Zodiac Cruising in Alaska

2014 Wild Alaska with the Aleutian Islands Field Report

Mark Brazil|June 2, 2015|Field Report

Friday, July 11, 2014 - Home / Anchorage, Alaska

Following our independent arrival, we transferred to the Anchorage Marriott Hotel. There, we gathered with our fellow Zegrahm Expeditions and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours travelers for cocktails and a welcome dinner. Expedition Leader Mike Moore introduced us to the staff that would be accompanying us throughout our journey, and gave us our first briefing about the exciting voyage ahead, along the Aleutian Island arc to Kamchatka.

Saturday, July 12 - Anchorage / Seward / Embark Caledonian Sky

We made the spectacular journey from Anchorage down to Seward, passing along historical Turn-again Arm, enjoying magnificent coastal scenery and tremendous views of the Chugach and Kenai Mountains. We passed through typical boreal forest at first, then through some of the northwestern temperate rain forest the area is renowned for. We saw soaring bald eagles along the way, caught glimpses of rockhopping Dall’s sheep, and watched mountain goats high on the crags through our telescopes. We concluded our journey in Seward with a walk through the excellent Marine Life Center, with its superb hands-on aquarium and underwater displays. We soon embarked the Caledonian Sky and were able to observe the spectacular glaciated scenery of Prince William Sound, along with our first sea otters and Dall’s porpoises. This evening, we sailed into breathtaking Northwest Fjord, nudging through broken ice dotted with dozens of harbor seals, for close views of fabulous scenery. We saw small ice floes and massive glaciers, and even had glimpses of ice falls and glacial calving. It was a spectacular way to end our first day on board.

Sunday, July 13 - Kodiak, Kodiak Island

After smooth sailing through the night, we were joined by several fin and humpback whales during breakfast! A wonderful start to the trip, we soon joined Zegrahm field director Kevin Clement who kicked off our educational program with Brown Bears in Alaska, followed by geologist John Buchanan’s lecture, Plates in Collision – The Aleutian Archipelago. 

At lunchtime we docked at the sleepy town of Kodiak. Initially settled by Russian fur traders in 1784, Kodiak was established as the first capital of Russia’s North American colonies in 1792 by Alexander Baranov. In the afternoon we divided—some of us visited Erskine House; built in 1809 and used as a fur warehouse, it now houses the Kodiak Baranov Museum. We also visited the Alutiiq Museum, a collection of art and cultural objects detailing the lives of the native Aleut people who lived here millennia before the Europeans arrived. We saw the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church, with its prominent blue onion domes, and the center for fisheries research’s tanks of local marine life. Meanwhile, our naturalists and hikers explored areas out of town in search of wildflowers and birds. Fort Abercrombie provided an excellent hands-on World War II museum, with the local Kodiak effects being the highlight.

Back on board, we gathered at the rails as we sailed out under the bridge through the narrow channel, before enjoying Captain Philipp Dieckmann’s welcome cocktails and dinner.

Heading west through narrow Whale Pass, we encountered a large group of around 200 sea otters floating in groups, providing us with the final wildlife highlight of the day.

Monday, 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, making the mountains appear as if they were clad in extensive gray snowfields. We had excellent weather conditions, allowing us to appreciate the vastness of the mountainous scenery of Katmai and the glaciers in the distance. As we sailed in, marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets greeted us on the water and our first brown bear of the day was sighted shortly after we dropped anchor. We were soon out in our fleet of Zodiacs, exploring the bays and inlets of this lovely part of Katmai, in a very successful search for bears and birds, beginning with a dominant male lording it over a beached whale carcass.

Katmai National Park has the world’s largest population of protected brown bears. Exploring by Zodiac was the perfect way to search for them safely, with as many as four bears in view from a single vantage point! We were soon watching and snapping pictures as bears foraged along the tidal mud flats in search of clams, observing their behavior close-up, and seeing how they would stomp down on the mud to trap the clams and dig them out. We even watched a bear swimming across to a small island! When we weren’t watching bears, bald eagles were on hand, including a pair with two chicks in their nest. By the end of our afternoon excursion, almost everyone returned having had double figure sightings of bears.

