Wild Alaska: Cruising the Bering Sea Jul 11—25, 2013

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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For most of us, our notion of “Alaska” is a land of noble scenery, a bigger than life “last frontier” punctuated by high mountains, vast glaciers, wild animals, and the midnight sun. Such visions of Alaska are, in fact, accurate. Alaska is a land of arresting landscapes; its wildlife is spectacular; and it is a frontier, honed by rugged climactic conditions and equally rugged terrain. However, the Alaska of Anchorage, the Alaska of salmon-filled rivers, and the Alaska of Mt. McKinley are also places long since discovered by the “mainstream.”

For those who seek more adventure, an opportunity to travel where even most Alaskans will never get to, there is the Bering Sea, a wild and lightly populated region awash in wildlife, history, and remote island outposts.

Our “Wild Alaska” voyage afforded the privilege of spending two weeks at sea tracing a route from Seward to Nome, seeking a pageant of marine and terrestrial wildlife aboard a beautiful ship. Our encounters with the natural history of the far north were superb from start to finish, ranging from behemoth Orcas and Humpback Whales at close range to Beringean tundra carpeted in diminutive wildflowers.

A peculiarity of Bering Sea cruises is that no two routes are the same from one year to the next. For the 2013 cruise, our route brought exposure to a number of western Alaska locations that we’ve seldom experienced in the past, including the Triplet Islands and Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula, and the obscure Semidi and Shumagin island groups, all places we visited during the first week. Highlights occurred on a daily basis and featured a diversity of birds and bird spectacles, mammals, landscapes, and ecosystems. Our first day out of Anchorage was unforgettable for the Dall Sheep we spied on the cliffs above Turnagain Arm and for the family groups of Orcas and Humpback Whales we encountered offshore of Kenai Fjords National Park. In the Triplet Islands we were treated to thousands of Tufted Puffins, while on Kodiak a hike at historic Fort Abercrombie yielded our only forest birding of the trip. At Geographic Harbor on the opposite side of the Shelikof Strait, our super-close views of Sea Otters and Brown Bears was an experience nonpareil.

Entering the Bering Sea at Dutch Harbor, we cruised into a world most birders and naturalists could only dream about. Here in the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean exists an extraordinary food-rich ecosystem that nourishes some of the planet’s greatest wildlife concentrations. Tracing a nearly arrow-straight north-south transect up the length of the Bering Sea, we voyaged through broad stretches of ocean and landed on distant beaches in a manner that recalled the efforts of men like Vitus Bering, James Cook, and George Vancouver during the great Era of Exploration. The lineup of outposts we sought included Unalaska, the Pribilof Islands, St. Matthew and Hall, St. Lawrence Island, and even Little Diomede, before reaching the Arctic Circle midway between Alaska and Russia.

The roll call of wildlife sightings from our second week at sea was as compelling as that from the first. Among our more vivid  memories were the concentration of over 100 Bald Eagles in Dutch Harbor; close encounters with Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses; thousands of Northern Fulmars, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Short-tailed Shearwaters, and a variety of alcids at sea; recording 14 species of alcids overall including less common birds such as Kittlitz’s Murrelet and Whiskered Auklet; the mesmerizing sights of millions of seabirds thronging cliff-side nesting colonies at St. George, Hall, Savoonga, and Little Diomede; and, perhaps the favorite of some, enjoying a sun-splashed morning at St. Matthew highlighted by McKay’s Buntings, Snowy Owls, and Insular Voles.

No less significant was the mammal life; our sightings comprised a veritable “Who’s Who” of North Pacific specialties including the endangered Steller’s Sea Lion, more Orcas and Humpbacks, Dall’s Porpoise, Northern Fur Seals, Arctic and Red foxes, and, perhaps best of all, a herd of 60 Walrus hauled out on the tip of Big Diomede Island. As if that weren’t enough, our welcoming committee in Nome on the final morning came in the form of Musk Ox right in town!  

The trip was not without its challenges, to be sure, and this year, the challenge was fog, which we had in varying degrees on most days. That aside, this was a joyous trip on many fronts. One of the real pleasures was the opportunity to partner with Zegrahm Expeditions, a respected name in nature-based adventure travel. While our interests were primarily natural history based, this program offered something for everyone including healthy doses of history, cultural performances, and contact with indigenous communities.