A Tale of Whales and a Whale of a Tour
By Mike Miller
The big black and white killer whale -- his four-foot sail-like dorsal fin erect and rising from a long sleek black and white body -- came slicing rapidly through the water, seemingly on a collision course with our vessel.
Sort of a black and white torpedo with eyes, fin, flippers, and fluke.
The Kansas lady to my right gave a little gasp. "Might it hit us?" she asked plaintively.
No time for her husband to answer. Seconds later, and only a scant four yards from our starboard rail, the orca suddenly dove, his body and dorsal disappearing from view. His course took him directly under (not into!) our boat. A mad scramble ensued as all of us raced through and around the ship's forward lounge to the port side of the vessel. Most of us made it in time to see the great dorsal resurface. The creature thrust mightily with his horizontal fluke and sped away at incredible speed.
"Oh my," said Kansas Lady, "that was a sight."
"Oh yes," replied Kansas Man, "a sight indeed."
But the great thing was, it was only one of many memorable moments that day as we cruised the waters of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park on an afternoon excursion out of Seward. Our ship was the Alaskan Explorer, one of several sightseeing vessels operated by Kenai Fjords Tours. In spite of absolutely rotten rainy weather during some portions of the trip, we (wife Marilyn and I) enjoyed one of the best waterborne excursions we have ever experienced. Proof indeed that in Alaska one should never forgo the pleasures of an outing just because of inclement weather; just dress warmly, in layers, for it.
The trip began about 11:30 a.m., shortly after we arrived in the Resurrection Bay city aboard the Alaska Railroad morning train from Anchorage. After leaving the dock we heard words of welcome and instruction from not one but two skippers, Chris and Roy. They advised us:
"Keep your hat on your head. We don't go back for hats unless you are wearing one."
"If you see any folks in the water, throw them a life ring - whether of not they are from this vessel."
"A few nautical terms: 'Port' means left, 'starboard' means right, 'aft' is toward the back of the vessel and the 'bow' is the pointy end of the boat."
And, "If you feel seasick, go aft to the rail on the lower deck. Repeat, aft!"
Shortly thereafter we had a tasty lunch, deli-style, consisting of breaded chicken or breaded fish (or both), apple chips, choice of light beverage, and cookies.
Our meal was interrupted (we didn't mind) by the sight of our first critter of the day, a solitary sea otter who drifted by on the port side of the ship. ("Left?" someone asked. "Yeah, left.") The creature was reclining in classic sea otter pose - flat on his back in the water, paws under his chin, with lower legs and tail tucked up toward his tummy.
"He weighs about 100 pounds," said one of our captains speaking from the bridge, " and he has one of the densest coats on earth."
We heard lots of "Oohs," "Aaahs," and "Isn't he darling..." coming from all over the lounge. One of our table mates, Pat Horner of New Jersey, was enthralled. "Nothing like this in New Jersey," she told us. Her daughter, Gayle Newfeld of Kodiak, has seen plenty of sea otters near her Alaska home digs. But she, like us, was thrilled as well.
Next on our mammal list came a Dall's porpoise, about a hundreds yards to starboard. "He's one of the fastest swimmers in the North Pacific," said the voice from the skipper's mike. "Flipper in a tux. He weighs about 300 pounds and can travel upwards of 35 miles an hour."
Then - highlight of our trip by any measure - came our romp on the wild side with the killer whales (orcas), including the eight-ton male who threatened to "torpedo" us.
Incredibly, during the course of our cruise not one but two separate orca pods, a half-dozen or so animals in each group, joined us to frolic close by our vessel.
Both groups paced us, raced us, and surrounded us when we slowed. They rolled, sounded, made shallow breaches, and approached literally within inches of our ship.
Once, ignoring the rain and looking straight down from my post at the forward port rail, I found myself gazing incredulously into one creature's "blow" hole! Thank goodness he didn't take that moment to exhale.
Another time the voice from the bridge announced the presence of Steller's sea lions, the first of several large or smaller sightings. A big bunch of them, maybe three dozen or more, were sleeping, lounging, crawling, and climbing on rocky beach ledges at the base of a steep granite cliff. A few were swimming in the water, just off shore. Some looked dark gray, almost black; others were light rusty brown in color. "Actually," we were told, "they are all the same color. Their fur just looks dark when they're wet." Whatever their coloration, these were impressive specimens, weighing in at a ton or more for the bulls, but "only" 650 pounds for the more diminutive females. Even from within the lounge of our vessel we could hear their incessant growls and bellowing.
Throughout our cruise, in spite of the weather, we saw a goodly number of seabirds including cormorants, American bald eagles, puffins (with little round "football" bodies and parrot-like beaks, the most comical-looking bird to fly over and dive into northern seas), black-legged kittiwakes, and (my personal favorite) murres. These incredible alcids can dive while fishing to a depth of 300 feet below the water's surface or more. Wow! That's equal to the height of a 30-story building. Because of their black and white coloring some folk call them "penguins of the north;" I prefer to think of penguins as "murres of the south."
And what would an Alaska cruise be without glacier viewing? The ice river we saw and photographed and ogled over that day was Holgate Glacier. Not the biggest on the Pacific coast by any means, but a beautiful, classic tidewater glacier with deep blue colors and an impressive face that calved a few small "growler" bergs into the sea to the delight of all on board.
Our excursion ended about 5:30 p.m., just in time to board our rail cars for the return trip to Anchorage.
It was, all agreed, a marvelous tour, one that Alaska visitors can put in their memory caches as among the best trips in the north country.
Come this spring, summer, or fall you could do a lot worse than book one of these tours. More information is available on the internet at http://www.kenaifjords.com.
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Copyright (c) Mike Miller 2006 - All rights reserved
About The Author
Alaskan travel writer Mike Miller lives in Juneau where he writes newspaper stories, magazine articles and books. He also publishes a comprehensive informational website about Alaska cruising. Visit the site at http://www.AlaskaCruisingReport.com.