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Friday, June 18, 2010

Crossing the Gulf of Alaska

As written last night....

Location: The Gulf of Alaska
Population: 0

It’s hard to believe, but it’s already time to begin our journey back south!

We arrived in Whittier more than a day before the departure of our cross-gulf ferry, which meant we were left with 10 hours to spend in town between checking out of our hotel and departing on the MV Kennicott. I love small towns, but with the rain and fog we had yesterday I’ll admit it was tough to pass the time in Whittier. Nearly all of the towns 170 or so residents live in a single condo complex on one side of town, which is made up of two main streets, one on either side of the railroad tracks. We drove every little side street (many of them home to nothing but abandoned vehicles and junk piles), visited every store in town (all four or five of them), and spent an hour exploring around a creek outlet in the rain, and still had six hours until ferry departure! At that point we resigned ourselves to reading and playing games in the car.

Our vessel for this first part of our journey down the Alaska marine highway is the MV Kennicott, which I took a picture of back when the weather was nicer in Homer:

The boarding this time was much smoother than in Skagway, though part of that was because they knew it would take several hours so started early. There were no double-backwards 90 degree turns for driving on, though, which was good. It was interesting to see how they strapped down the cars, both front and back and left and right one very vehicle. We made our way to our cabin, which is surprisingly pleasant, and I found I could perch myself in the window to watch the scenery and scan for wildlife. This became my favorite place to sit, because most of the seating in the public lounges is poorly designed so that railings block your view.

Within the first hour or so of leaving the harbor I saw a humpback whale and several groups of Dall’s porpoise. By then it was starting to get dark. (Dark? That has been a foreign concept for the last month! But it was till quite overcast and foggy – the real reason it was hard to see.)

I woke up once for an hour and a half in the middle of the night uncomfortable with the motion of the vessel but this morning we awoke to amazingly flat seas. There was a slight rolling swell but nothing compared to the 10 foot seas they were expecting or the 30-40 foot seas they sometimes experience. I don’t get seasick but I don’t enjoy the rough rides so I was very grateful and the day turned out to be very enjoyable.

In fact, I woke up to shouts of “Bird! Right out the window!” which turned out to be a black-footed albatross (year bird 205). This is only the second time I’ve seen the species but it was amazing how fast they became “just” another albatross with all the other things to look at. We were well away from land by this morning, but the Gulf of Alaska is a rich marine ecosystem. The weather had lifted and while it was overcast it wasn’t raining or foggy so I went out to the bow of the ship to watch for birds.

The impressive wing span of a black-footed albatross

While I was seeing lots of birds it quickly became apparent that identifying them would be a challenge because A) we passed them so quickly as we cruise at 16 knots and B) I’m not that familiar with pelagic birds and didn’t know what field marks to look for. My solution to this was to take advantage of every mega-pixel my camera had to offer and take pictures of the bird to compare to the field guides later if I wasn’t able to ID them by looking through binoculars. This actually worked quite well and in addition to the tufted puffins, northern fulmars (year bird 206), and group of four ancient murrelets (year bird 207), I was able to identify two new life birds.

A light-ish morph northern fulmar

The first was the amazingly small fork-tailed storm-petrel (year bird 208, NA life bird 332). My first-ever storm-petrel after years of looking longingly at them as I flip by those pages in the field guide! There were several small groups of them about.

Fork-tailed storm-petrel

The second proved to be more of a challenge and also more of a rarity – the flesh-footed shearwater (year bird 209, NA life bird 333). From a distance it was nearly impossible to distinguish these guys from a dark morph northern fulmar, but by zooming in on several different photos all the field marks were visible.

Flesh-footed shearwater

There were more marine mammal sightings today as well. Multiple humpback whales were spotted (though I didn’t see any – too distracted by storm-petrels as it turns out!), and several more groups of Dall’s porpoise. Rather than saying we found the porpoise it’s more accurate to say the porpoise found us. Off and on throughout the day a group of them would come zooming towards us in order to surf our wake. They’re such fun-lovers! Also, the most exciting mammal sighting of the trip as far as I’m concerned, northern fur seals!! Another new “lifer” for me.

Dall's porpoise surfing the wake of the Kennicott

Today our only port of call was in Yakutat, Alaska. As we pulled into the bay about 20 eagles greeted us on the beach.

Due to the smooth sailing conditions we actually arrived two hours ahead of schedule and had extra time to go ashore and walk around if we wanted. I was surprised to learn they had a visitor’s center in this small town, a National Park outpost for Wrangell-St. Elias which borders Yakutat. Before us ferry riders could even get off board the locals poured ON to the ferry. The kids came aboard the explore and many of the adults to drink in the cocktail lounge for the few hours we were in the harbor. As it turns out, just an hour before us the once-a-month barge from Seattle arrived carrying supplies and personalized orders, so this was a very exciting day in Yukatat!

The most exciting part of Yukatat to me was seeing the Aleutian terns flying around the bay (year bird 210, NA life bird 334)! They were in a mixed flock with mew gulls and Bonaparte's gulls, and across the way were some cormorants - including a leucistic individual. How weird to see a white cormorant!

Aleutian tern

As I write this now the gentle rocking of the ship is making me sleepy, so I will wrap it up here. By the morning we will be nearing Juneau, our stop for this leg of the ferry ride and where I hope I’ll be able to post this update.

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