Hugging the rugged coastline of south central Alaska is Kenai Fjords National Park. Created in 1980, Kenai Fjords National Park contains the Harding Ice Field, one of the largest in North America, which splinters off into more than 38 glaciers that grind their way to the sea. These glaciers are responsible for creating the deep water fjords for which the park is named. The calving glaciers create a spectacle of nature only able to be witnessed from boat. And for this year’s Backcountry Journeys Marine Wildlife tour, we would be venturing into these deep water fjords, exploring their frigid waters in search of the incredible array of wildlife that make their homes amongst the glaciers and rocky coastline.
Included in the list of our targeted quarry would be orcas, humpback whales, horned and tufted puffins, stellar sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, bald eagles, and a wide array of marine birds. Before the trip was over, we would put our handheld photographic stills to the test, navigating a rocking boat while trying to catch birds in flight and breaching orcas midair.
The Backcountry Journeys Kenai Fjords tour consists of four full days on the Stellar Explorer, a 42 foot purely Alaskan vessel that provides both a ring around deck for shooting from all angles, as well as a fully enclosed cabin to provide protection from the elements. And, we would be glad for it, as Alaska decided to dish out some of quintessentially northern weather, with light rain and a cold wind throughout the week. This differed greatly from the previous trip I ran in Kenai Fjords, where we had warm sunny days for most of the trip. But, that is what makes Alaska who she is, a state of extreme elements with an unpredictable nature.
But, weather would not deter us, and there were other factors that would make this trip far superior to the last one I ran. That very same cool, wet weather had kept the seas cold, which the baitfish love. And where small life thrives, large animals abound as well. We would be rewarded with incredibly dense congregations of humpback whales and orcas, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. And their behavior was active and rambunctious, hunting, feeding, and in the case of the orcas, celebrating successful salmon hunts with breaches, tail slaps, belly rolls, and pectoral fin slaps.
It was our first day out that things really began to go off. After we met in Anchorage the night before, and made the trip to Seward (in our brand new BCJ all wheel drive van), we headed straight to the boat to meet Captain Stan and his marine biology trained deckhand, Brooke, aboard the Stellar Explorer. From there, we left the calm waters of the marina and headed into Resurrection Bay. We had barely left harbor when the first humpback whale was spotted. It was feeding on herring in the protected waters of the bay, diving for a few minutes, then surging upwards, mouth agape, to catch as many fish as possible. This made predicting where it would surface difficult, but the sheer scale of the animal allowed us plenty of time to capture images of its enormous head and mouth fully out of the water.
From here it was off to Agnes Point, where there is a river inlet where king salmon congregate before heading upstream to spawn. This is a favorite spot of the resident orca, which live in the area year round, feeding on salmon and other fish. It didn’t take long to find the orca, and soon, we found our boat surrounded by a pod of killer whales. Some were hunting in small groups, chasing salmon, and others cruising around. There were several males (bulls) and females (cows) with calves.
I’m not sure how long we were with this pod before the first whale breached. A young orca leapt from the water, going full airborne, before crashing back into the sea broadside. It was too fast for me to capture, except for the last split second as she splashed back into the water. Then, moments later, just off the starboard bow, another orca breached, then another, and another, until at least five whales had jumped from the water in succession. Out of the five jumpers, I was able to photograph two while contending with the rocking boat and a handheld 600mm lens. This would prove to be the most raucous moment of the trip, even though it happened in the first half of the the first day.
Throughout the following days, the weather degraded a bit, with some light chop and a drizzly rain. But as we wrapped our bodies and cameras in protective rain gear, we would spend the next few days exploring both sides of Resurrection Bay, the Chiswell Islands, and the calving faces of two enormous glaciers, the Holgate and the Aialik. The face of Holgate Glacier is nearly a mile wide, and it is one of the few glaciers in Alaska that is advancing as opposed to receding. It is a spectacle that everyone should witness once in their life, the sheer enormity of the ice impossible to fully comprehend without a vessel in from of it for reference.
Each day out on the water, we encountered humpbacks and orcas, but we wouldn’t see the same level breaching activity again that we had seen the first day. One of the highlights for this trip for me are the puffins. Two species reside here around Kenai Fjords National Park, the horned puffin and the tufted puffin. Catching these birds in flight is a real challenge, especially in the dim conditions we experienced. With bodies the size of a small chicken and short little wings, puffins have to fly incredibly fast to stay aloft. So, capturing them in flight is challenging. For every 100 shots you shoot, a couple may come back clear and well composed. But, when a photo does come out, it is exhilarating. And there are so many puffins here, we would have plenty of chances each day.
On the last half of the last day, the sun finally decided to poke through, and it couldn’t have been better timed. On the way back to harbor, we encountered a group of three humpback whales working together, group feeding on schools of herring. The three whales would dive together, locate the school of baitfish, then lunge upwards in unison, creating a venerable wall of whale mouth as they would partially leave the water, mouths open, gobbling up as many fish as possible. We were able to watch several cycles of diving and lunging, getting some great opportunities to photograph the whales as all three would appear with a great splash, mouths agape and heads out of the water.
By the time the trip had ended, we had each captured thousands of photos of the wildlife that make these icy waters their summer homes. Sure, many of those images had to be tossed out due to the challenging nature of shooting from a moving platform, but amidst those thousands of images were the keepers, images capturing rare moments of wildlife spectacles I’ve never experienced before in such density and intensity. Many people go most of their lives dreaming of photographing whales and orcas in the wild. And, our group spent four full days in close contact with these incredible giants of the sea, masters of their domain, surviving on the knowledge passed down through countless generations.
I want to offer a big thank you to Captain Stan, our experienced and enthusiastic boat captain, who expertly kept us in the action throughout the trip. And another big thanks to deckhand Brooke, whose expertise in all things marine biology and careful attention to our group helped make this trip such a joy to run.
And lastly, thanks to the amazing clients who braved the elements with enthusiasm and excitement, in pursuit of the joys of photographing these incredible wild animals in the most idyllic of settings, the rugged and glacier capped landscape of Kenai Fjords National Park.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com