After weeks of whining about the awful weather, it’s great to say that we had another wonderful day in the sunshine. We took a full day boat trip from Seward around the coast seeing the glaciers that ooze out of the Harding Icefield that covers most of Kenai National Park. Along the way we stopped frequently to see the animals that live in this unique part of the world. The captain narrated the trip and said he still loved his job after 23 years. We could tell.
The ultimate goal of the trip was to travel to the Northwestern Glacier which is surrounded by a number of other smaller glaciers. In 1909 when this glacier was first photographed by Europeans, it extended ten miles further into the lagoon and all the smaller glaciers currently surrounding it were once part of this gigantic ice mass. Climate change has accelerated the retreat of Northwestern, but it was already in retreat by the 1940’s. The retreat was exacerbated by the March 1964 earth quake which lowered the level of the land thirty feet and allowed the salt water to come over the ice.
Before the earth quake Seward had a substantial loading dock and was a major sea port for interior Alaska. It also housed petroleum in huge storage tanks. The quake destroyed the loading dock and knocked over the storage tanks. The petroleum gushed into the sea, caught on fire, and destroyed most of Seward. All the commercial ventures that promised Seward a vital future were gone and it took the town many years to recover. The land we are camped on was land that used to house commercial buildings and very little commerce takes place here today. There is a fish cannery here and we saw some fishing boats today, but not the frenzy of fishing we saw in Valdez. Tourism appears to be the primary industry.
Although the boat tour had a set itinerary, the captain altered the route to take advantage of animals we came upon throughout the day. We saw numerous humpbacked whales, sending their steamy breaths high into the air and smacking their huge tails on the water as they went deep to capture more krill and plankton. The captain alerted us to the fact that birds circle over the humpbacks as they are ready to surface, because they bring bits of dinner up with them. The large pack of orcas seemed to surprise even the captain who said they are recent visitors to the area. The orca travel in packs, lead by the oldest female and comprised of mostly her female descendants. They hunt together, using air bubbles to surround and bunch up the fish before coming in to the kill. When their large dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water, it’s time to click the shutter, but moved around so much, they were hard to capture.
The deep green hues of the water here is caused by all the plankton in the water which attracts animals both large and small. The puffins are a favorite to watch. They do not fly efficiently and look like giant bumble bees madly flapping their wings as they bounce across the water trying to get lift. The captain said if they've eaten too much, they can't get off at all. These birds don't seem like they could migrate too far.