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Alaska: A day cruise to see Northwestern Fjord – whales, sea otters and retreating glaciers

Another Alaskan summer’s day – cold with a low dank mist covering the mountains. We had an early start, and we wearily raise ourselves from our slumber, grabbed a quick breakfast from the provisions we bought at the local store and hit the road. The plan was to take a 9 ½ hour boat trip from Seward up the Northwestern Fjord, some 70 odd miles down the coast. The overcast weather put some doubt in our mind on this endeavour, but we had already bought the tickets, so we were committed to the trip.

At 9:00 am our boat glided out onto the calm waters of Resurrection Bay, a deep water bay cut by glaciers. The bay is surrounded by steep mountains (so we were led to believe they but were not visible on this day) which butt up right against these frigid waters. As we pulled away we had our first wildlife sighting, a very cute sea otter contentedly floating on his back as we cruised past him. These wonderful and endangered creatures were nearly hunted into extinction but fortunately are now protected, but fishing and other man-made influences to their environment still put these otters at risk.

Resurrection Bay in the Kennai Peninsula
A sea otter enjoying the chilly waters of Resurrection Bay

We left our otter friend behind and travelled further down the bay. Our captain for the day was a handsome dude (this was Karen’s opinion not mine) and had a very dry sense of humour and spent his time staring out to sea with his trained eagle eyes looking for signs of wildlife. Occasionally, the radio sputtered into life and tour boat captains further up the bay radioed in potential sightings. After one such call we headed towards the shore. Here we found a pod of Orca (Killer Whales) serenely swimming and hunting in the bay for King Salmon. Almost immediately as we pulled to a stop a juvenile Orca breached (jumped clear of the water) and crashed back down. We all saw this except Karen – who always seems to miss these. Truly wonderful! Our captain explained more about the Orcas and how they can be identified individually by their markings and how the pod can be identified by their calls. Unfortunately, we could not hang around for too long as there was much more to see, so we were soon on our way again towards the Bay of Alaska and the open ocean.

An orca in the waters off the Kennai Peninsula

As we got closer to the open seas two things happened – the wave action got more pronounced and secondly, we started to see whales. These were not orcas this time (which are actually not whales) but humpback whales. Earlier in the year, we had taken a whale tour in Hawaii to observe the humpback whales that visit there to breed in the warm waters of the Pacific during the winter months before returning north to their feeding grounds. We wondered if any of these humpbacks we saw were the same individuals we have seen thousands of miles south of here – a romantic but unlikely prospect. It was difficult to say how many humpbacks we saw during this trip but it was probably between 15 and 20 – most were distant sightings but we were treated to one or two much closer visits by these 40 foot long magnificent mammals.

The tail of a humpback whale disappearing into the water of the Kenai Peninsula

Jack and Emily were enjoying the ride. Jack was determined to demonstrate his manhood by staying outside on the bow of the boat for the whole trip. Despite this technically being summer in Alaska it was a raw day and he got absolutely frozen but was determined to take this adventure head-on and spent about 90% of the journey outside. Although, we had to thaw him out at the end of the day. Emily, who sensibly like her parents, spent more time inside only venturing out to see the sights before dashing back inside to the comfort of the warm interior.

Eventually, we passed through the rough open waters of the Bay of Alaska, around the Kenai Peninsula, and into the calm waters of the Northwestern Fjord. Our main purpose of coming here was to see glaciers. On a clear day glaciers can be seen high up in the valley and circs of the mountains – but today we had come to look at tidewater glaciers. These glaciers descend from the vast Harding Ice Field high up the mountains.  Drawn by gravity these rivers of ice cut their way through to the edge of the sea where they crumble into the icy waters. There are three of four tidewater glaciers in this Fjord but the one we had come to see close-up was the Northwestern Glacier.