As we sailed away towards the Semidi Islands, Kevin gave his second lecture on Life in the Big Country: An Introduction to Alaska.

Tuesday, July 15 - Aghiyuk Island / Chignik Bay

Continuing westwards along the Alaska Peninsula, early this morning we visited Aghiyuk Island in the Semidi Islands. Teeming with seabirds, our Zodiacs allowed us to explore the island’s rugged coastline, while listening to the cacophony of the seabird colony, including hordes of murres, parakeet auklets, tufted and horned puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, and northern fulmars.

Back on board, we continued our lecture program with ornithologist Mark Brazil giving his presentation What It’s Like to be a Seabird, followed by Sharon Hudgins’ presentation, Russian America: The Russian Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement of North America. During our transit at sea, we passed rugged Kak Island and saw our first group of Steller ’s sea lions hauled out on its tip.

By mid-afternoon we had reached Chignik Bay; we went ashore by Zodiac for our daily choice of activities—survival of the fittest hike, long, medium or short walks, and 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 eagles and Wilson’s warblers were exciting, but they were nothing compared to our feeding frenzy around the boxes of delicious freshly baked doughnuts that our Cruise Director Lynne Greig had arranged for us! Fishing specialist Bob Quaccia explained the rigs of the salmon fishing boats in sight in the harbor, and, not surprisingly, our dinner included fresh red salmon caught literally hours before and purchased for our dining pleasure.

Wednesday, July 16 - Unga Island

The Shumagin Islands are named after a sailor on Vitus Bering’s second great Pacific voyage of 1742, who was buried here on the return journey to Russia. We went ashore beyond Unga Spit, making one of our many wet-landings from our Zodiacs, and walked the beach in search of an ancient 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 millions of years—evidence that the region once enjoyed a much milder climate than it does today. Just offshore, the local harbor seals were oblivious to the geological importance of their home and jostled for resting places atop the few rocks exposed above the water line, delighting photographers in the process.

Once back on board, the hotel department treated us to an excellent barbecue on the Lido Deck, during which we repositioned around the island so we could spend the afternoon ashore wandering in the old village at Delarof Harbor. Once an Aleut settlement, it was later settled by Norwegians, when cod fishing peaked. With its old wooden houses, collapsed church, and rusting machinery, it is a fascinating ghost town, abandoned in 1969. Today, the tundra flowers are making up for lost time and reclaiming the area. Introduced Norway spruce, planted adjacent to the old weathered wooden houses, has grown tall and hosts flocks of chattering common red-polls, savannah sparrows, and even great horned owls. 

By extraordinary coincidence, an ex-resident born in the village was visiting and kindly chatted with many of us, answering questions about life in the once thriving community. By combining a walk on shore and a Zodiac cruise, we were able to explore the old town and recapture some of the images of the Norwegian culture, and also see even more seabirds up close, including breeding double-crested and red-faced cormorants.

Thursday, July 17 - Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island

We began our morning cruising past the five volcanic Baby Islands in search of the diminutive whiskered auklet, the holy grail of Bering Sea birding. We saw large numbers of these tiny seabirds in the tidal rip, allowing us to watch them fly low across the water. Several humpback whales put in an appearance too, making this a red-letter day! As we continued our journey towards Unalaska, historian Tom Hudgins gave his presentation entitled, The Aleutians, World War II and the Cold War.

Soon we were pulling alongside in Dutch Harbor, where even those only mildly interested in birds could not help but marvel at the dozens of bald eagles soaring overhead, flying by, and sitting on buildings, posts, even on the ground, fighting over and feasting on fish. Eagles were everywhere! Dutch Harbor is a quaint, colorful Alaskan town, famous today for its fisheries. It was originally used by the North American Commercial Company to process fur seal pelts; today, it is the busiest fishing and processing port in Alaska. The birders explored out of town reveling in the sighting of a rock ptarmigan with its chicks, an American dipper visiting its nest, and a Wilson’s snipe. Meanwhile, the hikers left for Pyramid Peak and the rest of us toured the town, including the first-rate World War II museum. The town is also famous for its Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest onion-domed church in Alaska. We learned that the reason Aleuts had become so devoutly attached to the church was because the priests worked desperately to stop the enslavement, abuse, and even murder of their people by the Russian administrators and privateers. We visited the monument to the Aleuts who were forcibly relocated from their homes by the US military during World War II and learned about the hardships they faced both during and after their deportation. 

