Monday, 10 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 11: The Boat Trip- Lots of Geography with Sea Otters and Whales

My last day in Seward before I move on to Homer would be a pretty special one; it would be my first Alaskan boat tour, and I was very lucky to have sunshine predicted all day. Indeed, I woke up to glorious sunshine, although perhaps still slightly windy. Last night's Beaufort 7 had died down to 3 or 4, so walking to breakfast was not too much trouble. The 'Mariner Restaurant' was pretty busy for a Sunday although a large proportion of the dining area was taken up by one 'motorbike' party; expectedly loud! Suspiciously, my pancakes were served before I had sat down, but I had a bit of a wait for the hot chocolate.

As I said, my day would be largely dedicated to the boat tour. I did have a choice with the tour company; three or four companies align themselves next to the harbour and competitive prices are very much the way here. The 'Major' Tour company would take me out for five hours around the peninsula and would offer quite a range of scenery and plenty of wildlife. For $79, I thought it pretty good value although I did turn down the 'add a lunch' option, which didn't sound very appetising! Ticket in hand, and wrapped up ready for a breezy journey, I made my way to the boat: the 'Star of the Northwest'.

The 'Major Tours' lady representitive for another boat (not the 'Star of the Northwest') was too busy asking me where I was from that she accidentally tore my ticket, and I had to carefully hold two small pieces of card until the right lady approached. Without too much of wait, I was on the boat, and was ready for the adventure. The ranger and commentator would be Lari; she has had four years experience on this particular boat so I was expecting good things! I wasn't let down!

On my table was a 'Trip Guide' with information on the journey, but also information on the glacial history. It proved interesting reading! A glacier was classified as a metamorphic rock, which by definition, is acceptable. Also, the sheet tried to classify glaciers in four subsections: cirque, valley, tidewater and piedmont. It didn't, however, include 'outlet' glaciers or 'polar/sub-polar' glaciers. The problems with classification in Geography!

The trip, overall, was fantastic; just right for a geographer. In fact, the commentary seemed aimed at geologists and biologists! Heaven! We started by passing the Resurrection Bay coastline, where it was very easy to see the treeline and the shrubline. I did find the treeline changing altitude on different mountain flanks, but I put it down to other factors like aspect and light intensity, rather than just tempertaure.

The hard rock coastline that makes up the Resurrection Bay coastline has been affected a great deal by geological activity. Classic 'school-boy/textbook' formations could be easily spotted: stacks, blowholes, caves and headlands. Some of them were disguised by alpine vegetation: hemlock and spruce.

Something Lari pointed out which I unfortunately missed myself was the fact that the mountains in the foreground were more rounded than the more jagged ones in the background. Glacial erosion obviously smoothens some of the mountains (and ultimately makes them less great in altitude) creating a contrast to the ones not affected by glacial activity. We soon passed several corries or cirques!

Later on, but not very far from the cirques, was our first wildlife sighting: a sea otter carrying an octopus! It passed the boat quickly, not making a fuss, which was unfortunate because getting a good photo whilst it was on the move was pretty difficult. Following the sea-otter viewings, the biologists had a rest and the geologists of the boat got their cameras out, as we passed the 2nd best 'Basalt Lava Pillows' in the world! Oman seems to have better ones, but these were pretty good. For those who don't know, these pillows of basalt were formed underwater millions of years ago from lava that upwelled from the mantle; it solidified and over millions of years, it was uplifted above the sea.

Within half an hour, we were at the whale spotting spot! And yes, success! To be specific, the whales were Orcas or Killer Whales, and occasionally their fin would emerge from the wave crests. To get a photo, you had to predict where it would rise, judging its speed through the water. Technical stuff,  but I did get one good photo.

Later on, a very different scene. Apart from puffins and a bald eagle, there wasn't much wildlife to get excited about here, but the highlight was most certainly 'Bear Glacier'. Bear Glacier is one of the 34 glaciers to originate from the Harding Ice Field, and is in 'steady state' at present or in other words, it isn't getting larger or retreating. It has a large outwash plain in front of it,and a medial moraine but interestingly, glacial flour has made quite a lot of the ocean seem lighter in colour. Glacial Flour is the name given to the powder that is created after the mechanical grinding of the bedrock. It is carried in meltwater to the ocean and either settles or stays in suspension where it is sometimes known as glacial milk! I know, I know!

Bear Glacier would lead us back to port. On her closing speech, Lari used a quotation that I once used in a speech earlier this year: Exploration is not necessarily going to different places, but to see the same places with different eyes, paraphrased from Marcel Proust. I have to say I've been in and around Seward for a few days now, but today's boat trip really did make me appreciate how extraordinary the Geography is, here in Alaska.

Tomorrow, a long trek to Homer!


  1. That's a good shot, Daniel. It would be better if you had a shot of the whale while it was in the air, though. :P I remember, my boyfriend and I also had a similar experience in Cornwall, UK. However, we were sightseeing sharks at that time.

    Delena Millener

  2. The mountain view is really breathtaking. I want to watch sea otters and whales as well. I love boat tours and observe marine wildlife like in dolphins oban. Boat tours are really fun and a nice adventure for everyone.