Updated: Oct 1, 2020
My wife and I took part in an unforgettable and very active 5-day expedition across Southeast Alaska aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird. Before I get to the day-by-day, below are a few introductory points to sum up the trip:
Expeditions: We explored a variety of Southeast Alaskan habitats by ship, by small inflatable boat (known by name brands Zodiac or DIB), by kayak, on foot, and by small airplane.
Animals: The Alaskan wildlife did not disappoint. Although overall bird numbers were modest (~63 species), 24 of those were new for me, and most were exciting seabirds (not many passerines/songbirds). Moreover, the mammals really stole the show—we had excellent views of Humpback Whale, Orca (Killer Whale), Dall’s Porpoise, Harbor Porpoise, Steller’s Sea Lion, Harbor Seal, Sea Otter, Brown Bear, and Mountain Goat.
Photography: Of the 2,276 photos I took, most were of the scenery (as opposed to animals), and I’m only including a small portion in this blog.
Weather: Drizzle/fog/clouds were the norm, and we had about 1.5 hours of cumulative sunshine on the trip. Highs in the low 50s and lows in the 40s. Overall, the weather wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t prevent us from doing anything.
Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic: Lindblad runs a great expedition, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone interested in a nature-focused tour of Southeast Alaska. Although the Nat Geo Sea Bird can accommodate over 60 guests, just over 30 other passengers joined our trip, making for an intimate setting. The accommodations were comfortable, the food was amazing, the naturalist guides were an excellent resource and gave engaging presentations, and the expeditions were well-planned and well-executed. I only wish the trip had been longer!
Saturday 5/19: Embarking from Sitka
We flew into Sitka from Seattle, and boarded the Nat Geo Sea Bird just before dinner. As we sailed north in what was to become unusually good weather, highlights included a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, a few Marbled Murrelet (common later, so I won’t mention again), and a group of Brant, as well as a Sea Otter and a spouting Humpback Whale.
Sunday 5/20: Peril Strait, Chatham Strait, Pavlof Harbor
The first full day began early, with 4:30AM birding from the boat as we traversed Peril Strait (subsequent mornings would follow this pattern: solo birding from the boat until ship-deck yoga at 7AM, followed by a hearty breakfast). Early morning highlights included Yellow-Billed Loons, Pacific Loons, a Sea Otter, two playful Dall’s Porpoises, and a Humpback Whale repeatedly surfacing near the ship. Too bad no one else was awake to see! As we approached Chatham Straight later in the morning, all shared great looks at a group of Steller’s Sea Lions loafing on a channel marker buoy. We spent most of the day at Pavlof Harbor, where we hiked around a small lake and kayaked in the bay. Highlights included Pigeon Guillimot, Common Merganser, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Wandering Tattler, a Wood Frog, a Brown Bear (seen from the anchored ship), and another Humpback Whale in the evening.
Monday 5/21: Idaho Bay, Inian Islands, Dundas Bay
Day 2 began in Idaho Bay, where Marbled Murrelets and Sea Otters abounded, and two small pods of Harbor Porpoises cruised by the boat. A short hike around Idaho Bay following bear trails was serene, with avian highlights including a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese and a large group of American Pipits. We then spent the early afternoon touring the Inian Islands by small inflatable boat. The scenery was breathtaking, and we had close-up views of a feeding frenzy of Sea Lions and seagulls where two currents collided. The mammals dominated this leg of the trip, with Sea Otter, Harbor Seal, another Humpback whale, and possibly a Mink. After returning to the ship, we cruised around Dundas Bay (part of Glacier Bay NP), basked by a brief spurt of sunshine. Highlights included large numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a Sabine’s Gull, another Humpback Whale, multiple Orca (Killer Whale), Sea Otters everywhere, and a distant bear (possibly Black Bear).
Tuesday 5/22: Lynn Canal, Haines
Day 3 began with some great birding from the ship as it traversed Lynn Canal, including large numbers of Surf Scoters, Pacific Loons, Marbled Murrelets, and Red-necked Phalaropes, a group of Harlequin Ducks, a few groups of Long-tailed Ducks, and a pair of Steller’s Sea Lions. We spent the rest of the day in Haines, a charming little port town. First up was a fairly strenuous hike up Mount Riley, which gave us intimate views of the Spruce/Hemlock rain forest and high-elevation muskeg habitats (but not-so-great views from the summit, where we were encased by clouds). We next explored town, including the Hammer Museum, which—no joke—was amazing, especially to a woodworker/ tool nerd like me. In the afternoon, we took to the sky with pilot Paul of the Mountain Flying Service in a small 6-passenger airplane. The breathtaking views of multiple glaciers made this one of the most exciting experiences of my entire life, and we saw a few groups of Mountain Goat, which was really neat.
Wednesday 5/23: Endicott Arm, Dawes Glacier
We spent our last full day exploring Endicott Arm. Highlights of the early morning included a group of Common Murre, an island full of roosting Steller’s Sea Lions, and various small icebergs (“growlers” or “bergy bits”), previewing what was to come. We spent the morning kayaking around the surreal 7-mile cove, amidst more growlers and glacially-carved vertical fjord cliffs. The highlight of the day was our subsequent inflatable boat tour of the Dawes Glacier, where we got up close and personal with this tidewater glacier towering ~300 feet high and half a mile across. Throughout our stay, the glacier was very active, thunderously calving hi-rise-sized chunks of ice into the fjord. Calling this alien landscape home were Arctic Terns, Mew Gulls, and Harbor Seals. The inflatable boat tour of Southeast Alaskan glacial activity was the perfect complement to the prior day’s flightseeing tour of similar glaciers.
Thursday 5/24: Disembarking at Juneau
The expedition came to a close as our ship reached Juneau on Thursday morning. Early-morning birding yielded numerous sea ducks and a few alcids, and we hiked the sub-alpine and alpine meadows around Mount Roberts before doing some in-town sightseeing. Then, alas, it was time to begin the very long voyage back to the east coast. I can’t wait to return to Alaska, but it may be a while…