Homer to Seldovia, Alaska: A whale of a trip across Kachemak Bay

Alaska, humpback whale breaching
Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Gull Island, with the Kenai Mountains as a backdrop

In a recent post, we talked about our trip to Seldovia, a remote town that can only be reached by air or water.  There are several options for getting there, and we chose the Seldovia Wildlife Tour, a sightseeing excursion with Rainbow Tours.

This boat tour, which was seven hours round-trip from Homer to Seldovia and back, took us across Kachemak Bay, an incredibly rich habitat that supports many wildlife species, from sea birds to sea otters, seals, and porpoise as well as whales.  And the view—of the glacier-carved Kenai Mountains—is spectacular.

Homer, Alaska, Rainbow Tours

The Rainbow Tours crew was excellent.  The captain, a woman from the U.K., offered narration in her pleasant British accent, discussing the geography, history, and ecology of the area in an enlightening and entertaining fashion.  She also had a fascination with rock formations, especially ones that resembled animals, and she pointed out a variety of different ones along the way.  See if you can guess what this one is called:

Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Elephant rock

The all-female crew was friendly and knowledgeable, and when we informed them that we were birdwatchers, they enthusiastically pointed out birds along the way, helping us to add several species to our life list.

The trip took us near several large bird rookeries, a highlight of any Kachemak Bay boat tour.  The main attraction was Gull Island, a renowned rookery that offers a seasonal home to around 10,000 seabirds.  Eight pelagic bird species return every year to nest, including glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic and red-faced cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, pigeon guillemots, and common murres.

Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Gull Island. All those little white dots are birds
Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Another bird rookery that we passed, on an island imaginatively called 60-Foot Rock
Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Black-legged kittiwakes and a few tufted puffins (the birds with the orange beaks) on Gull Island
Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Black-legged kittiwakes
Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Common murres, glaucous-winged gulls, and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island

Breeding season was nearly over by the time we got there, and many of the birds had already headed to open water for the winter, but thousands still flew about the island, enough to provide us with the sights, sounds, and smells of a rookery.  We saw five of the eight species that frequent the island as well as many other birds during the course of the trip.  Several of them, including the black oystercatcher, pomarine jaeger, sooty shearwater, and red-necked phalarope, were life listers.

We also saw numerous sea otters, some of which, likely pups, were wrapped in pieces of kelp.  Baby sea otters are born without the ability to swim, but they do float, so when a mother leaves to hunt, she secures her little one with seaweed to keep it from floating away in her absence.

Sea otters, Kachemak Bay, Alaska
Sea otters

At one point, someone spotted a black bear on the beach, so the captain slowed the boat and we gently edged closer to shore.  The bear was focused on finding food, and he ambled along the beach for several minutes, inspecting the shoreline until he found a dead fish.  He snapped it up and then made his way into the forest, the fish bobbing  in his mouth.

Kachemak Bay, Alaska

We also saw numerous humpback whales.  The captain emphasized how fortunate we were to see them, as this species starts making its way south about this time of year.  We watched as each whale glided through the water, giving us a view of its back and stumpy dorsal fin.  It might swim along the surface of the water for seconds or minutes, and then, with an arch of its back, it would prepare for a long, deep dive.  This is the moment everyone waits for, because that sharp arch indicates that the whale will soon be showing its tail flukes, something that is utterly satisfying to witness.

Kachemak Bay, Alaska
A humpback arching its back as it prepares to dive

Kachemak Bay, Alaska

 

Kachemak Bay, Alaska

 

Kachemak Bay, Alaska

Harder to predict was the breaching.  These enormous creatures (humpbacks weigh about 40 tons) surge out of the water and then come back down with tremendous force.  Scientists don’t know if this behavior is a functional one (i.e., for communication or hygiene), or if they’re just having fun.  On our return trip to Homer, the whales breached over and over.  Dale and I had never seen this behavior up close before, and it was breathtaking.

Alaska, humpback whale breaching

 

Alaska, humpback whale breaching

 

Alaska, humpback whale breaching

 

Alaska, humpback whale breaching
That boat looks mighty small
Alaska, humpback whale breaching
Wow…

The whales put on such a show that were late getting back to harbor; in fact, we’d watched the whales for so long that it would be the tour’s latest arrival of the season.  “If any of you have a pressing need to get to Homer on time,” the captain announced at one point, “please let me know.  You’ll be the most unpopular person onboard this ship, but let me know anyway.”  No one spoke up.  The whales had left us speechless.


Rainbow Tours operates out of Homer and runs trips daily during the summer.  They have two tour boats, and we were on the M/V Discovery, a 75-foot-long vessel with a capacity for up to 80 passengers.  It has both indoor and outdoor seating and upper and lower outside decks.  Because we wanted to spend the weekend in Seldovia, we split the boat trip into two, but most people take a day trip to Seldovia and back.  No meal is served onboard, but snacks are available for an additional fee, and there’s an opportunity to get lunch in Seldovia (see our post for more about the town’s amenities).

Kachemak Bay, Alaska, humpback whale