Wild Alaska & the Bering Sea

Published on Thursday, October 03, 2013

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska

  • Seward

  • Seward

  • Seward

  • Kodiak, Kodiak Island

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park

  • Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park

  • Aghiyuk Island

  • Aghiyuk Island

  • Aghiyuk Island

  • Aghiyuk Island

  • Unga Island

  • Unga Island

  • Unga Island

  • Otter Cove, Unimak Island

  • Otter Cove, Unimak Island

  • Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

  • St. Paul Island

  • St. Paul Island

  • Hall Island

  • Hall Island

  • St. Matthew Island

  • Provideniya, Russia

  • Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Little Diomede

Thursday, July 11, 2013 -  Home / Anchorage, Alaska: Following our independent arrivals, we transferred to the Marriott Anchorage Hotel. There, we gathered with our fellow explorers for cocktails and a welcome dinner, followed by an introduction to the staff team and our first briefing from Expedition Leader Mike Messick about our exciting voyage around the Bering Sea.

 
Friday, July 12 - Anchorage / Seward / Embark Caledonian Sky: In gorgeous, warm weather we made the spectacular journey from Anchorage down to Seward. Passing along historical Turnagain Arm, we enjoyed spectacular coastal scenery and tremendous views of the Chugach and Kenai Mountains, passing through typical boreal forest, as well as northwest temperate rainforest. We saw soaring bald eagles along the way and caught glimpses of rock-hopping Dall’s sheep high on the crags. Our stops at viewpoints, glaciers, visitor centers, and picnic spots gave us our first insights into the nature of ‘The Big Country,’ and we concluded our journey with a walk through the excellent Alaska SeaLife Center. We embarked the Caledonian Sky, ready to set sail in the early evening. From our comfortable vessel, we were able to observe the spectacular glaciated scenery of Resurrection Bay on Prince William Sound. Almost as soon as we gathered in the lounge for a briefing about the features of the ship, the first orca was spotted. We poured out of the lounge and had our first exciting session of whale watching with repeated good views of orca, followed by humpback whales; what a way to start our trip!
 
Saturday, July 13 - Kodiak, Kodiak Islan: Overnight, we traveled along the Alaskan Peninsula to Kodiak Island so we could be in position early this morning for the first of many Zodiac excursions. Our explorations of the rugged Triplet Islands in Marmot Bay, gave us our first chance to observe thousands of tufted puffins, and to add sea otters and harbor seals to our rapidly growing list of mammal sightings. Back on board, Kevin Clement kicked off our educational program with a combination mandatory safety briefing and informative and amusing talk, Brown Bears in Alaska.
 
In the afternoon we docked at Kodiak, a bustling port settled by Russian fur traders in 1784. We visited Erskine House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1809, as well as the Alutiiq Museum with its collection of art and cultural objects detailing the lives of the native Aleut. We also saw the 1794 Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church, with its prominent blue onion domes, and the center for fisheries research with its tanks of local marine life.
 
Meanwhile, our naturalists and hikers explored areas out of town in search of wildflowers and birds, as far as Buskin Beach in one direction and Fort Abercrombie in the other. Fort Abercrombie provided us with an excellent hands-on World War II museum, the local Kodiak efforts being the highlight. Back on board we enjoyed Captain Peter Fielding’s welcome cocktails and dinner, and getting to know our fellow travelers and field staff.
 
Heading west through the narrow Whale Pass a large group of about 250 sea otters were grouped in the lee of a tiny island, providing us with yet another wildlife highlight.
 
Sunday, July 14 - Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park: Overnight we traveled back to the Alaskan Peninsula to Katmai National Park. Nearly hidden at the far reaches of Amalik Bay, Geographic Harbor is set in magnificent volcanic scenery. The mountain cirques were draped in gray ash and pumice still remaining from the famous 1912 Novarupta eruption in Katmai—the most powerful eruption of the 20th century—making the mountains appear as if they were clad in extensive gray snowfields. As we sailed in, marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets greeted us on the water, and our first brown bear of the day was sighted soon after we dropped anchor. Park Ranger Wendy Artz came on board and her colleague, Linda, talked to us about the archaeology of the region. Soon afterwards we boarded our fleet of Zodiacs and began exploring the bays and inlets on a very successful search for bears and birds.
 
Katmai National Park has the world’s largest population of protected brown bears, and exploring by Zodiac was the perfect way to see them. With as many as four bears in view from a single point, we were all soon watching and snapping pictures as bears foraged along the tidal mud flats in search of razor clams. We had opportunities to observe their behavior close-up, and watched them stomp down on the mud to trap the clams, before digging them out. When we weren’t watching bears, bald eagles were on hand to keep the photographers happy. By the end of our afternoon excursion, almost everyone returned having had double figure sightings of bears, and the birders were happy with their murrelets.
 
