Hugging the rugged coastline of south-central Alaska is Kenai Fjords National Park. Created in 1980, Kenai Fjords National Park contains the Harding Icefield, 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 deepwater fjords for which the park is named. The calving glaciers create a spectacle of nature only able to be witnessed from a boat. And for this year’s Backcountry Journeys Marine Wildlife of Alaska: Kenai Fjords tour, we would be venturing into these deepwater fjords, exploring their frigid waters in search of the incredible array of wildlife that makes 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 skills to the test, navigating a rocking boat while trying to catch birds in flight and spy hopping orcas. But, with an incredible group, almost all of which being return Backcountry Journeys guests, we would find some incredible photographic opportunities and experience better Alaskan weather than we dared to hope for.
Day 1: Anchorage: The Journey Begins
As almost all Alaskan adventures begin, ours began in Anchorage. As Alaska’s biggest city (almost half of Alaska’s 700,000 residents live in Anchorage), its Ted Stevens International Airport is a crucial first step to exploring the 49th state.
We met everyone at the Lakefront Hotel, a classic Alaskan lodge located just minutes from the airport. Decorated with mounted bears, mountain goats, and salmon, the lobby has a distinctive Alaskan feel and is a great launching point from which to begin one’s Alaska adventure.
For night one, we dined in one of the hotel’s three restaurants, The Fancy Moose, to conduct our trip orientation and reacquaint ourselves with everyone. For many on this trip, it would be their first time in Alaska, and the great wild north would not disappoint. For our trip orientations, we always conduct some icebreakers to get everyone acquainted and then begin going through the trip logistics for the week, including clothing, schedule, and camera gear. We also make sure to listen to everyone’s goals for the trip. Though we obviously do not want to influence the behavior of the wildlife, it is great to know everyone’s goals so we, as guides, make sure to give everyone the best chance possible to capture their “perfect shot.”
After completing our orientation and enjoying a nice dinner, we retired to our rooms to prepare and rest in advance of an early departure.
Day 2: Seward
We met early in the morning on day two to load our gear and make the drive to the town of Seward, Alaska. Situated at the head of Resurrection Bay, Seward is the primary base of operations for travelers wishing to explore Kenai Fjords National Park. With a year-round population of just 3,000 people, Seward is a quaint old fishing town with a classic Alaskan downtown, but with several top-notch restaurants open during the summer season. It is also the traditional starting point for the world-famous Iditarod dogsled race and home to the Alaska SeaLife Center.
The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of constant beauty and incredible vistas. The Seward highway heads south along Turnagain Arm, a small bay extending off of Cook Inlet. Turnagain Arm is ringed by snow-capped mountains, with the steep slopes of the Chugach Mountains to the northeast and the Kenai Peninsula visible across the bay to the southwest. After the highway leaves Turnagain Arm, it bends south through the Kenai Peninsula before ending in the town of Seward.
We would be staying at the beautiful Harbor 360 Hotel, situated directly on Seward’s historic harbor, with excellent views of Resurrection Bay and the mountains beyond. After arriving at the hotel, we unloaded our luggage and headed straight to the harbor to find our boat captain and begin our first day on the water.
Our captain for our first day would be the capable and seasoned Jim, owner of the 42 foot Stellar Explorer that would serve as our vessel for two out of our four days on the water. And, serving as naturalist and deckhand was Tammy, a Florida teacher who spends her summers working on Jim’s tour boats. She would prove to be a very knowledgeable and entertaining addition to the group.
After a short safety briefing, we headed out into Resurrection Bay, motoring straight for Agnes Cove in search of a resident pod of orcas that had been reported there. But, after only just leaving the harbor, we encountered several sea otters lazily floating at the water’s surface. These otters are much larger than their river otter counterparts. Captain Jim said they’re as big as Rottweilers, and he might not be far off!
We left our otter friends and continued for Agnes Cove, a path that takes us past the largest glacier in the park, Bear Glacier. Though, its calving face is inaccessible by boat, because Bear Glacier calves into its own freshwater lagoon. As we continued on, we began our approach of Agnes Cove. We could see spouts and large black dorsal fins cutting through the water’s surface.
