Alaska Cruise Report: Icy Strait

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska July 12, 2010

We spent the day in Cross Sound and Icy Strait. These joined waterways connect the northern Inside Passage to the open ocean, and through them, tidal currents sweep enormous quantities of seawater. These currents are swift enough to stir the ocean, carrying nutrients to the sunlit surface and driving a food chain of remarkable fecundity. Planktonic underpinning culminates in creatures of extraordinary size and variety.

Nowhere are currents and their biological consequences more intense than among the Inian Islands. We dropped Zodiacs here and went for an intimate exploration. Almost immediately we encountered signs of the open ocean’s proximity. Kelp “forests” fringed the rocks, and in their canopies we found sea otters. These creatures are engagingly cute and fuzzy. Besides admiring their looks, we have good reason to appreciate the otters, since without them there would have been no Russian America and hence no State of Alaska.

In a wider channel, we saw our first sea lions. These big creatures have an abrupt style; their sudden surfacing often startled us. A stony beach seemed the ‘lions’ favorite haul-out, with dozens lying about like writhing cordwood. We kept our distance from the beach, since large groups of hauled-out sea lions are easily startled, and some of these creatures were definitely in need of beauty-rest!

Elsewhere, we found a series of big males hauled out alone. Single sea lions are less easily alarmed, so we were able to get close views of the great beasts without disturbing them. Adult male sea lions are huge, weighing as much as a buffalo bull. Rising on their strong pectoral flippers, they struck stately poses, with a certain Kitcheneresque frumpy dignity. With thick necks, golden color and a throaty roar, they very much deserve the name “lion.”

At the Inians’ northern edge, tidal currents raced with frightening speed. Whirlpools and rows of standing waves were almost a match for our Zodiacs. Disoriented by the swirling water, fish become easy prey. Sea lions patrolled in squadrons, regularly surfacing with halibut or salmon in their jaws. Gulls and eagles wheeled overhead, and dipped into the waves to snatch fish. And humpback whales swam to and fro, rising with a mighty “whoosh!”

We spent the afternoon in a quieter part of Icy Strait. Idaho Inlet is a deep cut in Chichagof Island’s northern coast. Here we went ashore to walk on former bear trails, admiring a wide variety of flowers, including sweet-smelling orchids, stinky lilies, and hot-pink burnets. Meanwhile, kayakers paddled placid waters, enjoying silence and the immensity of the surrounding landscape.

After dinner, some of us saw one of Chicagof’s famous brown bears. Though the bear, surrounded by tall grasses, was often difficult to spot, it rose on its hind feet several times, giving us a fine view. This seemed a fitting close to a spectacular day.

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