Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Orcas and whales at Seward

Whale song at Seward

Young mountain goat above Exit Glacier
Our next port of call was Seward, a small fiord-side fishing town with views across the water to steep, forested mountains capped with snow.  Again the campers got the front row seats on the waterfront. A combination of cafes, restaurants and galleries added a touristy touch  to this picturesque town but could not overwhelm its predominant fishing flavor, particularly the smell from the cannery when the wind was in the wrong direction!

Ice climbers on Exit Glacier
Hoary marmot among the buttercups
We sat around for a day in the rain, doing laundry and sitting in cafes, knowing that the next couple of days  were forecast to be sunny. A trip out to Exit Glacier the following day provided us with some exercise and some close encounters with marmots and mountain goats.

Resurrection Bay, Seward

Marine mountain goat from the kayak
Hostel at Kayaker's Cove
We then organised a water taxi to take us and our kayak down the fiord to a little rustic and homely hostel at Kyakers Cove, nestled into the forest overlooking the sheltered bay. Our first paddle on the afternoon of our arrival was under somewhat overcast skies and as we progressed along the cliff-sides towards the open ocean, the swell and chop increased, which Christine found a little daunting. So, after a couple of miles we about-faced and rode the swells back to camp, where we spent the evening around the campfire with the couple of other guests and the hostel hosts, some wiry Alaskans who’s lives focus around fishing  and hunting and back-country adventures.

The next morning dawned beautifully sunny, so we set out again along the same shore, this time in search of a seal colony that we were told was about a 3 hour paddle along the coast. About an hour out, we encountered our first puffins, floating around on the surface, along with lots of cute little murrelets (crazy little sea-birds that nest in tree hollows!). A little later we rounded a headland and beneath the towering mountains, right down by the shoreline, was a mountain goat lying on the rocks. We paddled a little closer and were busy taking photos when suddenly there was a huge explosion of air behind us and we swung around to find our selves peering into the blowhole of a whale that had surfaced less than 10 meters from us. It quietly slipped back below the surface, emerging again a bit further along the cliffs. And then, suddenly, we heard the song of the whale - it was singing below the surface and its calls were being reflected and amplified out of the sea caves along the cliffs, and then it was gone. What a quintessentially Alaskan experience - in a kayak on a forest-covered fiord, surrounded by  glaciers and towering snowcapped peaks with a mountain goat on one side, a singing whale on the other and puffins bobbing around on the surface! And the sun was shinning! It doesn’t get much better than that.
Tufted Puffin

We continued our paddle till we eventually found a small group of Steller’s sealions lounging on the rocks with a few others playing in the water. One of the animals sported what looked to be a very brightly colored pendant around its neck but, on closer inspection, turned out to be a fishing lure that was hooked in its mouth. 

A small rocky beach served as a pullout for lunch and, with the change of the tide, we took advantage of the current and a favorable wind to return, very satisfied to camp.

Capitalising on a second sunny day, we took a wildlife cruise on a small boat with only 9 passengers to further explore the surrounding   fiords and islands. Unfortunately, however, the morning sun was short-lived as an ocean mist rolled in, blanketing us in a cold,wet cloud. Fortunately, it lifted a little not long after, giving us views across the water, if not of the mountain peaks. Our route took us out through Resurrection Bay to the Chiswell Islands, a group of over 200 rocky islets that rise abruptly out of the sea, providing nesting sites for tens of thousands of birds, the air thick with circling kittiwakes as well as many other seabirds including parakeet-billed, and rhinoceros auklets.

Whoo-hoo - Orcas!
Orca breaching
A little later, a slender angular black shape slicing through the water signaled the presence of orca - another of our bucket list targets! As we approached their massive dorsal fins could be seen slicing through the water with glimpses of their white flanks below the surface and then, a young orca exploded from the water, it’s whole body suspended briefly above the surface before disappearing  with a mighty splash.  If that wasn’t sufficient, we were then visited by a pod of speedy little Dall’s porpoises, themselves orca-like in their coloration, which sliced along in the boat’s bow wave. Our next encounter was a couple of grey whales which surfaced only meters from the boat and then, not to be outdone by the orcas, put on a show for us by leaping out of the water several times. 

Humpback not wanting to be out-done

Kayakers in front of Aialik Glacier
Our route then took us into Aialik Bay at the end of which the sun emerged and we navigated under blue skies through a sea of floating ice to a massive glacier that came right down to the water. As we came to a halt the creaks and groans and cannon-shot like explosions that emanated from the ice sheet told us that this beast was alive and, as we watched, huge chunks of ice would break loose and cascade down into the water sending waves across the bay. All in all, another amazing day!

Can we stay, just a little bit longer?
From Seward, we made our way to Whittier, stopping off overnight near Portage where we took yet another evening beer (oops, we’re out of wine) and cheese paddle, this time across the lake to Portage Glacier, paddling through the ice-floes but maintaining our distance from the face of the glacier, given our previously experience of glacier dynamics.

Portage Lake - looks good for a paddle
Making the most of the last rays of sun
Approaching Portage Glacier
We then tunneled our way through a mountain range, via the longest highway tunnel in North America, to emerge in the rain in Whittier, a bleak little port dominated by railway lines, and shipping docks for the Alaska Marine Highway ferries and giant cruise ships. The town, and the adjoining tunnel, were originally created as a military port to provide railway access to the rest of Alaska. Accommodation for the military staff took the form of a number of massive and ugly apartment blocks, and these now provide the only housing for the Whittier residents. I guess the bleak weather didn’t help but it wasn’t a particularly inspiring town. One sensed however that, if the clouds lifted, a spectacular fiord setting would be revealed. 

We also found out here that our applications for visa extensions had been rejected causing us much dismay, but it appears that the problem was due to us not providing the correct amount of money. As mentioned in an earlier post, we had relinquished particular forms when we entered Canada, on the advice of the US border guys and as instructed by a USCIS website, so we had argued that we shouldn’t have to pay the $300(!) each to replace them - but they obviously didn’t see it that way. So fortunately my sister in Oregon was able to send off the cheques and we’re hoping it will get sorted quickly, as our visas expire in a week!

No comments:

Post a Comment