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

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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.

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Matushka Island
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Beehive Island
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Image: Sean M. Santos
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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.

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Marbled Murrelet
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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.

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Glaucous-Winged Gulls, Tufted Puffin
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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.

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Horned Puffins
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Glaucous-Winged Gulls
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Glaucous-Winged Gulls, Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic Cormorant
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Pelagic Cormorant
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Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorants
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Glaucous-Winged Gull
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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.)

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Black-Legged Kittiwakes and Common Murre
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sea Otter eating a North Pacific Giant Octopus

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

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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.

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Steller’s Sea Lion
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Steller’s Sea Lions
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Steller’s Sea Lions
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Steller’s Sea Lions
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Steller’s Sea Lions
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Steller’s Sea Lions
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Steller’s Sea Lion
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Steller’s Sea Lion
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Steller’s Sea Lions
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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.

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Horned Puffin
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Glaucous-Winged Gulls
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Common Murres
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Horned Puffin and Common Murres
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Common Murres
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Glaucous-Winged Gull (juvenile)
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Common Murres
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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.

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Horned Puffin (top, left) and Tufted Puffin (bottom, right)
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Horned Puffins
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Common Murres
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Black-Legged Kittiwakes
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We departed the Chiswell Islands and crossed the mouth of Aialik Bay, beginning our return to Seward in earnest.

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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.

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No Name Island
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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.

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

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Image: Sean M. Santos
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Image: Sean M. Santos
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Image: Sean M. Santos
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Hive Island
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Resurrection Bay
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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.

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Resurrection Peninsula
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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.

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

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Seward Small Boat Harbor
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Ice from Northwestern Glacier melting in a sink.
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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.

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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.

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The view from the bar at Chinook’s
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On the pier outside Chinook’s, fishermen clean the day’s catch.
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Satiated after our meal and our long day of exploring, we walked back along the shoreline toward our hotel in downtown Seward.

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

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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.

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Silver Salmon
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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.
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Image: Sean M. Santos
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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.

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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.

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3 thoughts 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

  2. Mark Lindstrom

    My name is Mark Lindstrom I was the captain this day and just happened to run across this blog and wanted to say great job! I remember the day and these passengers. I feel this blog really exemplifies what I as a captain and narrator would hope visitors walk away with after an experience in Kenai Fjords NP.

    Reply
    1. Brandon Hayes

      Mark,

      Thank you so much for leaving a comment and for your kind words. As you saw in the posts, I was quite moved by your opening words to us about the importance of National Parks. Thank you again for a wonderful day! It remains one of the great highlights of our explorations in the National Parks.

      Happy New Year!

      Brandon

      Reply

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