Saturday, 23 June 2012

Lindblad in Alaska: George Island, Elfin Cove and The Inian Islands

Pic: The tiny fishing port of Elfin Cove, Alaska, where no-one owns a car and there are no roads. (Roderick Eime)

by  Doug Gualtieri, Lindblad Expeditions Naturalist Staff  

Thursday 21 June 2012

Summer Solstice 2012: George Island, Elfin Cove and The Inian Islands

The longest day of the year began with partly sunny skies and still conditions setting a stage for our adventures that would utilize every bit of The Midnight Sun. Before breakfast National Geographic Sea Bird spent nearly an hour passively watching a lone sea otter that remained at the surface and gave our guests a most inviting show. This was a good omen for what was to follow the rest of the day.

Today our exploration would be focused on a very productive and dynamic area of Southeast Alaska. A cluster of islands situated at the northwestern entrance of Icy Strait and lying east of Cross Sound, a body of water open to the Pacific Ocean and The Gulf of Alaska. This was first explored in 1794 by George Vancouver and his vessel The H.M.S. Discovery in their quest to find the elusive Northwest Passage. Though the passage was never charted on that historic expedition much of this wild and unexplored land and seascape was, including our first destination of the day, George Island. Geologically unique and located at the leading edge of the Pacific Ocean in this archipelago George Island also has an interesting historical past as well. Given its location this island served as a defensive military outpost with a six inch artillery piece installed on the rocky cliffs overlooking the opening to the protected waters of the Inside Passage for part of World War II. Aside from the unique geology and history of this island the natural beauty and productive waters around it make it a wonderful location to explore both on foot and by sea. While hikers trekked on the well maintained trail through the Sitka spruce forest to the gun emplacement others chose to paddle our kayaks along the rugged coast surrounded by rafts of kelp forests. Still yet, some of our shipmates set out in our Zodiac to circumnavigate this island and behold the wild scenery and abundant marine life. Among the highlights of these outings were dozens of Pigeon Guillemots rafting on the surface and clinging to the rocky walls, sea otters lounging on the surface, a lone harbor porpoise surfacing near the zodiac and lastly two humpback whales casually making their way across the sound. This encounter with these magnificent animals at close quarters in the open ocean will be a lasting memory for all that experienced it.

Just a "stone's throw" away, in Alaskan terms, from George Island lies the quaint and unique hamlet of Elfin Cove. Tucked neatly away in what's lovingly referred to as "The Gunk Hole" by the locals this boardwalk community of less than 20 year round residence would serve as an interesting halftime to our day. After lunch we were invited to come ashore and stroll the 300 yards or so boardwalk acting as the community's causeway. With a past rich in both commercial and sport fishing Elfin Cove brings to life on way humans have adapted to live in this environment.

Our third portion of The Lindblad Trifecta would prove to be the perfect way to wrap up our exploration of this incredible part of Southeast Alaska. The Inian Islands, and archipelago forming the vanguard to the northern entrance of The Inside Passage acts as a sieve and funnel to powerful tidal forces that twice daily influence this ecosystem. Long a favorite of our staff to share with our guest the islands would not disappoint. Not only had the skies cleared to a deep blue accented by high wisps of clouds but the marine life and birds came out on stage to thrill us all. Steller sea lions are well acquainted with the productive and predictable nature of the tidal surges that rip through the openings the islands afford. Hauling out on any available piece of real estate these social, charismatic, brutish and noisy animals were present in high numbers and with the aid once again of our fleet of Zodiacs we were able to get up close and personal to these nearly 2,000 pound animals. Several guests also got a great look at a handful of Tufted Puffins, an emblematic inhabitant of the waters and cliffs in this area.

With a seemingly full day under our belts we returned to National Geographic Sea Bird for evening recap and dinner. While this author was "supervising" kids movie night in the lounge and writing this report a noticeable change in our course and speed was detected. Looking out the windows of the lounge the first of many humpback whale flukes was seen. Having navigated to the scenic waters around Point Adolphus our Chief Mate had spotted several blows of whales and positioned the ship for what would be an incredible evening of whale watching under the setting Summer Solstice sun. With well over a dozen whales surrounding us a particularly playful calf of the year and its' two Steller sea lion companions held everyone's attention for well over an hour. The calf when not by its mother's side was performing an incredibly diverse set of play behaviors from breaching to rolling over on its dorsal side exposing an all-white belly. All the while a pair of sea lions frolicked about in close proximity in what looked at times to be a well-choreographed ballet between these two very different marine mammals. The longest day of the year concluded with the sun setting behind the peaks of The Fairweather range and golden spouts from humpback whale blows on the horizon.