Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise, part two: The animals!!!

In our last post, I talked about a boat tour that we took across Resurrection Bay and into the Gulf of Alaska and Kenai Fjords National Park.

In today’s post, I want to share pictures of the animals that we saw from the deck of the boat.  The region is extremely rich in wildlife: ten marine mammals live in these pristine waters, and dozens of species of birds nest along the coast.  While we didn’t see all of the wildlife the area has to offer, it’s astounding how much we did spot in just an eight-hour boat trip:

Orcas and Whales

Killer whales (orcas), the largest member of the dolphin family, as well these five species of whale either live in or pass through these waters:

  • fin whale
  • gray whale
  • humpback whale
  • minke whale
  • sei whale

On this trip we saw orcas and humpbacks.

First, the orcas.  There are two types to be found here: residents, which live in the area year-round and eat mostly fish, and transients, orcas that move through the area and eat mostly marine mammals.  It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s likely based on behaviors that we saw mostly resident whales.

Twice we came across large groups that were feeding, and we were virtually surrounded by them.

Here’s the first group, some of which swam in front of, and even under, our boat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second group, which we saw later in the day, kept their distance but was no less spectacular:

 

 

 

We saw a few humpbacks as well:

 

 

Wonderful.

Steller sea lions

Since moving to Alaska, Dale and I have fallen in love with sea lions.  We often see them swimming in groups in Resurrection Bay.  They’re social creatures with obvious personalities and lots of fun to watch.

Alaska’s sea lions are Stellers, the largest of all of the sea lions and also endangered.  I wrote two fact-filled posts about them earlier this year.

Sea lions have numerous haul outs and rookeries throughout the Gulf of Alaska, and we saw several groups on our trip.  It was thrilling to see them out of the water.

Look at the size of that fella in the background of this picture:

Holy moly.

Male sea lions may weigh as much as 2,500 pounds, and I’m pretty sure this guy is at his max weight.

Here he is, barking (or roaring?):

Sea lions have large flippers that allow them to move well both in water and on land.  In this picture, a little one had just emerged from the water:

And here he is, at the top:


Dale estimates that it took him about 30 seconds to get out of the water and to the top of the rock.

Some of the sea lions sport brands, placed there by NOAA scientists:

Scientists use brands because they allow for long-term scientific study without having to recapture animals more than once.  Branding studies have been in use in Alaska since the 1970’s and are completed on both sea lions and seals.

It looks kinda gruesome, but the brand allows scientists to track all kinds of information that benefits the species, including longevity, migratory movements, and breeding patterns.  You can go to NOAA’s FAQ page if you want more information about the way they brand the animals, whether or not it hurts them (which is what I wondered about!), and the types of research that they do.

The sea lions that we saw in the Chiswell Islands are television stars: the transceiver below sends live video feed to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, which displays their antics for visitors.

If you look at the big sea lion at the top right in the picture below, it appears that he is wounded and bloody:

We can only speculate what might have happened; he could’ve sustained an injury in a fight with another male, or perhaps he survived an attack from a transient orca.  It could also be an injury from discarded fishing gear, which I talked about in this post.  Who knows.

On a happier note, there are several babies in the picture below.  See if you can find them:

So. Freakin. Cute!

Harbor seals

Harbor seals are abundant on both the east and west coasts of the U.S., and on my side of the country, they can be found from California all the way to Alaska’s Bering Sea.  Dale and I see them often in Resurrection Bay, their sweet faces poking out of the water and eyeing us curiously.

Today we saw them on land:

…and floating on icebergs near the Holgate Glacier.

One of our favorite sights?  This mama and baby:

Awww!

Seals are incredible swimmers but not adept on land.  Because it takes a lot of effort for them to pull themselves out of the water, the captain gave them plenty of space.  He didn’t want to scare them off of their haul outs.

What’s the difference between seals and sea lions? See this sea lion post, written in January, to learn more about both of these awesome pinnipeds.