As we sailed towards the Pribilof Islands, Mark was at the stern chumming for seabirds—only northern fulmars seemed interested in joining the avian party. Our day concluded with a lively karaoke party in the Panorama Lounge with a 70s and 80s theme.

Friday, July 18 - St. George Island, Pribilof Islands

With a morning at sea to relax, our lecture series continued with naturalist Conrad Field giving his presentation entitled, Seals of the North Pacific, followed by Bob’s presentation, Fishing Boats of Alaska 101, or How to Tell a Trawler from a Troller.

After an early lunch we went ashore to explore St. George, a small town of around 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—the birds were so close, even those of us with basic camera equipment could obtain spectacular photos. The long-walkers quickly disappeared into the mist for their calorieburning 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—the red-legged kittiwake, several of which had large chicks in their nests, with scores of parakeet and least auklets on hand to liven up the scene. Ashore we witnessed the extraordinary sights and sounds of a northern fur seal rookery, where there were numerous recently-born pups, and visited a small seal processing plant. The plant is used for the annual subsistence catch of these animals; we were given a tour of the ‘blubbery’ (fur-seal processing plant), with an explanation of how the seals were taken and used.

Gathering later in the local school gymnasium, we were treated to a fascinating array of local foods, including reindeer and seal prepared in various ways, before we retired to the ship for a recap and briefing about our plans for tomorrow.

Saturday, July 19 - St. Paul Island

Due north in the Bering Sea lies the tiny archipelago comprising the five Pribilof Islands discovered in 1786. Today, St. Paul is home to only 400 Aleuts, yet it is the largest such community in the world. 

The birders set off in pursuit of their avian targets and came back with excited tales of observing bar-tailed godwits, Baird’s sandpipers, red-necked phalaropes, and rock sandpipers. We all visited the seal blind to view the fur seal rookery, and the seabird cliffs were a popular site. We also had the chance to 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 from the remote Pribilofs, we were south bound for the Aleutian island chain; on our way, we heard from Sharon about Native People of the Northern Pacific Rim. The birders were entertained as we encountered increasing numbers of northern fulmars and albatross, even a young short-tailed albatross, one of the world’s rarest birds, which showed well off the stern. Not to be outdone, mammals put on a show too with sightings of multiple fin and orca whales, as well as an enormous bull sperm whale. All in all it was a very special day.

Sunday, July 20 - At Sea

In the morning botanist Peter Zika gave us a lecture entitled, Sex and the Single Flower, followed by Mark’s presentation, On a Wing and a Prayer: Birds are the Marvels of the Air. Continuing our ‘university at sea’ theme, after lunch John talked about the more explosive aspects of the region in his lecture, Alaskan Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Tsunamis. Mark spotted a distant adult short-tailed albatross that alighted on the sea; we were able to turn the vessel and position ourselves so when it took off into the wind, it did so across our bows treating us all to spectacular views of this rare and beautiful bird. In the late afternoon we had further success, seeing hordes of northern fulmars, black-footed albatross, and Laysan albatross. After dinner, Kevin presented his highly amusing, An Evening with Sam McGee: The Poetry of Robert Service, with the support of the talented Caledonian Sky players.

Monday, July 21 - Adak Island, Aleutian Islands

Adak greeted us shrouded in mist and low clouds, but did not prevent us from setting off on a range of excursions. Some of us wandered the seemingly post-apocalyptic ghost town, while many of us joined an excursion out to Clam Lagoon. There we were treated to close views of sea otters, and the birders were delighted to find an offshore common loon and a small flock of Aleutian terns. Those who blinked may have missed the miniscule Adak National Forest consisting of a mere cluster of bush-sized trees, and soon it was time to return to the ship and sail for Kiska.

Once at sea we gathered with Mark as he introduced us to a range of seabirds that had become stranded on the ship overnight. Magician-like, he produced each one from a different pocket and explained the features of the various petrels and auklets and especially their attractive musty scent. Later, Conrad presented his lecture, Spineless Wonders, before our recap, briefing, and a delicious Filipino dinner.

