Kenai Fjords National Park: The Chiswell Islands of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Alaska-463

Sea Otter eating a North Pacific Giant Octopus

Our nine-hour boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park continued. That morning, Thursday, August 20, we’d traveled out of Resurrection Bay and down the coast, then in the early afternoon, we’d explored Northwestern Fjord. Now it was time for our last major stop before returning to Seward: The Chiswell Islands, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Established like so many other public lands in Alaska by the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, the Refuge is administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and covers 4.9 million acres from the Gulf of Alaska to the Chukchi Sea. Although they are administered by two different services of the Department of the Interior, here off the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park, the National Wildlife Refuge and the National Park act in concert to protect wildlife.

Alaska-438

Alaska-439

Alaska-440

Matushka Island

Alaska-441

Beehive Island

Alaska-442

Alaska-443

Image: Sean M. Santos

Alaska-444

Alaska-445

Alaska-446

Natoa island

Captain Mark sailed the Glacier Explorer close to a medium-sized island in the group, Natoa Island, where we would be nearly certain to see the many, many seabirds and other creatures that the islands provide home and shelter for.

Alaska-447

Alaska-448

Alaska-449

Marbled Murrelet

Alaska-450

Pelagic Cormorants, Horned Puffin, Glaucous-Winged Gulls

This brilliant, sunny afternoon, Natoa Island was alive with seabirds. Glaucous-Winged Gulls and Black-Legged Kittiwakes by the hundreds nested among the cliffs and ledges. Pelagic Cormorants dried themselves on the bare rocks before another fishing expedition.

Alaska-451

Glaucous-Winged Gulls, Tufted Puffin

Alaska-452

Pelagic Cormorants, Glaucous-Winged Gulls

And Puffins, both Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins, took shelter and raised their young among the crags and shallow caves.

Alaska-453

Horned Puffins

Alaska-454

Glaucous-Winged Gulls

Alaska-455

Glaucous-Winged Gulls, Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic Cormorant

Alaska-456

Pelagic Cormorant

Alaska-457

Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorants

Alaska-458

Glaucous-Winged Gull

Alaska-459

Glaucous-Winged Gulls, Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic Cormorants, Double-Crested Cormorant

(There are two species of cormorant in the Gulf of Alaska, Pelagic and Double-Crested. While we were there on the boat, I assumed we were seeing Double-Crested Cormorants, if only because that’s what I was used to seeing on the Great Lakes. Turns out these were the smaller, slenderer Pelagic Cormorant, which we would also encounter at Glacier Bay. As I was preparing this post, I got a little sad that we’d have to strike Double-Crested Cormorant from our final species list. But! There is one unmistakable Double-Crested among the Pelagics in the image above. The fourth cormorant from the left, about midway back on the huge rock, has the distinctive yellow-gold face of the Double-Crested Cormorant. I zoomed in and verified the ID on all the alternate versions we have of this photo, and the yellow face is plainly visible throughout. So, one. At least one verifiable Double-Crested Cormorant.)

Alaska-460

Black-Legged Kittiwakes and Common Murre

Alaska-461

Steller’s Sea Lions

We rounded the southern end of Natoa Island and encountered our first Sea Lions in the Chiswells. Then Captain Mark came on the PA system and alerted us to something that you don’t see every day: a Sea Otter eating an octopus off the port side of the boat.

Alaska-462

Sea Otter eating a North Pacific Giant Octopus

This Sea Otter eating his prize catch, a North Pacific Giant Octopus, is about the coolest thing I have ever seen with my own eyes.

Alaska-464

Sea Otter eating a North Pacific Giant Octopus

Occasionally as the otter ate, he would turn completely over in the water to wash himself and his meal. Keeping his fur absolutely clean and water-resistant is essential to its ability to keep warm. Sea Otters have no blubber and rely completely on their fur for insulation from frigid water.

Alaska-465

Sea Otter eating a North Pacific Giant Octopus

And the backdrop for the otter’s meal was fairly spectacular as well.

Alaska-466

Alaska-467

Moon Jellyfish

Sean spotted a gigantic Lion’s Mane Jellyfish from the boat, and I managed to snap an image of a Moon Jellyfish. These jellyfish were huge, especially when you take into account that I was photographing from the upper deck.

