A Day in Kenai Fjords: A Wildlife Lover's Dream
First, we heard it—an unmistakable gushing sound. Then we saw it, backdropped by the rocky coastline: a massive humpback whale, surfacing and diving, surfacing and diving. And every time it came up, its spout gushed water into the air, with the sun creating a rainbow through the mist. The whale seemed to be playing, flapping its fin on the surface of the water and putting on a show.
This unforgettable treat happened during my day cruising through Kenai Fjords National Park—an Alaskan playground full of towering glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and of course abundant wildlife. It had been my dream to come here, so my sister and I planned a trip to celebrate my 30th birthday, booking with Major Marine Tours out of Seward. As I learned, even my imagination doesn’t run as wild as the park does in real life.
A Life Changing Day
The warm stewards of Major Marine greeted us and a handful of other passengers as we boarded. We explored the heated cabin and staked out a vantage point on the open-air bow, where we would spend most of our day searching for wildlife and taking in the incredible views. Soon we were sailing off from Seward toward the park.
The first thing that strikes you as you approach Kenai Fjords is its magnitude. The jagged cliffs of the Kenai Mountains tower above you, the deep blue glacial waters lap against the sides of the boat, and the namesake fjords erupt majestically from the water. It's easy to feel small in the midst of this grandeur, and you can't help but be in awe of the natural beauty surrounding you.
We started the day with hot chocolate in hand and our cameras fully charged. Within 30 minutes, we stopped at our first glacier, which sat atop a soaring mountain with forest-lined islands in the foreground. It was our first experience seeing a glacier, and we were mesmerized by its depth and the rich blue color of its ice. We snapped photo after photo, trying to capture the enormity of the glacier on our cameras.
Soon, hidden coves and rocky coastlines appeared in our view, along with jagged islands and glacier-fed waterfalls. As the day warmed up, burning off the morning fog, distant islands began to take shape. The pure ruggedness of the environment was astounding—it felt otherworldly, like something from the movies.
But my anticipation was building to see wildlife. Just then, we passed a group of horned and tufted puffins; the colorful birds were floating and skimming the water below and flying past the small crowd of cheerful onlookers. The majestic humpback spotting followed soon after, along with flying cormorants, bald eagles, and other birds.
Even better, we didn’t have to share the wildlife sightings. Even though it was a perfect summer day, we had the park’s watery expanse to ourselves. In fact, over the entire day, we passed only a few scattered fishermen.
Ice, Ice, Baby
Our destination was a tidewater glacier, which looked bigger and bigger as we sailed toward it. Once we got close (but still a safe distance away), the enormity of the glacier came into focus, its steep, 200-foot edges towering over the water.
I had never seen anything quite like it before. This powerful wall of ice had carved its way between two massive mountain peaks—its rich blue color and jagged surface contrasting beautifully with the lush green forest at the base of the purple mountains.
Suddenly, we heard a thunderous rumbling, caused by the ice moving and shifting, and huge chunks of ice started calving—falling off the glacier and crashing into the water. Lots of these enormous ice cubes floated in the water as jagged peaks soared above, awaiting their turn to break free.
I noticed a colony of seabirds inhabiting a rock just in front of the massive glacier and I wanted their view—close enough to see the veins of the ice—but the captain said the calving made it dangerous to get that close. But we did get an icy closeup of another kind when the ship’s stewards pulled a 30-pound block of ice onto the deck, chipping it up to put in “glacial ice margaritas” later in the day. For now, though, we tore ourselves away from the icy spectacle and traveled deeper into the park.
As we sailed along, we were greeted by bald eagles perched on cliffs and puffins skirting the water alongside the boat. And we got to see some Steller sea lions, including an enormous bull, basking on large rocks in the warm sun. As the sea lions slept, we watched amusingly as a young pup anxiously wanted to play, making his way to each family member and interrupting their sleep like a toddler. But the adults put him in his place and he gave up, lying down to nap alongside the others.
It was nap time, too, for a colony of seals we saw, also resting on rocks. As we passed them, we heard it again: the unmistakable sound of a spouting whale. We sailed its way and found It was another humpback, its massive tail towering above the water before splashing on the surface, making giant waves as it came crashing down.
Our trip was coming to an end, but I was still hoping to see orcas, something I had dreamed of since watching the movie “Free Willy” as a kid. Just then, the captain announced that a nearby boat had picked up on the echo of an orca call. We shifted into high gear and headed to the location, hoping to see the beautiful black and white creatures.
As we made our way closer, we saw our sister ship docked in the water—a good sign that whales were in the area. And then, magically, two black fins emerged from the water, their spouting sounds so crystal clear it brought a smile to everyone’s face. Four more fins appeared; it was a whole pod of orcas! The matriarch’s fin showed that she was in charge, and a small fin nearby made clear that there was also a baby calf in the group.
A group of us stood on the open-air bow, trying to catch a better glimpse of these magnificent beings. Suddenly an orca dove beneath the boat and appeared right next to us, giving us all a show! This was truly my favorite moment of the cruise, watching the majestic orca cavort, with its distinctive black-and-white-markings a stark contrast against the water’s deep turquoise.
Being on the water felt like home to me, and seeing the diverse array of marine life felt like the perfect way to spend my birthday. I closed my eyes and felt a sense of gratitude wash over me; I was so lucky to get to spend the day surrounded by such beauty. The best part, though, was the time I spent with my sister on the boat. We laughed, marveled at the scenery, watched the sun set over the fjords, and enjoyed each other's company. It was an unforgettable day—one that I will cherish forever.