Eight-year-old Payne lives in Cooper Landing, less than an hour drive to Seward. But he was just as excited as a tourist on their first trip to Alaska during his recent Gray Whale Watching Tour with Kenai Fjords Tours. If you are looking for something fun to do with kids, this four-hour boat ride out of Seward is a no-brainer.
“I saw some dall porpoises while everyone else was looking at the sheep up on the cliff,” said Payne. His mom cautioned me that he is eight, and the porpoise sighting may or may not have happened. But, it didn’t dampen Payne’s enthusiasm to run outside every time the captain slowed for a gray whale sighting. “I would have been disappointed if we hadn’t seen a whale,” Payne admitted seriously. Luckily, he spotted several whales throughout the afternoon.
Kenai Fjords Tours was the first company to offer glacier and wildlife tours in Kenai Fjords National Park, starting in 1974. Today, they operate nine ships that hold up to 150 passengers at a time. Due to the pandemic, they’ve been limiting the number of passengers to around 100. Masks were required on our trip, and hand sanitizer was readily available. We were lucky enough to go on the company’s newest vessel, the Callisto Voyager on a bluebird day in April. The seas were calm and while the Gray whales were a little shy, we did have a chance to see Steller Sea Lions, sea otters, bald eagles and lots of other birds. We saw a Humpback Whale in a cove for several minutes, but he decided to dive deep, so we moved on.
From March 12 to May 16, Kenai Fjords Tours offers Gray Whale Watch Tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The vessel departs from the Seward Small Boat Harbor at noon and returns around 4 pm, so while it sounds easy to drive from Anchorage that morning, do the tour, and drive home in the same day, consider an overnight in Seward as a great idea, too. That way you can break up the drive, and have a chance to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center, explore a beach or two and check out a local shop or restaurant. Another great and more relaxing option is to take the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward and back.
The Gray Whale tour includes lunch – a chicken wrap, chips and a granola bar. They also had an option of chicken nuggets for the kids, and a hummus wrap alternative. Hot drinks, sodas and a limited bar is open for most of the tour. If you like beer, be sure to try their signature KFT beer, Puffin Pale Ale, a pale ale from Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Hot chocolate chip cookies are served on the way back to port. Look for specials such as 10 percent off for booking in advance. This year, Kenai Fjords Tour also offered a deal where kids sail for free (limit two children per paying adult). Payne’s parents and two other families took advantage of the kids free option to make a group of 12 on our trip.
Each spring, gray whales, which can be up to 45-feet-long and weigh 60,000 pounds, make their annual trek from Baja, Mexico to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. The whales are on a mission, so they don’t stay in Kenai Fjords National Park for long, but they do make appearances in Cape Resurrection, Mary’s Bay and Resurrection Bay beginning in early April. The grays feed on tiny crustaceans on the muddy ocean floor. But, they still have to come up to breathe. Feeding dives last from 3 to 15 minutes, and an adult can stay submerged for up to 20 to 30 minutes. On our tour, we saw a handful of whales, either by seeing their spout, an arching back or a tail as they took another dive.
One of the first stops we made after leaving Seward Boat Harbor at a 25-knot clip was Bear Glacier. It is the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, located about 12 miles southwest of Seward. You can still glimpse a few icebergs that have calved into a lake that has formed between the glacier and its moraine. Some of the most spectacular photos were taken in Spire Cove. Rocks shoot straight up out of the water and there are several water level caves. Other highlights of the trip were getting up close and personal with a bunch of Steller Sea Lions who were hauled out and sunning on the rocks. Several bald eagles posed at the tops of trees and we saw Dall Sheep in two different spots. Did you know that a sheep only needs a two-inch ledge to stand on the side of a cliff?
Birds making nests on the rocky cliffs in Resurrection Bay. Photo Credit: Kathy Day Steller sea lions hauled out on a rock to bask in the sunshine. Photo Credit: Kathy Day
After being couped up this winter with the pandemic, the best part of the Gray Whale Tour was getting out on the water, breathing fresh air and soaking in the bright sunshine. The Callisto Voyager, and all of Kenai Fjords’ boats are big enough that you can always find a spot to sit down inside or out on the deck. We stood on the stern for the final 45-minute trip back into Seward, basking in the sun while passing gulls building nests on the rocks and rafts of floating ducks. It was a glorious day trip.
The Gray Whale Tour is the kick-off to Kenai Fjords Tours summer season. They offer five, six, seven and 8.5 hour cruises beginning in May, including the popular National Park Tour that features a dinner on Fox Island. The Classic six-hour tour runs all the way through the summer until early October. Remember to dress in layers, bring gloves, a camera and binoculars. Wear a waterproof shell as your outer layer, as it can be breezy or rainy. Learn more at www.KenaiFjords.com or call 1-888-478-3346.