Black bears

In addition to sea creatures, Kenai Fjords National Park has numerous land mammals, including black bears.  We saw four bears on a coastal beach, including one loner and what appeared to be a mama with two yearlings.

 


Birds

We saw several species of seabirds, including ones that were new to us, such as the pelagic cormorant, common murre, and rhinoceros auklet.  In the Chiswells, we also saw huge flocks of black-legged kittiwakes.

Here’s a group of kittiwakes, resting on the rocky walls of one of the islands:

All of a sudden, they erupted in a chaotic swarm of cacophany:

Looking up, we saw the likely source of their alarm…

…two eagles, soaring above the island.  Fish comprise the biggest part of an eagle’s diet, but they also eat small mammals, sea creatures, carrion, and other birds (as we learned in a previous post).

Finally, there were the puffins.

It would be wrong to try to choose a favorite wildlife sighting from the day, but seeing puffins would be near the top of the list.

Haystack Rock, Oregon, May 2012

Dale and I have been trying to glimpse  puffins for years.  While we lived in Seattle, we would take trips to the Oregon coast in the hopes of seeing them at a place called Haystack Rock, on Cannon Beach.  Gorgeous place, but no puffin sightings.  Our luck wasn’t any better along the Washington coast or, so far, in Alaska.

But on this boat trip we finally got our puffins.

Horned puffin

Four different species of puffin exist:

  • Tufted puffin
  • Horned puffin
  • Rhinoceros auklet
  • Atlantic puffin

The Atlantic puffin is the only one we didn’t see (for obvious reasons).

The three Pacific puffins are medium-sized birds and range from 10-15 inches in height, with the tufted puffins being the largest.

The tufted puffin is so named because of the tufts of feathers on each side of its head.  It’s the largest of the puffins.

Tufted puffin

The horned puffin received its name from the horny projections extending above its eyes:

Horned puffin

We only had one sighting of the rhinoceros auklet and, not realizing that it, too, is a puffin, failed to get pictures, but it’s a pretty neat-looking bird:

(Source: Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons)

Puffins are diving birds and built for swimming.  They look like they’re flying underwater because they use their wings for propulsion.

Becoming airborne, on the other hand, is another matter.  It takes significant effort for them to lift off the water’s surface.  We watched the horned puffin in the pictures below as he struggled awkwardly, flapping his wings with great effort and skimming the water for several seconds before finally achieving lift.  The captain suggested that perhaps he ate too many fish!

 

It may take extra effort to get off the ground, but once they’re airborne, they really move—they can fly as fast as 48-55 mph.  They’re not efficient flyers, however, and may beat their wings as many as 400 times per minute to remain in the air.

The only reason why we saw puffins so close to land was because it’s nesting time.  Puffins spend winters in the open seas and come to land only to breed.

They mate for life and lay only one egg per season, which increases their odds of having a successful fledgling.  Tufted puffins dig burrows deep into the island tops, while horned puffins nest in rock crevices:


Breeding season is also the only reason why we saw the puffins in their flamboyant plumage, which has earned them the nicknames of “sea parrot” and “clown of the ocean.”  In the winter, their plumage and beaks turn a plain gray, but they’re rarely seen like this because they’re nowhere near land.

Was the boat trip worth the expense?

I mentioned in our previous post that this particular Kenai Fjords Tours boat trip was $215 per person.  Was it a good value?

Heck yeah.

It’s not easy to get out of the bay and into open ocean.  Highly skilled boaters and kayakers can do it, but the Gulf of Alaska is not for novices.  One of these days, Dale and I hope to take sea kayaking lessons, then go on an extended kayaking trip as part of a tour, and after that maybe venture out on our own, but that’s not something we’d even consider right now.

The boat tour offered an incredible introduction to Alaska’s waters, and given everything we saw, along with the fact that we had two meals and comfortable accommodations, the price was quite reasonable.  We absolutely recommend it, and will do it again one of these days, so that we can see more of this:

And this:

And this:

These are the reasons we came to Alaska, and what makes it so very special.