Alaska Cruise Report: Pavlof Harbor & Chatham Strait

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska June 16, 2010

A number of us began the morning aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion on the aft bridge deck, greeting the day with sun salutations and stretches to ready ourselves for the activities ahead. Several Dall’s porpoises provided entertainment as they glided effortlessly through the waves, and the scenery was stunning through the misty clouds.

After breakfast we went ashore at Pavlof Harbor, a protected inlet on Chichagof Island at the entrance of Freshwater Bay. Originally named for Gavan Pavlof, a Russian fur trader from the mid-nineteenth century, the bay was important for procuring fresh water for the trappers. There is a low waterfall at the terminus of the river, equipped with a fish ladder to help the salmon swim back upstream to their spawning grounds.

Guests had the option of kayaking, hiking, Zodiac cruising, or simply enjoying the scenery from the comfort of the ship. Many chose to do several activities and the plethora of interesting sights kept everyone engaged for the entire morning. The hikes began with a peek at a shallow cave encrusted with sulphur crystals and ended with a walk along the shore, looking at dozens of sea stars in all sizes and colors. The critters ranged from purple to orange to a pale yellow and the largest were up to 8 inches wide. Several hikers even got a good glimpse at a brown mink carrying a crab between its teeth.

The kayakers also had good luck with the natural flora and fauna of the bay. It was low tide, and a large rocky island provided excellent viewing of frilled anemones, kelp gardens, and more sea stars. As the tide continued to recede, the anemones retracted their cauliflower-like tentacles as they became exposed to the air. Lion’s mane jellyfish slowly undulated through the clear, cold water, their long stinging tentacles streaming behind them as they rose to the surface. The largest jelly in the world, the lion’s mane can reach up to eight feet wide!

Those who opted for Zodiac cruises were not disappointed either. Several found themselves in close proximity to a humpback whale and several harbor seals, who curiously eyed the guests from a safe distance.

Everyone returned to the ship just before lunch and after the anchor was raised, we headed out into Chatham Strait in search of wildlife. One of our naturalists, Tom Ritchie, gave a lecture on furry marine mammals and shortly after his talk, our cruising was happily interrupted by humpback whales. The first sighting was of a mother with her calf swimming in unison near the ship. Later in the afternoon, the bridge spotted several whale blows and we spent over an hour watching the humpbacks as they surrounded the ship and emitted blows back-dropped by snow-capped mountains. A few guests even saw one fully breach.

As the sunlight slowly faded after dinner, we continued to search for whales. We were rewarded by close encounters of Steller’s sea lions and the dark flicker of whale flukes as the immense animals dove beneath the water surface.

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