A Whale of a Tour: Cruising Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park

humpback breaching c n

In what seemed to be sheer exuberance, this humpback whale heaved himself out of the sea again and again, the perfectly executed cannonballs sending up enormous showers. From eagles to orcas and sow bears with cubs to mountain goats with kids, a recent cruise of the Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward presented opportunities to photograph a number of Alaska’s wildlife stars.  

Last summer while salmon fishing aboard our C-Dory Angler, Gillie, we found ourselves suddenly quite close to three massive, bubble feeding, lunging humpback whales – the largest humpbacks we’ve seen to date. The whales and the salmon were drawn to the same thing: acres of herring so dense they were causing our boat’s sonar to misinterpret the vast school as seafloor. Between netting bright silver salmon for our daughter who was visiting from California, navigating the boat and snapping photos of the feeding leviathans we were kept on our toes. At one point the whales surfaced so close to our boat we could smell their breath. It was a bit unnerving.

whales lunge feeding major marine n

One moment the seas would be calm, the gulls and kittiwakes resting on the water with just a few sentinels circling about. Suddenly the birds aloft would cry out, signaling the sitting birds to take wing… and then these three massive whales would erupt from the sea. If you look closely, you can see a panicked herring barely escaping the gaping jaws of the center whale.  

That evening when we uploaded our photos, we were disappointed to find that the best of our whale shots were marred by the presence of a tour boat in the background. And then it hit us – why not see if the tour company would be interested in the pictures? That’s how we came into possession of tickets for Major Marine Tour’s all-day Kenai Fjords National Park nature cruise, complete with and an all-you-can-eat Alaskan salmon and prime rib lunch. Having now experienced three of these tours, we give them the highest possible recommendation for anyone interested in the wildlife and natural history of coastal Alaska.

eagle on sea rock n

Eagles are common along the shoreline of the fjords, and we never tire of admiring them. Not above scavenging, these opportunistic birds will prey on salmon, other fish, seabirds and even baby mountain goats. 

This past Monday we used four of our tickets to book ourselves and friends visiting from Montana on a tour on the Spirit of Adventure – the very boat we’d photographed the previous summer. A few brief sprinkles of rain aside, it was a beautiful day, and since it was a lightly-booked weekday cruise we had plenty of room at our dining table as well as at the ship’s rails when we were viewing glaciers and wildlife.

horned puffin on cliffs n

Both horned puffins (above) and tufted puffins nest in the cliffs above the fjords. 

horned puffin swimming n

The feathery “horns” above their eyes give horned puffins their name. This one, fresh from a dive in search of small fish, popped up right next to the boat. 

Stellar's Sea Lions n

Certain places in the Kenai Fjords are important breeding grounds for Stellar’s sea lions. In recent years, their population has fallen into decline and although human overfishing may be the culprit, no definitive cause has been identified.

kittiwakes n monkey flowers n

Seep (or common) monkeyflower adorns the cliff walls of this black-legged kittiwake rookery. We didn’t spot any eggs, but the nests look complete and ready for this year’s broods. 

murres thick bill dense raft n

Meanwhile dense rafts of dozens or even hundreds of thick billed murres gather along current seams that push baitfish into tight schools where they become easy pickings. 

Dall porpoise w beak n

Reminiscent of the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brother’s cartoon fame, Dall’s porpoises can appear at any time, zipping across the sea in plumes of spray in pursuit of the fish they feed on or just a good bow wake to play in. They are reportedly capable of speeds of around 35 miles per hour (55 kilometers). On this day, the porpoises were in a playful mood and the captain hit the boat speed just right. For several minutes half-a-dozen of these sleek speedsters zig-zagged across our bow. 

Holegate glacier sluffing ice n

Although wildlife is a major draw on these cruises, the fjords are equally famous for spectacular tidewater glaciers. Above, Holegate Glacier sloughs off tons of ice at a time in thunderous cascades. Note the seagull at the upper right of the photo. 

glacier ice margaritas n

When the crew scooped up a pristine chunk of glacial ice in a net and announced that Glacial Ice Margaritas were being served, we couldn’t resist. The ice – which is hundreds to thousands of years old depending on which part of the glacier it comes from – is super dense, hard, clear and cold. 

sea otter on ice w harbor seals n

Near Aialik Glacier, dozens of harbor seals were hauled out on the ice along with quite a few sea otters such as the one in the foreground above. The National Park Ranger providing commentary aboard Spirit of Adventure remarked that prior to the Russian hunting of sea otters (which, by the early 20th century had nearly driven them to extinction) it was common to see sea otters hauled out on land. 

Orcas transient resurrection bay 2014 n

Throughout the seven-and-a-half hour cruise we kept a keen eye for orcas. The day had already been amazing – truly one for the books: leaping salmon, a sow black bear with cubs in a clearing on a mountainside, a nanny mountain goat with her young kid just above the high tide line, whales, porpoises, and a dozen or so species of sea birds all had checks next to them.

Toward the very end of the cruise, as we were nearing Seward, the pair in the above photo showed up. Kenai Fjords NP is home to three distinct types of these cetaceans: resident, transient and offshore. The three types have different diets: residents are salmon and fish eaters, transients focus on mammals such as seals and sea lions, and offshore orcas are known to hunt sharks and baleen whales. The three varieties also have different languages and DNA tests indicate that they do not interbreed. This pair – the male in back with the longer, more angular dorsal fin, the female in front with a shorter, more rounded dorsal fin – may be transient orcas.  

sleeping otter in harbor n

Even before the cruise begins there are wildlife viewing opportunities right in the harbor. This sleepy otter filled up on mussels he pulled from pilings before conking out for an after breakfast snooze.