Alaska Cruise Report: George Island, Elfin Cove, Inian Islands

From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska, Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who has brought the luck we’re having, can it continue, and can we keep them? When we pulled up the hook this morning at Lemisurier Island, the water was glass. Clouds of birds wheeled around the early horizon—our first good views of black-legged kittiwakes, jaegers, and Bonaparte’s gulls among them. In Idaho Inlet, we were able to cruise quietly alongside a raft of sea otters. Heads and feet up out of the water, they look like creatures resting in too-short beds.

But broader seas beckoned. We headed west, toward the open Pacific Ocean and through the turbulent passes between the Inian Islands and the northern tip of Chichagof Island. Roils, boils, and swirls of blue-green water. Flocks of pelagic cormorants and glaucous-winged gulls. The gentle but unmistakable steady swell of the ocean coming in from Cross Sound. And then our anchorage at George Island. 

Here, we roamed up to the peak holding a gun emplacement set up during World War II, marveled at the supremely odd banana slug, and took advantage of the low, low tide to see what usually unseen creatures might be exposed. Tidepooling reveals a treasure-trove of oddities and wonders, from the slimy to the spined, the shelled to the shell-less. We could have peered between kelp fronds and under rocks for hours. Some of us settled into kayaks and paddled through the kelp forest ringing the island, finding one tide-exposed wall studded with gumboot chitons, those improbable, fleshy mollusks.

At lunch we welcomed Shirley from the small, coastal community of Elfin Cove. Then we had some time to range along the boardwalks of her town. Locals were out preparing their boats for the seasonal visitors that would soon arrive, and the first summer guests, hummingbirds from Mexico, were out in full force and fierce glory.

You’d think that this would be enough to call a full day, but after we repositioned the ship to a sheltered cove, we hopped into our Zodiacs and headed out for a more intimate exploration of the waters around the Inian Islands. This gateway to Southeast Alaska sluices water and creatures into Icy Strait with every tide. The burly Steller’s sea lion takes advantage of the moveable feast. What roaring. What smell. What jousting and jostling and splashing and leaping! These largest of the otarids hauled out on rocky outcroppings and rolled in the waves.

Circumnavigating the island, what slowly came to our attention was the stealth of eagles. One in a tree, we’d say. Then, upon closer inspection, it turned out there was not just one, but two. And another in mottled immature plumage on a nearby branch, and – oh!—another on that rock down by the water’s edge. Eagles everywhere.

Back on the ship, we were ready to settle in for a quiet evening, reflecting on our full day, but Southeast Alaska had a bit more in mind for us. At Pt. Adolphus, humpback whales were feeding. A low, soft cloud had brought in light rain, and we stood out on deck, listening to whales trumpet over the silver-green water. There were about fifteen whales in view around the ship, most feeding, some occasionally hurling themselves out of the water in a full breach.

Finally, the light dimmed and we turned in to catch some sleep so that tomorrow, when we ventured into further waters, we’d be as alert as we could to that day’s particular and stunning surprises.

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