An hour and a half form Anchorage, or a two hour drive from Seward is the small coastal town of Whittier on Prince William Sound. The only way to reach Whittier is through a very, very long train tunnel through the mountain. At the top of the hour, cars and trucks can go in, at 15 minutes past, the trains can go out, at the half hour, cars can leave, and at 45 minutes past, trains can go in. This was just one of the highlights of Whittier.
Whittier is a small town clustered around a harbor. Fishing and tourism are the main occupations, and cruise ships, tour boats, and fishing fleets clog the tiny cove. The sky was clear that June day, perfect for a glacier cruise and the sunlight glaring off the water was intense. The temperatures were still brisk in the low 50s. The tourists, like me, were all bundled to the hilt with gloves, hats, scarves, and winter jackets, while the natives around town were quite comfortable in their sweaters and jeans.
The cruise began its journey crossing the small cove to the other side where hundreds of sea gulls were swarming near a waterfall. It was exhilarating to watch them dance, spin and twirl in unison.
Further up the cove towards open water we saw salmon fisheries that provided a safe place for adult salmon to begin their life long quest up the rivers to spawn, and a haven for the youngsters when they hatched.
The boat chugged along past huge snow capped mountains with waterfalls tumbling into the sea and glaciers carving their way to the water’s edge.
Large family groups of sea otters, called rafts, dotted the glassy water. Sea otters are the only marine mammals that do not have blubber to keep them warm. They are constantly grooming themselves by blowing air into their fur to keep an air layer between their skin and the water to conserve body heat. They have the thickest fur of any mammal on Earth with over two million hairs per square inch. The sea otters held their paws out of the water where skin was exposed while flicking their large web feet to keep a good distance from the boat.
We continued into a deep fjord to the end where a glacier jutted up against the sea. Here we saw the magical blue ice of a glacier that I had only seen in pictures.
The glacier was several stories tall, and though we floated at least half a mile away, we still could hear the snap, crackle, and pop of the glacier calving and crashing into the water below. Large harbor seals popped their heads above water to see what all the hullabaloo was about.
The adventure continued past more glaciers, through mazes of large chunks of ice, and watching the wildlife watch us. Sea gulls floated on a mound of blue ice, a mountain goat picked his way along the green side of a mountain, layers of ice and snow hid barren rocky peaks and waterfalls trickled down from the glaciers.
Our last sight of sea life was a small loose raft of sea otters. Some of the sea otters huddled together or dove below the surface, while mothers grabbed their buoyant babies and speedily swam away from the large, noisy boat. As we neared the harbor, an eagle soared high above the water on the other side, scanning for fish. As cold as I was, I was actually disappointed that the tour was over. Thankfully, I knew it would not be my last wildlife sightseeing tour in the large vast wilderness of Alaska.