Zodiac Cruising in Alaska

2017 Wild Alaska Field Report

Mark Brazil|August 23, 2017|Field Report

Thursday, July 6, 2017 - Home / Anchorage, Alaska

Following our independent arrival, we transferred to the Anchorage Marriott Hotel. There, we gathered with our fellow travelers for cocktails and a welcome dinner. Expedition Leader Michael Moore, affectionately referred to as MiMo, introduced us to the team accompanying us throughout our journey, and gave us our first briefing about our exciting Wild Alaska voyage ahead, around the Bering Sea from Nome to Seward.


Friday, July 7 - Anchorage / Nome / Embark Silver Discoverer

A short flight this morning took us from Anchorage to Nome, where we set off on tour—the birders headed out with a picnic lunch for the lagoons along the coast, for sightings of musk ox and Aleutian and Arctic terns, while the rest of us boarded our large yellow school buses and traveled into Nome for lunch at St. Joe’s, the old church in the center of town. We visited around the town, panned for gold, and met a team of sled dogs, before we boarded the Silver Discoverer in the late afternoon and were introduced to the ship by Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons. A splendid male spectacled eider, a much sought-after avian species, just off the stern of the ship was a wonderful farewell gift from Nome.


Saturday, July 8 - Little Diomede / Arctic Circle

Our goal this morning was to go ashore at the tiny Inupiaq community clinging to the flank of Little Diomede, a small island in the Bering Strait; you really can see Russia from here! Little Diomede is situated a mere two nautical miles from its Russian counterpart, Big Diomede, which looms just across the dateline in tomorrow. Even before we landed we could see the bee-like swarms of auklets in the air over the island; once ashore the background noise of the birds was astonishing. Endless flocks of birds were swirling around 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.

With time to explore the small village of Ignaluk—a subsistence community relying on walrus, seal, and bird hunting, as well as egg gathering—and to visit the talus slopes where thousands of birds were gathering, we were able to soak up this marvel. Our friendly hosts also introduced us to a range of Inupiaq songs and dances, with the rhythm provided by the traditional sealskin hand drums known around the Arctic. Our Zodiac ride along the coast back to the ship gave us a very different perspective, allowing us to see just how precariously the village is built on the steep slope of the island, and once more to marvel at the insect-like swarms of birds.

Continuing northwards, between the western point of North America and the eastern point of Asia, we were bound for the intersection of the international dateline and the Arctic Circle at 66°33’N, along the way seeing a small group of walrus in the water. Before reaching this memorable spot in the ocean, historian T.H. Baughman gave his presentation, Roald Amundsen: Man of Both Poles; then, after celebrating with our group photograph, drinks, and blini with salmon caviar on the Lido deck, we turned south, bound for our next port. Along the way, ornithologist Mark Brazil gave his presentation, What it Means to be a Seabird: Seabirds of the Bering Sea.

This evening we enjoyed welcome cocktails and dinner hosted by Captain Tomasz Kulas.


Sunday, July 9 - The Day That Might Never Have Happened

Following a traditional gift of chum and vodka, we experienced the thrills of Russian medical inspections and were entertained by T.H. with his marina deck exposé, Everything You Need to Know About the Digestive System of Kittiwakes, But Didn’t Want to Hear. We then gathered for an experimental workshop with our resident comedian, MiMo, for, Lessons in How to Shrink Heads Using Only Easily Purchased Household Items. From relay semaphore lessons with communications specialist Bob Quaccia and our very own IT chief John Buchanan, to our Root Vegetable Buffet in celebration of Tuberüberalles Day, our July 9 disappeared so quickly in fun, that it was almost as if it had never happened at all...


Monday, July 10 - Provideniya, Russia

Once alongside in post-Soviet Provideniya, the officials came on board and, while awaiting their clearance to go ashore, Conrad Field spoke on Marine Mammals of the North, followed by Rich Pagen’s Color in the Arctic Landscape.

Our afternoon ashore in the partly-derelict-and-decaying, and partly-brightly-colored, town of Provideniya allowed us to walk to the best local viewpoint—the sobering cemetery, where almost all of the monuments seemed to be to those who had died before reaching the age of 60—to the small but fascinating regional museum dedicated to life in remote Chukotka. We also visited the extraordinary House of Culture, where we were entertained with snacks, drinks, and a colorful medley of Russian and Siberian Yupik songs and dances performed by an energetic group of local youths. Perhaps the most astonishing was that of throat-singing and dancing, depicting life in a seabird colony, by a mother and son duo.

On a lovely sunlit evening, we were treated to spectacular scenery as we passed along the Russian coast before heading back out into the Bering Sea, bound for St. Lawrence Island.