Monday, 15 July - Aghiyuk Island / Semidi Islands / Chignik: We visited Aghiyuk Island for an early morning walk; rather than being amidst trees, we strolled along a beach backed by a tremendous carpet of low, colorful tundra flowers. Offshore, Aghik Island was teeming with seabirds, and our Zodiacs allowed us to explore the island’s rugged coastline while listening to the cacophony of the seabird colony, including hordes of murres, kittiwakes, and fulmars.
 
While continuing our journey towards Chignik, Kevin gave his talk, Life in the Big Country: An Introduction to Alaska, followed by geologist John Buchanan with, Plate Tectonic Setting of Alaska. During a foggy transit at sea, we passed the rugged Kak Island, with our first group of Steller’s sea lions.
 
By mid-afternoon we reached Chignik for our daily choice of activities: a survival of the fittest hike; long, medium, or short walks; or birding around this small fishing community. A mosaic of wetland and Sitka alder forest supported irises, chocolate lilies, and several species of orchid. Sightings of bald eagle, Wilson’s snipe, and pine grosbeak were exciting, but they were nothing compared with our feeding frenzy around the boxes of delicious freshly baked doughnuts that Cruise Director Lynne Greig had arranged for us! Salmon fishing boats took turns setting their nets within view of the ship, and, not surprisingly, our dinner included fresh red salmon caught literally hours before and purchased for our dining pleasure.
 
Tuesday, July 16 - Unga Island: The Shumagin Islands are named after one of the sailors on Vitus Bering’s second great Pacific voyage of 1742, who was buried here on the return journey to Russia. We anchored off Unga Island and went ashore to wander in the old village at Delarof Harbor. By combining a walk on shore and a Zodiac cruise this morning, we were able to explore the old town and recapture some of the images of the Norwegian culture transported to the wilds of Alaska.
 
In the late morning, our ornithologist Mark Brazil gave his first lecture on the life and times of seabirds thus far with, Why Albatrosses Don’t Dive and Puffins Can’t Soar: Seabirds of the Bering Sea.
 
Our afternoon was devoted to geology; we went ashore beyond Unga Spit and walked the beach in search of a petrified forest. We wandered several kilometers along a spectacular coastline, littered with scattered fragments of fossilized wood, remnants of an ancient metasequoia forest, dating back some 7-14 million years—evidence the region once enjoyed a much milder climate.
 
Fragments of petrified wood were abundant, lying along the back of the bay and the beach. Further chunks were protruding from the cliff, but the highlights were the standing tree stumps, one of which was still chest high. Overwhelmed in a lahar, a catastrophic volcanic event cascading an avalanche of ash, mud, and rocks, the trees became engulfed in a matrix of mud and angular, unsorted rocks. Rather than decomposing they were leached with silica and petrified into perfectly preserved solid replicas of their once living forms, complete with grain textures and knot holes. Just offshore, the local harbor seals were, however, oblivious to the geological importance of this site and jostled for resting places atop the few rocks exposed above the water line, and delighted the photographers in the process.
 
Wednesday, July 17 - Otter Cove, Unimak Island: We anchored early this morning off Otter Cove and went ashore in the persistent fog and light rain for our various hikes. The long walkers, with Kevin at the fore, disappeared quickly into the fog and we wondered if they would ever return.
 
Unimak Island, though not connected to the Alaskan Peninsula, is separated from the mainland only by a very narrow channel. As this is the only Aleutian island to have a population of bears, we explored ashore in tight groups, finding bear tracks on the beach and marveling at the fantastic array of lush tundra flowers. Our time ashore disappeared quickly, with many of us sighting a large bear near the lagoon.
 
In the afternoon our historian Tim Baughman told the story of The First Iditarod. Soon after tea, we sailed into and through the Unimak Pass. Our recap was interrupted by a wonderful show by humpback whales displaying many behaviors including pectoral fin and tail slapping.
 
Thursday, July 18 - Baby Islands / Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island: Our initial plan was to explore the five tiny, volcanic Baby Islands by Zodiac, in search of the diminutive whiskered auklet, the holy grail of Bering Sea birding. The report from our team on the water was that boarding the boats was too dangerous, but Mark had found the fabled auklets out in the tidal rip! Instead of searching by Zodiac, Captain Peter circled us around the islands and brought us right through the auklet area allowing us all the views we wanted. As we finally sailed away from the islands bound for Dutch Harbor, John gave his presentation, Alaskan Volcanoes and Historic Earthquakes.
 
We soon pulled alongside in Dutch Harbor, where even those only mildly interested in birds could not help but marvel at the displays by the dozens of bald eagles soaring overhead, flying by, and sitting on buildings, posts, and even on the ground, fighting over and feasting on fish. It seemed there were eagles everywhere!
 
