Kenai Fjords National Park

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

When I decided that I wanted to spend a summer in Alaska, my first interview was with a boat company in Seward that took whale-watching trips into Kenai Fjords National Park. I did not get the job. I was disappointed but at that point I had my heart set on living up there, so I mass-applied to other places around the state. The position I took in the end was as a housekeeper at a Princess Cruise Line lodge about an hour from where the whale-watching job would have been located.

Low-and-behold, Princess had an agreement with the boat company. This meant that when guests at the lodge were deciding which day trip to take, one of the options was a whale-watching tour through Kenai Fjords NP. And being an employee of Princess, we were allowed to tag along on these excursions on our days off and were given a mighty discount. So on my first day off, you can bet I was on that bus to Seward, ready to go see some humpbacks and glaciers!

We arrived, my co-workers and I paid that discount (only $8 for us, down from a usual price of over $100!), and eagerly hopped on the boat. I had been ready to be bitter at the company on the bus ride down, but as soon as I got there all pettiness slid away and I was ready for the adventure. We soon struck off into the sea. It was an absolutely amazing day. Looking up at the mountains, I kept thinking that it looked like Middle Earth; we had to be in some magical world for beauty on this level to be possible.

We worked our way out of Seward and headed out to sea, Snaking our way through the fjords, we enjoyed the sheer cliffs, teeming with literally thousands of birds that ranged from small gulls to large puffins, and many other species that I can absolutely not name (my ornithology-loving father would be so ashamed). There were sea lions basking in what little sun there was, and a few sea otters floated by. It was also this day that I learned that jellyfish can survive in cold water! I had always thought of them as a warm-water critter, but there they were, floating lazily at the top of the water.

Once we had left any evidence of Seward behind, we saw our first whales. I had never seen a whale before, and was incredibly excited. When I was younger, I was that classic dolphin-obsessed girl. But I took it a step further than most kids did. I am pretty sure I read every single book available to children in the 1990s on the subject of cetaceans. I knew how many types there were, what they were all called, where they lived, etc etc. From the ages of 6 - 15, I was determined to be a marine biologist. This dream only ebbed once I hit high school biology class and it became rapidly apparent that science and me do not mix. So I switched from the sea to politics, but I still have a very special place in my heart for cetaceans. I had seen many dolphins, both in captivity and the wild, as well as orcas but they're the largest member of the dolphin family, despite the name "whale". To finally see a whale was spectacular. And it wasn't just one whale, there were at least five humpbacks near the boat. This included a younger one, which is in the photo above, swimming with it's mother.

Continuing further into the fjords, we were joined by a large pod of orcas, who accompanied the boat until we had nearly arrived at our turn-around point. The pod surrounded the boat, giving everyone on board amazing, close-up views of these powerful and beautiful creatures. While the above photo of the humpbacks was zoomed in, the photo of the orcas was not.

The orcas left us right before we entered an ice field. The air temperature had dropped significantly, hovering in the mid-30s (about 1 Celsius). I had a heavy sweatshirt on, but it wasn't enough to keep me from shivering. However, this discomfort was negated somewhat by the surrounding scenery.

One of the more unique aspects of this area was that the mountains ran directly into the ocean. I have only ever seen that in Norway (must be a fjords thing, eh?). To see giant, snow-capped mountains descending directly into the ocean is a sight to behold.

Soon the engines slowed, and I looked towards the front of the boat to see our destination: a glacier, one of many in the area (for now). It was giant, towering over the boat. We hovered in the area for nearly an hour, watching pieces of various sizes falling into the sea (including one large sheet of ice break off, creating the largest splash I've ever seen).

For as amazing as the glacier was, I was not sorry when the engines were turned back to their full power and we began to head back towards Seward. I cannot overemphasize how cold it was for simply a sweatshirt. As we puttered back to land, the orcas re-joined us as we passed through their domain, and passed the baton off to the humpbacks when we reached theirs. As we had already seen these animals on the way in, the boat did not slow down to look at them as it had on way out. We got back to Seward a bit before dinnertime, and were back at the lodge in time to eat before the employee cafeteria closed.

It was a great day, and would have absolutely been worth it even if I had not had the employee=partnership discount. However, as this boat tour does take place in nature, no two trips are the same. I saw several humpbacks and orcas, but when my parents came up to visit later in the summer they did not see a single orca (something my mother still laments), and only one distant humpback. But they saw far more jellyfish than I did.. I highly recommend taking a tour if you find yourself in Seward, and no matter the animals you see, it will be an experience that stays with you!