Monday, July 10 - St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

Our plan this morning was to go ashore and visit the Siberian Yupik community of Savoonga, but the weather forced a change of plans. A heavy swell onto the only landing beaches precluded that option, so we continued around the island’s coast searching for a sheltered landing site. In the meantime, geologist John Buchanan entertained us with his presentation, Plates in Collision: the Northern Ring of Fire, followed by Caitlin Hedberg and Brooke Wood of the Nature Conservancy on, ShoreZone: Exploring the Natural Wonders of Alaska’s Coasts.

Eager to go ashore despite the rain, we disembarked this afternoon onto short coastal tundra and for several hours explored a rarely visited region of the island, wandering to nearby lagoons and a ruined fishing and bone-yard excavation camp. The naturalists were delighted with their sightings of tundra flowers and a star bird in the form of an emperor goose.


Tuesday, July 11 - Hall & St. Matthew Islands

Our field staff put their portable GPS units to great use this morning as we made our Zodiac cruise along the rocky crags of Hall Island in thick fog. Undeterred, we hugged the shoreline in our little Zodiac fleet, enjoying the atmospheric looming foggy scenery, the sounds of the sea, the smell of the bird colonies, and the sights of seabirds buzzing back and forth above our heads to their nesting ledges. We spotted hordes of thick-billed and common murres, horned and tufted puffins, and pigeon guillemots, as well as flocks of cryptic harlequin ducks swimming through the surf. Above us, a massive fox-shaped rock rose from the fog, and for those who reached the far end of the island, a treat was in store with a rock arch or two to boot. Returning to the ship in dense fog seemed to be a leap of faith, but those GPS units were wonderful and left us wondering how we ever managed before they were invented!

After lunch and a brief re-positioning, we went ashore, once more in thick fog, on St. Matthew Island. The fog eventually drifted clear, giving us wonderful views across this remote and uninhabited island. We found (and heard) the endemic insular, or St. Matthew Island singing, vole and saw several of the extremely local almost snow-white McKay’s bunting—in the entire world, this bunting breeds only on St. Matthew and Hall Islands! Ashore on the most remote island in the middle of 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, including the most wonderfully named Weasel’s snout, and made sightings and listened to the chorusing voles. A red fox, benefiting no doubt from this being a boom year for the local rodents, gave us a lengthy and very informative opportunity for observation.


Wednesday, July 12 - St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands

In the midst of the Bering Sea lies the tiny archipelago comprising the five Pribilof Islands discovered in 1786 by the Russian explorer, Gerassim Pribilof. There he successfully located his goal: thousands of fur seals at their rookeries. Tragically, the Russians enslaved the Aleuts pushing them to harvest the seals nearly to the extinction of both seals and Aleuts. The Aleut population dwindled from about 25,000 on first contact to just 2,000 survivors. Today, St. Paul is home to only 400 Aleuts, yet it is the largest such community in the world.

On our route south towards the islands this morning, we continued our lecture sea series with Conrad’s presentation, Spineless Wonders of the Bering Sea, followed by T.H. who recounted the tale of The First Iditarod.

The weather was challenging, a euphemism for foggy and rainy, though that didn’t stop most of us from going ashore and relishing in our exploration of the island, the local community and its museum, the fur seal rookery, and the local seabird colonies. Some even braved a long walk, and others went birding in the rain. Arctic fox are common on St. Paul, and we managed several sightings during the course of our visit.


Thursday, July 13 - St. George Island

After an early breakfast, we braved more Pribilof weather to go ashore and explore the small town of St. George, whose residents include about 80 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 for non-birders, as the birds were so close and approachable; even those of us with basic camera equipment could obtain spectacular photos of parakeet auklets and red-faced cormorants. The long-walkers quickly disappeared into the mist for their calorie-burning exercise across the 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, several of which were on show at the old harbor.

Our time ashore allowed us to witness the extraordinary sights and sounds of the northern fur seal rookery, where there were numerous very recently born pups, and also to visit the small seal processing plant in town used for the annual subsistence catch of these animals, where we were given a tour of the ‘blubbery’ (fur-seal processing plant) with an explanation of how the seals were taken and used. In the local community hall we were treated to local dishes of fish pie, seal stew, reindeer stew, and salmonberry cookies, rounding out a very diverse experience ashore.

With an afternoon of leisure (and education) ahead of us, Mark gave his presentation, On a Wing and a Prayer: Birds are the Marvels of the Air, then dashed outside to begin chumming for seabirds. Soon we were being followed by a horde of northern fulmars, several fork-tailed storm petrels, and the occasional Laysan albatross each of which entertained the watchers and photographers amongst us. Wrapping up our informative afternoon at sea, John talked about the more explosive aspects of the region with, Significant Earthquakes and Tsunami Along the Pacific Rim.


