Updated on February 2, 2021
Day 2 of 2020 Alaska Trip, Kenai Fjords Tour
Second day of our Alaska trip. We would be touring Kenai Fjords by boat for the day.
For our two days at Seward, we planned to spend them between hiking Harding Ice Trail and taking a boat tour of Kenai Fjords. Unfortunately, weather forecast indicated two rainy days, with the next day marginally better than today, so we put hiking to the next day with better weather, and did the boat tour today. (They turned out to be equally drizzly.)
The two major tour companies for Kenai Fjords are Major Marine Tours and Kenai Fjords Tours. The former offered cheaper prices (for 2020) and the latter had fancier websites. I bet the experiences were really similar between the two, with their boats following each other throughout most of the tour (I would even hazard a guess that both captains were sharing wildlife locations throughout the tour, for the common good of customer experience for all.) Except that we went with the cheaper Major Marine and found our boat had three decks compared with two from Kenai Fjords Tours.
As for the route, the two popular day-tour routes were “National Park Tour” and “Northwest Kenai Fjords Tour”. After rounding Aialik Cape, “National Park Tour” headed North, to either Holgate Glacier or Aialik Glacier (depending on weather, but Aialik seemed to be preference as one got a distant view of Holgate Glacier on the way to Aialik), while “Northwest Tour” headed farther west to Northwest Glacier. At the end of either tour, one would be able to view some glaciers up close, with the “Northwest Tour” featuring more rocky islands as a typical fjord scene.
For the year 2020, Major Marine Tours operated 1 daily “National Park” and 1 daily “Northwest”, while Kenai Fjords Tours operated 2 daily “National Park” (let’s talk about anti-trust). Since “Northwest” was much more expensive than “National Park” from Major Marine, we picked the latter, which lasted 6 hours.
And since there would be lots of wildlife shots in rainy condition, I wisely packed my Sigma 70-200 F2.8 lens.
Our tour departed at 11:30 in the morning, in time for the train from Anchorage to arrive at 11am. The tour company “required” everyone to check in one hour in advance
, so that they could generate some souvenir sales while everyone’s waiting around. To kill the time, I did an aerial tour of Seward Harbor with my drone.
Kenai Fjords Boat Tour
Boarding started at 11am, for a ship that held 150+ people but only 65 guests and 4 crew for the day. There was ample room onboard, but I would say the company weren’t most rigorous when it came to enforcing mask wearing.
As we travelled South along Resurrection Bay, a few glaciers to the east came into view.
For the first 45 minutes of the tour, we didn’t run into any wildlife, except for birds. So I will post all the bird shots of the day here.
Rugged Island and Otters
After that, we came across an island, called uncreatively “Rugged Island” for its rugged coastline. There, our binoculars-wielding captain spotted a bald eagle resting on a rock, together with a group of otters playing in coastal waters.
Since the otters were our first major wildlife encounter of the day, we spent about 10 minutes watching them bathing in water.
Soon after leaving Rugged Island, Bear Glacier came into distant view. It’s actually offered the most expansive view of all glaciers we saw for the day. Unfortunately, it fed into a lake, so a tour boat couldn’t reach it up close. Otherwise, the tour companies could save a lot on fuel as it’s much closer to Seward than typical destinations of “National Park” or “Northwest” tours.
After that, we were approaching Aialik Cape, a series of rocks and skerries separating Resurrection Bay from Aialik Bay.
At this point, we were supposed to turn North towards Aialik Glacier. But, our captain with his amazing eyesight spotted a humpback in a distant channel, between Harbor Island and Natoa Island.
It’s also when, for the only time of the day, the on-and-off drizzle turned into a steady rain. Unfortunately, we waited in the channel for 5 minutes, and that illusive humpback never surfaced again.
After that, lunch services began onboard, while we headed farther south-west in search of wildlife. Just as everyone was waiting out the rain while enjoying lunch, our captain spotted a few orcas.
Then there were more orcas.
Which turned into an orca-spree for 40 minutes, by which time we had to move on to Aialik to make sure the tour didn’t go overtime.
And here are some footages that I took. Please excuse the shakiness of camera as these footages were captured on a boat in open sea, with camera (mostly) running 150+mm.
It’s past 2pm by the time we left the group of orcas. We made haste up Aialik for more glacier-viewing.
First, we were greeted with portions of Holgate Glacier on mountains. Crowned by clouds, their mesmerizing aqua color and the emerald forests beneath were such emblems to the state of Alaska.
After that, Holgate Glacier emerged in the distance.
Just before 3pm, Aialik Glacier emerged from behind the mountains.
Right next to Aialik Glacier, there was an area of floating ice. Lots of seals were resting on the ice.
It’s a humbling experience to be this close to a tidewater glacier, as its constant rumble from cracking ice were the most pervading sign of its compelling presence. At times, that calving happened right in front of our eyes, serving both the visual treat and warning.
Here’s something unexpected. Crew from both tour boats retrieved a piece of floating ice with fishing net. At first I thought that was a souvenir for the guests. After leaving Aialik Glacier, the onboard bartender made an announcement, that they chopped down the retrieved floating ice, and were making “Glacier XXX” (“XXX being the name of a cocktail) with it, claiming that’s most authentic. The entire cabin immediately lit up.
After leaving Aialik Glacier, our captain went back to wildlife-hunting mode. Lucky us, he found a group of seals lying on a series of skerries. (They were certainly the laziest animals that we’d seen for the day.)
Just as we were rounding Rugged Island on our way back, our captain made the big announcement that he spotted (or got alerted by a nearby fishing boat) a humpback in the waters. So we slowed down, waited, and captured this moment of its surfacing.
Unfortunately, this sighting put us slightly behind schedule, and we couldn’t stay behind for this humpback any longer. So we said goodbye to it and raced back to port.
As we were entering Seward Harbor, our captain informed us about a bald eagle resting in the harbor.
The eagle’s probably alerted by our passing, and quickly took off, only to land on the opposite side of our boat.
At 5:40pm, we were back at Seward Harbor, concluding a wonderful day of touring Kenai Fjords.
It certainly went beyond my expectations. The Aialik Glacier was magnificent, the wildlife we saw for the day were more diverse and abundant than our wildest hope. Apart from lapses in enforcing masks (I wore a 3M 9502 for the day and there was severe condensation in such cold weather), the crew had been friendly and helpful (I noticed the windows were much dirtier in the afternoon than morning, which meant they must be cleaned every night).
After that, we headed for a seafood dinner. A fitting end to a phenomenal day.