Sailing on Aialik Bay from Seward, on a sunny mid-September, I'm thrilled not only because of the perfect weather but because there are new things to see and learn at Kenai Fjords National Park. Carved eons ago by slow-moving glaciers and colliding tectonic plates, what used to be valleys are now filled with frigid ocean waters. Long steep-sided fjords are chiseled inland revealing quiet rugged coves and bays. Coastal peaks loom all over Kenai peninsula's southeastern edge while its emerald shores are dotted with solitary isles.
Aboard the catamaran Orca Voyager operated by Kenai Fjords Tours, I join other guests taking a 6-hour day cruise ($149+ adults/ $74.50+ kids) in Alaska's smallest among its eight designated national parks and the closest to Anchorage. But don't get the "smallest" fool you. This is Alaska after all where the wilderness seem to go on forever. The national park, established in 1980, is a 600,000-acre natural beauty encompassing the best of what there is to see in coastal Alaska.
|The trip begins at Seward marina|
Joining the cruise is pretty straightforward after making online reservations. An hour at least prior to 11:30 AM departure, guests are required to check-in at the Kenai Fjords Office right next to the bustling marina. There's also an adjoining gift shop for last minute shopping - perhaps forgotten an extra layer to stay warm? While I came prepared for the elements, I unfortunately forgot my zoom lens when I switched camera bags at home - hence no close ups of any wildlife on this trip. I soon found myself envying other guests with their full armada of camera equipment.
As the captain starts his tour narration, heads turn in every direction as the sights began marching by. I slipped into my down jacket as the boat gains speed and the frigid headwinds howled upon my face. There's no denying the fact that somewhere up on those peaks, is the park's frozen crown jewel - Harding Icefield - one of the 4 remaining in the United States and the motherload of all glaciers tumbling down into the sea. Even at 300 square miles of ice, the icefield is but a remnant of the last Ice Age.
|The view along Resurrection Bay|
Turning a sharp right after passing more rocky islands, we're now entering Aialik Bay with its numerous coves looking like tentacles when viewed mid-air from an airplane. The captain suddenly slows down the boat as seabirds like horned puffins and gulls were right out front frolicking themselves in the water. On a nearby crag was a colony of fish-eating cormorants - famous for their ability to swoop down and dive as deep as 45 meters to catch a meal! Much as I'd like a closer picture of these birds, I could only manage with what my lens could capture.
|A humpback whale barely surfacing to blow off|
|Steller sea lions|
Several minutes later, the captain beckons everyone to move starboard as a humpback whale was sighted blowing at the surface to breathe. The captain carefully maneuvers the boat in order not to disturb this huge animal. Many humpback whales spend its summer in Alaskan waters feeding on small schooling fish before journeying far away to the Hawaiian islands for winter. Unfortunately, no whale breaching occurred, no acrobatics to wow us all, so we had to contend with just seeing part of its head barely above the water. Then it was gone.
Moving deeper into the long arm of the fjord, we were rewarded with views of Holgate and Pedersen Glaciers. The boat slows down again as we were just within a stone's throw away from several sea otters basking in the glorious midday sun. Despite being the smallest marine mammals, I learned from the captain they are equipped with a very dense fur highly sought by fur traders. They were hunted extensively almost to extinction between mid-18th century to early 20th century - thus their endangered status today.
|Pedersen Glacier. A pair of sea otters float in the foreground.|
|It's not everyday one gets to see this|
|Like any active glacier, calving does happen at Aialik Glacier|
Undoubtedly, this 100-mile cruise on the Orca Voyager was a pretty punctuation mark on my quick visit to Alaska. A big thanks go to to Kenai Fjords Tours for helping make this happen and of course to the heavens for the unbelievably beautiful weather.