Friday, July 14 - Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island / Baby Islands

Originally used by the North American Commercial Company to process fur seal pelts, today, Dutch Harbor is the busiest fishing and processing port in Alaska. We came alongside, cleared officially back into the USA after our Russian port call, and then set off on our explorations of Unalaska and the town of Dutch Harbor. Even those only mildly interested in birds could not help but marvel at the display put on 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!

While the birders explored out of town reveling in a sighting of Kittlitz’s murrelets, and the hikers left for the Pyramid Pass trail, most of us toured Dutch Harbor itself, including the World War II museum that not only described the military campaigns in the Aleutians, but also covered the plight of the people who were displaced by war. The town is also famous for its Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest onion-domed church in Alaska. Some of the remarkably beautiful icons were gifts from Tsar Nicholas II of Russia himself. We also visited the monument to the Aleuts who were forcibly relocated from their homes by the US military during WWII, and the hardships they faced both during and after their deportation.

As we cruised onwards to the five tiny, volcanic Baby Islands, we encountered flocks of the diminutive whiskered auklet—the holy grail of Bering Sea birding! We were blessed with large numbers of these tiny seabirds in the tidal rip, allowing us to watch them in tight groups flying low across the water. Several humpback whales put in an appearance too, making this a red-letter day. And this was before we lowered the Zodiacs
and set off for an afternoon cruise among the islands admiring seals, sea otters, and innumerable seabirds at close range.


Saturday, July 15 - Otter Cove, Unimak Island / High Island

Unimak Island, though currently separated from the Alaskan Peninsula as the first of the Aleutian archipelago, is separated from the Alaskan mainland only by a very narrow channel. We anchored early this morning off Otter Cove and went ashore for our various hikes. The only Aleutian island to have a population of bears, we explored in tight groups, finding bear tracks on the beach and marveling at the fantastic array of lush tundra flowers.

The long walkers, with John at the fore, disappeared quickly across the tundra, while others pottered along the beach keeping their eyes sharp for bears that had been sighted by the scouting party. The birders, led by David Wolf and Mark, were delighted with excellent views of Aleutian terns in the bay. As we all returned to the ship,  we heard reports of a female brown bear with cubs; through various telescopes, we were able to watch as the two spring cubs played and gamboled around their mother on the hillside above us.

The beginning of our wildlife sightings of the day, we soon heard news of orcas; and were surrounded by them! Next came humpback whales, providing us with an embarrassment of riches as we left the bears behind; we now had numerous orcas and several humpbacks in view at the same time!

Our afternoon entertainment continued with cetacean and bird sightings outside, and further educational opportunities indoors. Bob spoke on, Fishing for Sustainability: A Look at Alaska’s Successful Fisheries, and Rich followed with, Bunting Songs and Polygon Ponds: An Introduction to Tundra and Wetland Bird Communities.

In the late afternoon we passed the inaptly named High Island (lower than nearby Deer Island), where we saw vast numbers of both tufted and horned puffins, and as the evening progressed we found more and more humpback whales blowing around our ship, providing a fitting finale to a phenomenal day.


Sunday, July 16 - Unga Island, Shumagin Islands

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 went ashore beyond Unga Spit, making one of our many wet-landings from our Zodiacs, and walked the beach admiring the plethora of remnants of an ancient petrified forest. We wandered several kilometers along a spectacular coastline littered with scattered fragments of fossilized wood, all remnants of an ancient Metasequoia forest, dating back some 70~14 million years—evidence that the region once enjoyed a much more mild climate than it does today.

Fragments of petrified wood were in evidence, lying along the back of the beach where they had eroded from the low cliff. Further chunks were protruding from the cliff, but the highlights were the standing tree stumps, one of which was still chest high. The long walkers made it as far as a complete log lying out in the intertidal zone. Just offshore, the local harbor seals jostled for resting places atop the few rocks exposed above the water line, and delighted the photographers in the process.

During a short repositioning, Mike Murphy gave an entertaining presentation about his extraordinary experiences among Ruffy Tuffy Deep Sea Divers. By mid-afternoon we were at our next anchorage, allowing us to spend the latter part of the day wandering in the abandoned village at Delarof Harbor. With its old wooden houses, collapsed church, and rusting machinery it is a fascinating ghost town, abandoned in 1969. By combining a walk on shore and a Zodiac cruise to an islet offshore, we were able not only to explore the old “town” and recapture some of the images of the Norwegian culture transported to the wilds of Alaska, but also to see yet more seabirds in close-up, including breeding black-legged kittiwakes on the cliffs, tufted puffins on the top of the island, and sea otters and seals offshore.