Dutch Harbor is a quaint, colorful Alaskan town famous today for its fisheries; it is the busiest fishing and processing port in Alaska. While the birders explored out of town and the hikers left for the Pyramid Peak trail, most of us toured the area, including the first rate World War II museum that not only described the military campaigns in the Aleutians, but also covered the plight of those displaced by war. The town is also famous for its Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest onion-domed church in Alaska. We also visited the monument to the Aleuts who were forcibly relocated from their homes during WWII, and learned about the hardships they faced both during and after their deportation.
 
As we sailed towards our next destination, the Pribilof Islands, Mark was at the stern chumming for birds and we were treated to close views of red-legged kittiwakes, northern fulmars, and two very special seabirds—a black-footed albatross and a Laysan albatross. Our day concluded with a lively karaoke party in the Panorama Lounge with a 50s and 60s theme.
 
Friday, July 19 - St. George Island, Pribilof Islands: With a morning at sea to relax, our lecture series continued with naturalist Colin Baird giving his presentation entitled, Orca: King of the Sea, followed by tour leader Victor Emanuel explaining, Why People Love Birds.
 
After an early lunch we went ashore to explore the small town of St. George, whose residents include 100 people of Aleut and Russian descent. A picturesque Russian Orthodox church commands a vista of the Bering Sea, while a major attraction was the view from the top of the nearby busy bird cliff. This was a firm favorite even with the non-birders among us, as the birds were so close and approachable that even those of us with basic camera equipment could obtain spectacular photos. The long-walkers quickly disappeared into the mist for their calorie-burning exercise across boulder-covered tundra and along the High Bluffs, while the birdwatchers settled down to revel in the local abundance of a Bering Sea specialty—red-legged kittiwakes, with scores of parakeet and thousands of least auklets on hand to liven up the scene. Our time ashore also allowed us to witness the extraordinary sights and sounds of a northern fur seal rookery, where there were numerous very recently born pups, along with a visit the fur-seal processing plant with an explanation of how seals were taken and used.
 
Gathered later in the local school gymnasium, we were treated to a fascinating array of local foods, including reindeer and seal prepared in various ways. In worsening weather, and heavy rain many of us opted to return to the ship to dry off and warm up, and an extra recap was arranged for our entertainment before dinner.
 
Saturday, July 20 - St. Paul Island: When thick fog greeted us again this morning it came as no surprise, and it made our journeys ashore all the more mysterious, whether to the sounds of birds or the sounds of seals.
 
Today, the northern fur seal is protected and cannot be hunted commercially; the population breeding in the Pribilof Islands now numbers more than 600,000. For most of us the fur seals were a major focus during our time on shore. The birders set off, of course, in pursuit of their avian targets and came back again with excited tales of time well spent with red-throated loons, red-necked phalaropes, and rock sandpipers. Meanwhile, we all visited the seal blind to view the fur seal rookery. The seabird cliffs were a popular draw as was a walk through the small community and its museum. Arctic foxes are common on St. Paul and we managed several sightings during the course of our visit. After setting sail northwards from the remote Pribilofs, we were bound for even more remote (and uninhabited) outposts of the USA—St. Matthew and Hall Islands.
 
Following lunch our marine fisheries expert, Bob Quaccia, told entertaining tales of his life at sea in Fishing Boats of Alaska 101, or How to Tell a Trawler from a Troller, followed by Kevin’s talk, Ten Hours in America: George Steller and the Bering Sea Expedition. Our entertainment continued with a special cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, World Wildlife Fund, and Amazing Cruises and Tours.
 
Sunday, July 21 - St. Matthew & Hall Islands: Our scout boat went ashore to test out a new landing site on St. Matthew Island this morning, but fog and rough conditions forced them to round the northern tip of the island to the more traditional landing site on the eastern shore. There, miraculous sunshine greeted us along with a host of endemic Insular, or St. Matthew Island singing voles and several of the extremely localized McKay’s bunting (which, in the entire world breeds only on St. Matthew and Hall Islands). Ashore, on the most remote island in the Bering Sea, we set off on a range of walks along the beach and across the tundra where we enjoyed the profusion of tundra flowers, made sightings, listened to the chorusing voles, and even saw not one but several snowy owls. The ground was littered with burrow holes and the subnivean runs of the voles. A whole family of red foxes, all benefiting no doubt from this being a boom year for the local rodents, gave us a lengthy and very informative opportunity for observation.
 
During lunch we repositioned to Hall Island in preparation for our planned Zodiac cruise along the cliffs, and were greeted with more sunshine. In glorious weather we hugged the shoreline in our little fleet, enjoying the spectacular scenery, the sounds of the sea, the smell of the colonies, and the sights of seabirds buzzing back and forth above our heads to their nesting ledges.
 