The waters around Kenai Fjords National Park are an important estuary ecosystem, not unlike Everglades National Park, where freshwater mixes with sea water to create a life-nurturing soup. Nutrients flooding into the fjords and bays provide rich nutrition to plankton and other invertebrates, causing them to grow and multiply. All this abundance is feasted upon by fish, which are a major food source for birds. At the top of the food chain, the sea mammals here also thrive. It is a rich, vital ecosystem.

Alaska-468

Alaska-469

Steller’s Sea Lion

Alaska-470

Steller’s Sea Lions

Alaska-471

Steller’s Sea Lions

Alaska-472

Steller’s Sea Lions

Alaska-474

Steller’s Sea Lions

Alaska-475

Steller’s Sea Lions

Alaska-473

Steller’s Sea Lion

Alaska-476

Steller’s Sea Lion

Alaska-477

Steller’s Sea Lion

Alaska-478

Alaska-479

Steller’s Sea Lions

Alaska-480

Steller’s Sea Lions

We traced the eastern face of a huge rock just off the shore of Natoa Island. Here, in addition to gulls and puffins, Common Murres, the penguins of the North, raised their young.

Alaska-481

Horned Puffin

Alaska-482

Glaucous-Winged Gulls

Alaska-483

Common Murres

Alaska-484

Horned Puffin and Common Murres

Alaska-485

Common Murres

Alaska-486

Glaucous-Winged Gull (juvenile)

Alaska-487

Common Murres

Alaska-488

Common Murres

Unlike their southern cousins, murres and puffins can fly, but they are much more comfortable and elegant swimming than they are flying. They spend the majority of their lives on the water, only gathering on land to breed, lay eggs, and raise their young. The rugged Chiswell Islands provide perfect shelter for those activities.

Alaska-489

Horned Puffin (top, left) and Tufted Puffin (bottom, right)

Alaska-490

Horned Puffins

Alaska-491

Common Murres

Alaska-492

Alaska-493

Black-Legged Kittiwakes

Alaska-494

We departed the Chiswell Islands and crossed the mouth of Aialik Bay, beginning our return to Seward in earnest.

Alaska-495

Alaska-497

The coast of Kenai Fjords National Park, in fact much of the coastal region of southern Alaska all the way to the Alaska Range, is comprised of a great mash-up of rock carried north on the Pacific Plate. In Alaska, as along much of the west coast, the Pacific Plate sinks beneath the North American Plate, causing tremendous mountain ranges to fold and buckle upward. Among these are the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the coast ranges, the Olympics, the Chugach and Kenai Ranges, and the Alaska Range. Huge pieces of continents and sea floor carried to Alaska are called terranes. Along the coat of Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay, rocks from vastly different places are smashed up against each other, causing even adjacent islands or peninsulas to be composed of completely different rock.

The mountains of Kenai Fjords are being destroyed by the same tectonic forces that created them. As the Pacific Plate sinks beneath the North American Plate it slowly and inevitably carries the Kenai Peninsula with it, pulling it beneath the sea. Here, the mountains are sinking into the ocean.

Alaska-496

Alaska-498

Alaska-499

No Name Island

Alaska-500

Alaska-501

Humpback Whales

Captain Mark sailed us close to the shore of the Aialik Peninsula. He’d heard on his radio from other boats that there was a Humpback Whale and her calf in the vicinity. And sure enough, there they were, swimming and feeding slowly near the shore.

Alaska-502

Humpback Whale

Alaska-503

Humpback Whale

Alaska-504

Humpback Whales

Alaska-505

Humpback Whale

Alaska-506

After we lingered with the whales for a bit, it was time to head directly back to Seward. The afternoon was growing late.

Alaska-507

Image: Sean M. Santos

Alaska-508

Image: Sean M. Santos

Alaska-509

Image: Sean M. Santos

Alaska-510

Hive Island

Alaska-511

Alaska-512

Resurrection Bay

Alaska-513

Alaska-514

Alaska-515

Alaska-516

Alaska-517

Alaska-518

Alaska-519

As we returned north through Resurrection Bay, we were served a warm chocolate chip cookie by the crew. One of the Kenai Fjords Tours cruises features a stop for a dinner of Alaskan King Crab legs on Fox Island. I had gotten them somehow confused in my mind and thought that we would be given crab on the boat. But actually, a cookie was just the thing.

