Gray Whale Cruise offers incredible wildlife, scenery
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Major Marine offers the Gray Whale Watching Cruise every year between mid-March and mid-May. The cruise departs Seward Harbor and goes to the mouth of Resurrection Bay. Passengers have a chance of seeing gray whales on their annual migration from Baja, California to the Chukchi Sea between northwestern Alaska and Northeastern Russia. Along the way through Resurrection Bay, there often is a variety of marine life within view. For those looking for a whale watching california experience, boat trips by Newport Landing are available.
Major Marine’s Gray Whale cruise is the first of the year and highly anticipated. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Gray Whales are the only large species of whale that is observed regularly in large numbers in Alaska. Adult males average about 46 feet in length and weigh between 30 to 40 tons. Females grow slightly larger. Gray whales are known for their dramatic breaching concluding in stunningly large splashes.
As the Kenai Star prepared to leave the dock, there were interesting reflections in the water that begged for their photo to be taken. There was an array of boats with varied designs, mountains with receding snow, and a low hanging cloud layer above. On the water’s surface, there were lightly distorted, mirror reflections that bent straight lines into curvy but clear distortions. Keep your eyes open and your camera ready because these moments don’t often last.
The 4-hour cruise begins at noon. On the day I went, the weather was classic Seward – 48 degrees, overcast and while not raining, it was in the forecast. The cruise’s narration begins as the vessel leaves the harbor. The narrator on this day provided a wealth of interesting information without dominating the experience. The occasions to speak were wisely chosen, and extended periods of silence were a virtue.
After setting off to circle Resurrection Bay in pursuit of Gray Whales, the cruise came upon a group of Orcas known as AK 6 Pod. By coincidence, there were six Orcas – three females, two calves and a large male. These Orcas are part of a much larger pod that resides in Resurrection Bay year round. As we were observing the Orcas’ numerous, multi-minute dive cycles, a researcher in a vessel was coming toward the pod to capture audio of them communicating underwater.
We would later pass the fascinating Fox Island, a barrier island with unique geological features. Its spit was formed from terminal moraine when the bay was covered in glaciers long ago. There is also a forest of dead trees that was created when the 1964 earthquake caused the ground to sink and expose the tree roots to saltwater, which killed yet preserved them.
As we travelled closer to the Gulf of Alaska, the swells gradually grew stronger. There was a Stellar sea lion rookery loafing about on pillow basalt protruding from the lapping water. It’s hard to imagine the rounded rock as anything but comfortable, but the sea lions seemed quite content. The Stellar sea lion is an endangered species, and the reasons for its decline are unknown.
When we reached Cape Resurrection, we were in the prime Gray Whale transit route. These whales travel close to shore for navigation and protection as they make their way north. A couple of mountain goats were spotted near a slide above Emerald Cove. Then, a crewmember spotted a Gray Whale in the distance. The vessel rocked in bouncy, choppy water at the bay’s mouth while we waited for the whale to reappear. It didn’t, so we headed back in to protected waters in search of more wildlife.
Another small pod of Orcas was spotted, so the Kenai Star maneuvered into range to watch, hoping they might swim near. A crew member plopped a hydrophone into the water to record Orca calls for researchers. No Orcas surfaced, and no calls were heard. The crew members looked at each other and said, “Well, we tried,” as they retrieved the hydrophone.
About two minutes later, with everybody staring into the horizon hoping for an Orca sighting, there was loud exhalation beside the bow. The Orcas had unexpectedly surfaced right next to the vessel. Passengers were visibly excited, and it was clearly the highlight of their trip. They were in awe at the close viewing, especially seeing the calf and the male’s large dorsal fin. And then the Orcas were off.
While this year’s Gray Whale watching season draws to a close, it is worth putting on your calendar for next year. There’s a strong chance you’ll have a memorable marine mammal experience.