Jim cut the engines to a crawl and we approached slowly to avoid disturbing the killer whales. They were fishing for king salmon. And, the adult whales were teaching a couple of small calves their fishing techniques as they did.
Killer Whales, or orcas, can be divided into two subspecies, fish eaters and mammal eaters. The year-round resident orcas of the Resurrection Bay ecosystem are all fish eaters, primarily feeding on salmon, but also targeting steelhead, herring, and even halibut from time to time. The transient pods of orca are the mammal eaters. They specialize in hunting harbor seals, Dall’s porpoise, sea lions, and will even take sea otters occasionally. And what’s even more interesting is that the local sea mammals can distinguish between the two types of killer whales. Amongst this resident pod of orca, a couple of sea otters floated lazily, clinging to floating kelp balloons as the killer whales’ dorsal fins dashed amongst them, chasing down king salmon. If this had been a transient pod of orca, these otters wouldn’t have dared to float amongst them, even if sea otters aren’t at the top of the menu for transient killer whales.
On the top of our group’s list of desired photographs was, of course, a breaching orca. This is clearly a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and as we approached, we witnessed a large female killer whale fully breach. But, none of us were ready. And, though we would spend at least of a portion of each of our four days photographing orcas, this would be the only full breach we would witness. But, the killer whales presented plenty of other great photo opportunities as they surfaced to breathe, spy hopped, and tail slapped all around our boat.
We spent at least an hour with this pod of orcas before Jim said it was time to move on and leave the killer whales to fish without the disturbance or distraction of a boat present. So, we grabbed a seat on our 42 foot Delta and motored across Resurrection Bay to a series of inlets filled with harbor seals lounging on the sea rocks.
As we headed towards a small inlet of calm water to take our lunch, we encountered bald eagles, common murres, and horned puffins.
On top of my list of photo goals for the trip were puffins in flight. In my opinion, puffins are amongst the most photogenic of marine birds, and they also present a significant challenge to capture on film. They have small wings and must fly incredibly fast to stay aloft, making capturing a clean photo of them very difficult, especially when shooting from a rocking boat. But, these beautiful little fish-eating birds were everywhere throughout Resurrection Bay and the national park area, presenting us with many opportunities to capture them in flight. Every time one of our guests were able to capture a sharp image of a flying puffin, celebratory high fives would follow.
After lunch, we began motoring back towards the harbor through the San Juan Inlet on the east side of Resurrection Bay, seeing more bald eagles and mountain goats perched high on the sea cliffs as we went.
Arriving back at the harbor, we dropped our gear at the hotel and headed for our first Seward dining experience, which that night would be the Seward Brewing Company. We sampled a few of the local brews and enjoyed some local seafood before retiring for the night and resting in anticipation of another day at sea.
Day 3: Holgate Glacier
For our third day of the trip and our second day at sea, we would be changing boats and captains. Instead of the Stellar Explorer, we would be boarding another 42 foot Delta, the Stellar Eagle, captained by the tenacious Tanya. And, Tammy would again be joining us as deckhand and naturalist.
We first headed back to Agnes Cove to spend another hour with the resident pod of killer whales in hopes of capturing that elusive full breach shot. But, as I mentioned before, we would not see another full breach on the trip. But, again, we got some incredible close-ups of the killer whales as they fished near the boat.
From Agnes Cove, we began motoring out of Resurrection Bay and heading for Holgate Glacier. This would be our first time leaving the protected waters of Resurrection Bay and venturing out into the Gulf of Alaska. These would be the roughest waters we would face all week, with decent size rollers pushing the boat up and down. But, the rough section of water was brief as we scooted around a point and into the calm waters of Aialik Bay. From there we took a turn to the west and into Holgate Arm. As we rounded the rocky point at the entrance of the inlet, we got our first look at the glacier. From over five miles away, it appeared gargantuan, a massive river of ice carving out a deep valley as it crept towards the sea. And there, where ice meets water, the calving face of the glacier is over 500 feet tall! Trying to comprehend the scale is almost impossible without anything for reference. When we were still over a couple of miles out, it felt like the glacier face was only a few hundred yards away. But as we approached, the gigantic wall of ice grew and grew in our eyes.