As we approached the glacier the captain had to drop the boat speed as there were huge blocks of ice floating in the water which had fallen from the glacier. We spotted grey specs on top of numerous of these floating ice rafts. As we drew closer we saw that these were actually harbour seals resting happily aboard their own frozen craft. The captain stopped the boat for 15 minutes, which gave us time to stare in awe at the magnificent glacier, which even on this cloudy day shimmered in a cold blue light only a few hundred feet from us.

Visiting this glacier was one of our bucket list items on this trip to Alaska. 90% of the glaciers in Alaska are retreating as the planet warms and we wanted to see this marvel of nature whilst we still could. Every so often ice would break from the face of the glacier, a phenomenon that is known as “Carving”, and crash into the sea, sending water high up into the air. All too soon it was time to turn around and head back to Seward.

The trip back was thankfully uneventful. The route was a little different, taking in some of the small, uninhabited isolated islands that dot the coastline. These are the habitats of the endangered Stellar Sealion communities and sea bird breeding grounds. The cliff walls of these islands are teeming with birds; horned and tufted puffins, auklets and penguin-like murres. Finally, we pulled back into the dock after a wonderful day at sea (despite the weather).

Best time to visit Seward

The best time of year to go to Seward is summer, between May and September. Although there is plenty to do in the winter, it will be cold and you’ll have fewer hours of daylight. In addition you’ll find that many businesses are closed.

Most businesses are open in Seward from mid-May through mid-September. Some are open a bit earlier or later. The first half of the summer has less rain than the second half of the summer, although you need to be ready for rain any day of the year.

Other things to do whilst in Seward

1. THE IDITARIDE

After spending the previous day at sea we decided to focus our last few days in Steward on terra firma. Since arriving in Alaska and Emily finding out about the existence of kennels for dog sledding huskies that were open to the public, we had been pressurized into visiting one of these establishments. Luckily enough one such place existed close to Seward. Despite this being summer and the snow is long gone this tour also promised us a sled ride – how could we turn down this opportunity. So, we set off to the “Iditaride” Dog Sled tour.

Dog sledding is a big winter sport here in Alaska and the blue riband event of the sledding world is the Iditarod, the largest sporting event in Alaska (which is not saying too much).

2. EXIT GLACIER

On the last day of our stay on the Kenai Peninsula, the sun finally decided to poke its head out from the clouds. Full of hope we decided this would be a good time to go and explore a place we had wanted to visit all week – the romantically named Exit Glacier. The glacier is actually a National Monument and as we approached the Visitor Centre on the entry road there are markers on the roadside with dates going back into the last century. The markers show where the front face of this glacier was in that year. Exit Glacier is as its name suggests is “exiting” – retreating back up to the Harding Ice Field from whence it came, waiting for the next appearance of global cooling before starting its next march forward. The retreat is inextricable and scarily rapid – we’re just glad to be here to see Exit before it exits

Where to stay in Seward

1. BEAR LAKE LODGINGS B&B

Bear Lake Lodgings B&B has lake views, free WiFi and free private parking, located in Seward.

The units come with hardwood floors and feature a fully equipped kitchen with a fridge, a dining area, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, and a private bathroom with shower and bathrobes. Some units have a seating area and/or a balcony.

An American breakfast is available each morning at the bed and breakfast.

Bear Lake Lodgings B&B has a sun terrace.

After a day of hiking, fishing or canoeing, guests can relax in the garden or in the shared lounge area.

Moose Pass is 21 miles from the accommodation, while Cooper Landing is 26 miles from the property.

2. EXIT GLACIER LODGE

Located in Seward, Exit Glacier Lodge has free WiFi, and guests can enjoy a restaurant and a bar.

If you would like to discover the area, hiking is possible nearby.

Moose Pass is 23 miles from the lodge, while Cooper Landing is 27 miles from the property.

3. SUNSHINE HOUSE BED & BREAKFAST

Featuring free WiFi, Sunshine House Bed and Breakfast offers accommodations in Seward. Free private parking is available on site.

Breakfast is provided daily at the property.

You can engage in various activities, such as fishing and canoeing.

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