Amazing Underwater Moms: Day Eleven on the Alaska Road Trip

Today felt more like a study-abroad adventure than a structured family road trip. For once, we had not booked a boat ahead of time, so we had to walk down to the harbor, meet captains, and figure out our day.

With seabirds in mind, we decided on a half-day cruise on Star of the Northwest. Before our noon departure, we had time to duck into the world-renowned Alaska SeaLife Center, a science-focused aquarium partially funded by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I’d tried and tried to get an internship here this summer, but they didn’t have any spots open, so it was fun to finally meet the aquarists and see the exhibits now.

The best part was the walk-in seabird aviary. We spent the whole morning in here, birding at close range with our binoculars and camera, and we left knowing we’d be back for more in the evening. (Happily, the Center is open til 9 pm.)

A captive horned puffin. We hoped to see one in the wild this afternoon!

A red-legged kittiwake. These live out in the Aleutians, but we hoped to see its cousin, the black-legged kittiwake, today.

Maybe to make up for our tundra hike, today’s boating weather was fantastic.

Leaving Seward for Resurrection Bay.

We witnessed blue glaciers sitting in their cirque basins or calving into the ocean.

A cirque glacier.

The dark line in the middle of this valley glacier is where two glaciers merged, but will never fully touch.

The dramatic change from blue to gray water color was the result of "glacial flour," fine-grained sediment torn up by moving ice.

The company bragged that a Kenai Fjords National Park Ranger would be onboard. Although she was cheerful and educational, our ranger confessed she didn’t know much about birds. She identified the white fowl swarming around the harbor as herring and glaucous gulls, neither of which lives in the area. Luckily, the deckhand, Tim, was a self-taught birder with a sharp eye.

Double-crested (yellow face) and pelagic (wimpy butt) cormorants comingle.

He pointed out black-legged kittiwakes, glaucous-winged gulls, ravens, bald eagles, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, sooty (?) shearwaters, rhinoceros auklets, double-crested and pelagic cormorants, marbled murrelets, common murres, a kingfisher, mountain goats, harbor seals, and sea lions.

We knew we had a black-legged kittiwake when we saw those inky legs!

Juvenile kittiwakes threw us off for a while -- they have a black necklace and a cheek spot.

"Kittiwake condos" on the sea cliffs.

We saw both species of Pacific puffin in the same place: tufted (the kind we have in coastal Washington) and horned (the kind that live only up north.) Both bird species look like clowns in full costume!

Two horned puffins admire their rock.

A tufted puffin floats solo.

We pulled right up to a waterfall trickling over a rock face from the coastal rainforest and let it splash onto our heads.

Our ranger wasn’t an ornithologist, but she did share some incredible mammal facts. My mom’s favorite: humpback-whale milk is 60% fat, while human milk is only 4%. A whale calf drinks 130 gallons a day to build blubber in Alaskan waters and prepare for her journey to Hawaii for the winter. (Jane would like to mention that she, too, would not mind spending her winters in Hawaii.)

A sea lion basks in the last of the Alaskan summer's sun.

A sea otter rolls and rubs his belly fur.

We were lucky to watch several humpback whales spouting, showing their dorsal finds, fluking (showing their tails), and diving in Resurrection Bay.

Deckhand Tim spotted an aquamarine circle in the water, and as we approached, hundreds of whitish moon jellies appeared in the gloom. They had been gathering here all summer to reproduce. The aggregation is known as a “smack.”

A smack of moon jellies.

After our cruise, we were hungry. We looked at all the waterfront and main-street joints: fish and chips, expensive seafood, even a pub that turned out to serve “only the essentials – booze.” The bartender there, realizing we were not interested in a pure-beer dinner, recommended the Cookery, a trendy tapas restaurant. It was just what we were searching for, except that its starch portions were too small (more rice and bread please!) We ate halibut cheeks, kale salad with dried cherries, mustard duck pastrami, and peach cobbler.

Then back to the SeaLife Center where we watched giant barnacles sieve the water with their feet, and I petted a dozen species of sea star.

Our aquarist guide introduced this fella as a sun star (Solaster sp.) but it looks more like a sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) to me.

Jane engaged the giant Pacific octopus-keeper in a long, animated discussion of octopus motherhood.

The highlights, as Jane has transcribed them in her notebook:

The female giant Pacific octopus goes into a “den” and lays 70,000 to 150,000 eggs on strands; they hang from the ceiling. She tends them daily for twelve months, cleaning each egg with her tentacles, keeping away predators, flushing them with fresh seawater daily. She doesn’t eat a thing for the whole year. After a year they all “hatch” and float away at once. They drift in the plankton layer for an unknown number of years, growing from few millimeters to a few centimeters. The mom leaves her den after the eggs have hatched, and she is likely eaten by a predator within days.

The octopus-keeper told us about a time when the SeaLife Center’s captive octopus laid her eggs, and the keeper pulled out one strand to observe in a separate tank. The keepers cleaned and flushed the eggs daily, doing their best to keep them healthy, but within one day they were coated with algae and dying. It’s amazing that Mama Octo keeps 100,000 of them thriving for a year.

Check out this amazing You Tube video of a giant Pacific octopus’s den hatching, taken by local divers in Puget Sound (skip to the middle and the end if you don't have seven whole minutes):

We stayed in the SeaLife Center til they shut the place down.

That night, Jane checked her e-mail to find that our Alaska State Ferry, the Columbia, had broken down! We’d been shuffled onto two different vessels, our layovers had been removed or shortened, and we would be spending an extra day in Juneau. Here’s to flexibility. Goodnight.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 11 
  • Start: Seward, Alaska, United States 
  • Miles traveled: 0.5 miles (wow!) 
  • Hours driven: 0.2 (hooray!) 
  • Favorite bird sighting: horned puffin 
  • End: Seward, Alaska, United States