Once close enough, we noticed there was another boat in front of the glacier, and we were able to see the full scale of the calving face for the first time. It was so massive that the 60-foot waterfall gushing from the innards of the glacier appeared minuscule in comparison.
As we approached, we noticed the air cooling from moving across the ice. We moved within a quarter mile of the glacier’s face before Captain Tanya cut the engines and we went to work.
Capturing the scale of the glacier in photo form is a true challenge. So, as long as that vessel was out in front of us, we used it in the foreground for scale. But, then it left and we moved on to trying panoramic series and abstracts of the iridescent blue ice.
As we photographed the glacier, we witnessed several small calving events, with big chunks of ice breaking free from the glacier and crashing into the sea below. Ice that falls from the glacier, in turn, collects around the glacier’s face and is used by harbor seals as a safe haul out. It is unknown exactly why, but killer whales rarely hunt in the waters directly in front of a glacier, and these harbor seals know it. So, we were able to witness and photograph them as they lounged in large numbers atop the ice floats, occasionally sticking their heads up to check us out and make sure we weren’t getting too close.
We ate our lunch there in front of the glacier and then motored up and headed out of Holgate Inlet towards Resurrection Bay. We crossed that rough section of water and reentered the bay. And as we did, we encountered our first of many humpback whales that we would see throughout the week.
Though we all were hoping for a breach that would not come, we did capture some beautiful images of the whale’s fluke as it dove down to hunt for small fish.
From here, we headed back to the harbor, unloaded, and headed for dinner.
Day 4: The Chiswell Islands
For the fourth day of our tour, and our third day heading out to sea, we would be rejoining Captain Tanya and deckhand Tammy on the 42 foot Stellar Eagle. The seas had calmed significantly from the day before, so today we would be heading further out into the Gulf of Alaska to check out the Chiswell Islands.
The Chiswell Islands are a group of rocky, uninhabited islands that are not technically within the boundaries of Kenai Fjords National Park. But, they are a crucial sanctuary for huge numbers of sea birds and other marine animals. Every year, millions of birds nest and seek refuge on the islands. Species include tufted and horned puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, common murres, pigeon guillemots, several species of gull and many other species. If there was going to be a day to capture that perfect puffin in flight shot, this would be it. The Chiswell Islands are also home to a rookery for the threatened Steller sea lion, which biologists monitor 24 hours a day through a camera and microphone setup overlooking the rookery.
Motoring over 35 nautical miles south of Seward, we began to approach the islands. They appeared like jagged monoliths rising directly from the sea, with no horizontal beaches. If one were lost at sea and happened upon islands like these, it would be a grave disappointment, because the idea of climbing the islands’ cliff faces seemed treacherous, to say the least, if not completely impossible.
We first approached the Steller sea lion rookery. Spread across a rock shelf that looked to be the only bit of flat ground on any of the islands, were dozens of sea lions. There were females with young pups as well as several gigantic males. Steller sea lion males are near twice the size as their female counterparts, maxing out at over 2,400 pounds. The males are also very territorial, engaging in brutal battles over mating beaches and females. The rookery had several males mixed throughout the throng of other sea lions, but there were never two males close enough to one another to trigger a conflict.
After photographing the sea lions, we turned north to another of the Chiswells on the hunt for nesting thick-billed murres. Though physically quite similar to the common murre, the thick-billed murre is very rare for these waters, and are a delight to photograph for birders and nature enthusiasts alike.
From here, we motored around several rocky points, photographing more sea lions perched on jagged haul-outs with picturesque vistas in the background.
We then headed to a cliff face known to hold nesting puffins. Now, it was puffin in flight time. Captain Tanya positioned the boat as close to the rocks as she could, and there amongst the rocks were several pairs of horned puffins (the cuter of the two species if you ask me). We lined ourselves along the railing at the boat’s helm, locked in on a puffin, and waited for it to fly. Knowing which bird to choose was little better than chance, and these little birds fly so fast, many would slip by and avoid being photographed. But, as Captain Tanya jockeyed with the waves, keeping the boat in position, we figured out the birds’ flight path and began to get some good results as the puffins would dive off the cliff and pull up to fly just above the surface of the water. Many birds were carrying what appeared to be nesting materials in their beaks, adding a bit of intrigue to the images.