To round off our day, WWF representative Elisabeth Kruger talked to us about Kings of the North, and after dinner Kevin presented the highly entertaining, An Evening with Sam McGee: The Poetry of Robert Service, with the support of the talented Caledonian Sky players.
 
Monday, July 22 - Cross the International Date Line: Following a traditional gift of chum and vodka, we experienced the thrills of Russian medical inspections and were entertained by Tim with his marina deck exposé, Everything You Need to Know About the Digestive System of Kittiwakes, But Were Afraid to Ask Mark. We then gathered with participating partners for an experimental workshop with ship comedian Mike Moore for Lessons in How to Shrink Heads Using Easily Purchased Household Items. From semaphore lessons with Bob Quaccia to our root vegetable buffet in celebration of Tuberüberalles Day, our July 22 disappeared so quickly in fun, that it was almost as if it had never happened.

Tuesday, July 23 - Provideniya, Russia: As we cruised into the long bay that leads to Provideniya, Russian officials came aboard to begin the long process of clearing us. To help pass the time, Mark gave his lecture, Islands of Isolation: Understanding Island Biodiversity, followed by Tim’s talk on Russian Alaska, Seward and Beyond.
 
We went ashore into the partly derelict and decaying, and, oddly, partly brightly colored town to hike to the lighthouse, to visit the small, but fascinating regional museum, and for a very colorful cultural presentation. At the house of culture we were treated to an excellent and stirring performance of Russian and Siberian Yupik songs and dances performed by an energetic group of local youths, their dancing skills and training impressing us all.
 
Despite having only just cleared into Russia at lunch time, by late afternoon we were clearing out again, and crossed the International Date Line into U.S. waters once more, thereby gaining an additional July 23.
 
Tuesday, July 23 - Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska: Having left Russia yesterday it was necessary for us to clear back in to the U.S., so while waiting for the officials to arrive and process us, Tim entertained us with his tale of Amundsen: Man of Both Poles. Once the ship was cleared we went ashore by Zodiac (in sunshine!) to a warm welcome from the residents of the Savoonga community. Exploring the Siberian Yupik community here allowed us to see firsthand how a hardy subsistence culture survives in the northern Bering Sea. Renowned for their annual catch of bowhead whales, we saw ample evidence of their lifestyle in the drying racks for seal and walrus meat, and the many whale bones littering the ground. Here and there were seal flippers and meat out to dry. Locals guided us through their community to the school and entertained us with songs, dances, and examples of the Arctic Olympic Games, such as the one-foot high kick, the ankle hang, and the seal race, which are played all around the Arctic. The people of Savoonga could not have been friendlier or more welcoming.
 
We returned to the ship by way of the local seabird colony in time for recap and a delicious Filipino dinner.
 
Wednesday, July 24 - Little Diomede / Arctic Circle: Though our goal was the small community clinging to the flank of Little Diomede, our morning began by sailing close to the shore of Big Diomede Island where we spotted a haul of some 140 walrus lying close together along the shore. Swarms of auklets were in the air appearing like bees, and as we navigated across to Little Diomede, a gray whale swam ahead of us, soon to be followed by several humpbacks. The sky was filled with birds, the rocks were covered with them, and beneath our feet we could hear their calls.
 
Once ashore, the background noise of birds was astonishing. Endless flocks were swirling round and passing overhead, the sound of their calls and their wings provided a constant rush and roar, and we all marveled at their extraordinary numbers, making this colony of least, crested, and parakeet auklets one of the greatest natural spectacles on Earth. We explored the small Inupiak village of Ignaluk, a subsistence community relying on walrus, seal, and bird hunting, as well as egg gathering. Our friendly hosts also introduced us to a range of Inupiak songs and dances, with the rhythm provided by the traditional seal-skin hand drums known around the Arctic. Our Zodiac ride along the coast gave us a very different perspective, allowing us to see just how precariously the village is built on the steep slope of the island.
 
Continuing northwards, as we rounded Little Diomede the weather was clear enough for us to see east as far as North America and west as far as Asia, with the monument at Cape Dezhnev briefly in view before we headed for the intersection of the International Date Line and the Arctic Circle at 66°33’N! After celebrating with our group photograph and drinks on the Lido deck we turned south, bound for our final port – Nome.
 
All too soon the end of our trip has arrived, so we gathered once more, this time for our captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner, over which we reminisced about the many adventures we have had, the many sightings we have made, and the education we have received.
 
Thursday, July 25 - Nome / Disembark Caledonian Sky / Anchorage / Home: After our final breakfast onboard the Caledonian Sky, we disembarked, saying our farewells to the ship’s crew and our staff team, boarded our large yellow school buses and traveled into Nome to visit the town, experience gold panning, and to meet a team of sled dogs. After lunch at St. Joe’s, the old church in the center of town, we made our way to Nome Airport to board our flight to Anchorage and to begin our journey homeward.