Tuesday, July 22 - Kiska Island

Infamous Kiska Island, famous for the most one-sided battle of World War II, greeted us with wonderful weather and excellent views. We went ashore to wander among the historical scrap yard, or to take long hikes or short strolls among the debris. We Zodiac cruised past the wrecked Japanese troop ship, Nojima Maru, and visited the battery-powered mini-submarine still on its trestle.

In great contrast, our afternoon’s adventure was an ornithological one. Out in the Zodiacs once more, in the shadow of the Kiska Volcano, we cruised off the craggy ledge of basalt known as Sirius Point and witnessed one of the great avian spectacles of the Bering Sea—the auklet haze. Tens of thousands of least and crested auklets were gathering at sea, then swirling up like massed ranks of starlings, rising slowly and heading inland to their breeding sites, chattering all the while. Glaucous-winged gulls and local peregrine falcons were having a field day, picking off their prey among the hordes of birds.

Our entertainment continued this evening with a special cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

Wednesday, July 23 - Attu Island

Our experiences on Attu today were for the record books—mountain tops never before seen by our expedition team, gorgeous vistas that went on forever, snow patches picking out the profiles of the high ranges and roads we didn’t know existed, all because the sky was clear and the sun shone making our morning landing so memorable. The long walkers disappeared inland with Kevin, reaching as far as the Japanese monument and seeing snowy owls along the way. The beach strollers wandered in Conrad’s wake, and the birders with Brian Gibbons and Mark sought red-throated loons and Aleutian cackling geese.

Our sail along the southern coast of the island was stunning, the scenery was so beautiful and the conditions were so extraordinary—and to cap it off, an enormous pod of orcas came into view, with females, calves, and bulls of various sizes blowing, tailslapping, and rolling, giving us as fine a view of this transient species as we could possibly hope for! With the conclusion of the excitement outside, we continued indoors with Peter’s presentation, Island Life

Thursday, July 24 - At Sea

A leisurely day at sea offered us opportunities for further education and entertainment, which Kevin kicked off with his lecture, Ten Hours in America: Georg Steller and the Great Northern Expedition, followed by Sharon’s presentation, Arctic Cuisine: From Frozen Seals to Fermented Stinkheads. In the afternoon, Kevin introduced Werner Herzog’s movie, Grizzly Man, and the day concluded with our final recap of the trip, and the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. We chatted about the many adventures we had, the sightings we made, and the education we received. Following dinner, we reminisced over our journey by means of John’s slideshow of the whole voyage.

Friday, July 25 - The Day That Never Was

Following a traditional gift of chum and vodka, we experienced the thrills of Russian medical inspections and were entertained by Sharon’s marina deck exposé, Everything You Need to Know About the Digestive System of Kittiwakes, But Were Afraid to Ask Mark. We gathered for an experimental workshop with ship’s comedian MiMo for Lessons in How to Shrink Heads Using Easily Purchased Household Items. From semaphore lessons with Bob, to our Root Vegetable Buffet in celebration of Tuberüberalles Day, our 25 July disappeared so quickly in fun, that it was almost as if it had never happened...

Saturday, July 26 - Petropavlovsk, Russia

We cruised into Avacha Bay, awed by the volcanic scenery to the north and by the swarms of birds around us. Sharon concluded our lecture series with her presentation, Native Rituals, Religions, and Beliefs. After lunch we visited the K9 kennels, took a walk in the woods, and enjoyed a very energetic performance of Koryak, Even, and Itelmen songs and dances. We returned to Petropavlovsk to visit the cathedral, market, and a small but fascinating museum.

Sunday, July 27 - The Day that Happened Twice!: Punxatawneypavlovsk, Russia / Disembark / Anchorage, USA

The delay to our flight made it possible for us to visit the volcanoes beyond Petropavlovsk in massive, bus-sized ATVs, and hike to a view point below the “camel.” Some opted for a visit to the local herbalist, with songs and music on the guitar and piano, and local food and plentiful vodka. After freshening up back on board, we said our farewells to the ship’s crew and our expedition team, boarded our buses, and traveled to the airport for our charter flight to Anchorage, and the beginning of our homeward journey.

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