor and sign up for a boat excursion out to the fjords. Check around. In many cases, wildlife biologists are hired on these boats to provide insight into what you can see as well as to answer your questions.
A grizzly bear, perhaps timing its journey to intercept a salmon run, ambles across the Harding Ice Field toward Exit Glacier.
As the name Kenai Fjords implies, this is a land sculpted by ice. And while all of the park’s glaciers are receding, the Harding Ice Field alone still covers 300 square miles (777 km2). Many of the glaciers it spawns are tidewater glaciers which produce dramatic calving events.
Tidewater glaciers slough off ice almost continuously, creating coves filled with icebergs of all sizes. The massive cracks and groans emitted by these moving rivers of ice are awe-inspiring. Above, a cormorant flaps past a relatively small shower of ice.
Harbor seals are fairly abundant throughout the park.
Of course, the park’s animals are adapted to the cold. Seals, Sea Otters, Bald Eagles and kittiwakes (a type of gull) utilize the floating ice as resting places. Herring and salmon thrive in the frigid water and in turn a host of predators (including the Orcas in the lead photo) thrive on these fish.
The park is a terrific place to combine wildlife viewing with wildlife catching. Drop a jig and hang on – there are lingcod a lot bigger than this one hugging the rocky undersea pinnacles of the Alaska Gulf. Salmon, halibut and a variety of rockfish are also popular quarry.
Black-legged Kittiwakes nest among hanging gardens.
The entire area is a birding wonderland. Tens of thousands of murres, puffins, auklets, cormorants and other sea birds nest and feed in the nearshore sea.
Horned Puffins (above) as well as Tufted Puffins are abundant.
Of course there are lots and lots of sea otters.
Oil spills, warming seas, a changing climate and overfishing are all potential threats to the park’s wildlife. The effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred in 1989 are still being felt – particularly in the long-term suppression of crab populations. Sea bird die-offs are being reported with alarming frequency all along the Northwest Coast and biologists tell us the reason for these die-offs appears to be starvation. Sea Lions, too, have experienced population declines in recent years and again, the problem seems to be rooted in a depletion of the fish they rely upon. Warming seas very likely play a role in this, but it is, in our view, equally likely that overfishing is taking a toll as well. And so, as is the case with so many areas where nature exists in a relatively pristine state, the future is uncertain.
Nonetheless, given half a chance and the benefit of wise stewardship, wildlife can adapt and endure. Kenai Fjords National Park is one of our favorite places. Although it gets fewer than one tenth the visitors Yellowstone, Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Parks receive individually, it is surely one of North America’s Crown Jewels.
Summer is the perfect time to find Humpback Whales on their Alaskan feeding grounds. What, other than a belly full of herring and a desire to communicate joy, prompts a whale to breach like this and crash back to the sea…