Alaska-520

Alaska-521

Resurrection Peninsula

Alaska-522

Captain Mark pointed out the Kustatan passing us to starboard and heading out toward the Gulf of Alaska. It had been featured on the show, Deadliest Catch. He said that today it was probably going to rendezvous with crab boats to ferry their catches back to Seward.

Alaska-523

Seward

Alaska-524

Alaska-525

All too soon in some ways we were back in the small boat harbor in Seward and gathering our things to disembark.

Alaska-526

Seward Small Boat Harbor

Alaska-527

Ice from Northwestern Glacier melting in a sink.

Alaska-528

Captain Mark Lindstrom and a member of the Glacier Explorer crew

After disembarking, we checked out the Kenai Fjords Tours gift shop, but didn’t get anything. Then we visited the main Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center at the small boat harbor. I needed to get my Kenai Fjords patch, which they’d been out of up at Exit Glacier.

We were coming to the end of the season. At the visitor center, a young Park Service employee was talking to an older ranger about off season postings and the possibility of applying for an interpretive ranger position. The psychological sense of approaching autumn was palpable, despite the gloriously warm day.

Alaska-529

Alaska-530

The town of Seward was hard hit by the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. Measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale and lasting over four and a half minutes, it is the largest earthquake ever to hit North America and the second largest in recorded history. Seward was devastated by tsunami. In all, the quake killed 139 people including victims of tsunami as far away as Oregon and California. The memorial in Seward pictured above was only the first of many remembrances we’d encounter throughout the trip.

After the visitor center, we headed to Chinook’s, a popular bar and restaurant right on the harbor for dinner. We wanted our Alaskan King Crab legs. And we got them along with great cocktails.

Alaska-531

The view from the bar at Chinook’s

Alaska-532

On the pier outside Chinook’s, fishermen clean the day’s catch.

Alaska-533

Satiated after our meal and our long day of exploring, we walked back along the shoreline toward our hotel in downtown Seward.

Alaska-535

As we crossed the small creek that drained Seward’s Fresh Water Lagoon into Resurrection Bay, we noticed salmon in their death throes.

Alaska-534

Silver Salmon

It was nearly the end of the Silver Salmon run, and these salmon in particular were nearing at the end of their life cycles. They were battered, weak, and had long ago lost the brilliant hues they wore for the spawning season. After spending most of their lives at sea and then battling their way back to this creek to spawn, their time to die had come.

I had seen a run of salmon in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan (from artificially stocked populations in Lake Michigan), but Sean had never seen salmon at this stage. He was deeply moved by their tenacity even as their bodies were breaking down. He resolved that he would not eat salmon chum for a while.

Alaska-536

Silver Salmon

Alaska-537

Alaska-538

Alaska-539

Alaska-540

The inscription reads: This Japanese “toro” or stone friendship lantern was presented to the City in 1973 by Mr. Shunichi Kanai, as a token of his appreciation and support in the development of Seward as an international seaport serving the fishing vessels of the Island of Hokkaido, Japan.

Alaska-541

Image: Sean M. Santos

Alaska-542

Alaska-543

The park along the shore of Resurrection Bay boasts a campground with sites for tents and RVs. Many folks were cooking their dinners over campfires or grills as we wandered past. From what I overheard at our hotel, the campground is a summer home not only to vacationers, but also to seasonal workers. The gay guy working the front desk at Hotel Seward was talking about living in a tent all summer down by the water and watching Sea Otters play in the waves each morning.

Alaska-544

Alaska-545

Back at Hotel Seward, we read in bed for a while before going to sleep. And I began monitoring the aurora forecast website out of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. All told, it was a spectacular day and one of the great highlights of our honeymoon.

Alaska-546

One thought on “Kenai Fjords National Park: The Chiswell Islands of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

  1. Pingback: Alaska Interlude: Anchorage and the Alaska State Fair | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s