After feeling confident that each of us had captured at least a few clean shots of the puffins in flight, Captain Tanya backed us out away from the cliff and turned the boat towards a small cove between two islands. As we approached, we heard the tell-tale sound of a whale’s spout and saw the fluke of a humpback whale fishing in the cove.
As we watched the whale, suddenly three more jets of water shot up around it, and three more adult humpback whales surfaced. They were fishing together, coordinating their lunges for the schools of baitfish below. They moved in a circle around the boat, each whale taking three or four massive breaths before diving again to grab a mouthful of fish, giving us a great fluke shot each time they dove.
The four behemoths worked clockwise around us, steadily moving closer to the boat each time they resurfaced. They moved from being about 50 yards off the helm of the boat to being just behind us, only 20 yards from our stern. And then the whales turned and headed straight towards the boat. Our telephoto lenses became ineffective as the whales swam directly for us, and then slipped just below the water’s surface, swimming just below our boat, which suddenly felt quite small by comparison. They were so close, we could clearly make out each of the whales’ tubercles, which are the golfball sized bumps on the whale’s head that contain hair follicles. Whale whiskers in other words! As one of the whales slid beneath our boat, it defecated, releasing a plume of “colorful” water behind it. Though not the majestic behavior that wildlife photographers hope to witness, it was still interesting.
This incredible wildlife encounter with the humpback whales would conclude our day, and we turned and burned, heading back to the protected waters of Resurrection Bay and the Seward Harbor to unload and prepare for our final day on the water the following morning.
Day 5: Aialik Glacier
For the final day of our Kenai Fjords Marine Wildlife tour, we would be heading back to Aialik Bay, but this time proceeding to the head of the bay to see the calving face of Aialik Glacier.
This would be our longest motor for the trip, and so we battened down and headed out of Resurrection Bay, turned west and then back north, slipping into the protected waters of Aialik Bay. As soon as we entered the bay, the waters turned glassy calm, and we encountered rafts of sea otters floating lazily in the calm water.
The weather today was classic Alaskan. Though we had been blessed with warm weather and sunny skies in the three days preceding, today it was overcast and misting rain. But, we were prepared for this. As we approached the glacier, the captain throttled down to a crawl as he navigated amongst the ice flows.
We could hear chunks of ice gently banging off the hull of the boat. When we got into range for photographs, we donned our rain gear and headed out onto the deck. This glacier was in every respect as impressive as Holgate Glacier. And it was also noticeably more active in terms of calving. Thunderous booms could be heard followed by massive splashes as chunks of ice fractured from the glacier’s face and crashed into the water. Harbor seals crowded onto these ice flows as they drifted around the bay.
And one of the most interesting photo setups of the day occurred at this point, as a sea otter swam up and hauled out onto one of the ice flows about 50 yards off our starboard side. There, it licked the water from its paws and rubbed his face dry. The icy platform on which it sat against the backdrop of the glacier was truly beautiful and provided some great images for our last day on the water.
We were also able to capture several big calving events in still image form, which truly does not even come close to representing the power of these events.
After we wrapped up our shooting in front of the glacier’s face, we began heading out of the bay. As we did, we cruised past another big raft of otters. And then, we saw splashes off our helm and saw the beautiful black and white coloration of a pair of Dall’s porpoise heading towards the boat. The captain slowed the boat and headed into the path of the porpoise, hoping to entice them to surf in the boat’s pressure wave along our hull, which he successfully did! The two porpoises turned and began swimming just off our helm, using the pressure wave created by the boat’s hull to propel them forward. Though, not an uncommon behavior for porpoise and dolphin, it is such a joy to watch these intelligent marine mammals doing something that is so clearly out of pure fun.
After the porpoise grew bored of us, they moved on and we completed our journey back to Resurrection Bay to offload for the last time and conclude our time on the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park.
It had been four days on the water, surrounded by an enormous breadth of incredible wildlife the entire time. We had been given opportunities to photograph every animal on our list of targeted species, even if that majestic breaching orca shot had evaded us. And with an incredible group of sea-worthy guests, it was a joy to be a part of this trip.
I’ll be looking forward to next years venture into the icy and wildlife-filled waters 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 a 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 the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Image Review: Wildlife
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, October 12th, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time