Monday, July 17 - Semidi Islands

Continuing eastwards along the Alaska Peninsula, early this morning we visited Chignik Bay on the Alaskan Peninsula. We went ashore by Zodiac for our daily choice of activities: long, medium, and 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 Merlin and Wilson’s warblers were exciting for the birders, but they were nothing compared with our communal feeding frenzy inside Janice’s little shop; we descended on trays of delicious, freshly baked doughnuts that Kelsey and MiMo had arranged for us as rewards for our various exploratory, rainy walks!

After our early morning excursion ashore, Caitlin and Brooke gave their joint presentation, Tidal Change: Listening to Our Changing Climate. After lunch, we set off to make a landing on Aghiyuk Island in the Semidi Islands group; our walk consisted of a stroll along a beach backed by a tremendous carpet of low, colorful tundra flowers or up and over the tundra to view an eagle’s nest. Offshore, Aghik Island was teeming with seabirds, and our Zodiacs allowed us to explore the island’s sheltered coastline, while listening to the cacophony of the seabird colony, which included hordes of murres, parakeet auklets, tufted and horned puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, and northern fulmars, with a quartet of ravens calling amongst them.


Tuesday, July 18 - Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park and Preserve

Dawn found us anchoring in Amalik Bay near the entrance to Geographic Harbor. Nearly hidden at the far reaches of the bay, Geographic Harbor is set in magnificent volcanic scenery, though today it was shrouded in atmospheric mist. We dropped anchor, and were soon on the water for our morning Zodiac cruise amidst stunning scenery and the islands offshore, taking in sightings of bald eagles, marbled murrelets, sea otters, harbor porpoises, and half-a-dozen or so brown bears. The “harbor” here, takes its name from the 1917 National Geographic expedition to explore the area in the aftermath of the famous 1912 Novarupta eruption, the most powerful eruption of the 20th century, in Katmai. As the weather improved, and where the clouds parted, we could see the mountain cirques were draped in gray ash and pumice still remaining from the eruption, making the mountains appear as if they were clad in extensive gray snowfields.

Lunch back on board was accompanied by more bear sightings ashore, and then the cry went up: “Wolf!” Astonishingly, a single wolf was patrolling the shoreline aft of our ship, allowing some of us a very surprising sighting.

Katmai National Park has the world’s largest population of protected brown bears, so we had high hopes of seeing several; before lunch, we had already succeeded. Exploring by Zodiac was the perfect way to search for them safely and with as many as three bears in view from a single vantage point, we were all soon watching and snapping pictures as bears explored along the tidal mud flats in search of clams. We had opportunities to observe their behavior close-up, watching individuals foraging, grazing, and patrolling the shoreline, and by the end of our afternoon Zodiac excursion, almost everyone returned having had double-figure sightings of bears for the day—and innumerable photographs to prove it.


Wednesday, July 19 - Kodiak, Kodiak Island

We docked this morning at the sleepy town of Kodiak. This port was initially settled by Russian fur traders in 1784, and established in 1792, by Alexander Baranof, as the first capital of Russia’s North American colonies. Our visit was busy as we divided into groups for different activities. Some of us visited Erskine House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1809, used as a fur warehouse and now housing the Kodiak Baranof Museum, dedicated to the man who administered Alaska on behalf of Russia; and the Alutiiq Museum, with its collection of art and cultural objects detailing the lives of the native Aleut, who lived here millennia before the Europeans arrived. We 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. Some took off birding or hiking and came back with tales of mysterious moss-draped forests and rushing streams, wildflowers, and great views of belted kingfishers, varied thrushes, and red crossbills.

After lunch, we were able to begin our packing in preparation for the imminent ending of our voyage. Our field team followed with the last recap of the voyage, then came our captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner; but interruptions came thick-and-fast in the form of innumerable whale blows and sightings of both humpback and fin whales around our ship! A perfect ending to this incredible voyage.


Thursday, July 20 - Seward / Disembark Silver Discoverer / Anchorage / Home

On a pleasantly mild misty morning, we sailed through the spectacular, glaciated, montane scenery surrounding Resurrection Bay and made our way up to Seward. All too soon the end of our trip had arrived, and after farewells to officers, crew, and fellow travelers, we boarded our coaches for the drive north up to Anchorage. That drive, too, was spectacular as we passed through Chugach National Forest, over Moose Pass, and down to the beautiful coastal scenery of historical Turn-again Arm.

All that remained was for us to check-in for our flights at Anchorage Airport, say our final farewells before heading home, and reflect on a wonderful Wild Alaska adventure.



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