Each year after the season ends in October, we look back at the highlights, wildlife encounters, changes in glaciers, and favorite memories from the season. This season looked a little bit different.
We began our cruising season on March 7th with our Gray Whale Watching Cruise. This cruise is popular among locals and shoulder season travelers who are looking to get out on the water before peak season. This year our early season cruises were treated to an abundance of Dall’s porpoise, orcas, and snow! With great wildlife, updated vessels, and returning crew, it was shaping up to be our best season yet. However, just 10 days after we started cruises we had to completely shut down and hunkerdown with the emergence of COVID-19 across the world, in our country and in Alaska.
Our operations were halted from March 17th to May 23rd, but our team continued to work to improve customer experience and traveler safety. During the hiatus our operations team worked tirelessly on new practices for reserved seating, a safer way to serve lunch on board, and equipped the boats with plexiglass, hand sanitizers, and contactless check-ins.
As we patiently waited for guests to be able to return, the word on everyone’s mind was “positivity”, and we continued to stay positive throughout the entire season for our staff and our guests. One thing that helped us stay positive was the wildlife. Captain Laura perfectly described what it was like returning to the sea: “Last spring, when boat tourism was not permitted in Kenai Fjords, we walked to the harbor anyway and painted the decks with that gritty paint that keeps you from slipping. On the nicer days we would occasionally squint down the gateway towards the national park, as if from 11 miles away we might see a fin or a spout or some colossal glacier calving just around the corner. That phrase came to mind, “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone . . . ?” And so when the green light was finally given, and the dock lines were dropped, we, the crew and I and those first seasonal visitors, departed with a heightened sense of what was to come, if anything. We found, even more so than expected, the seals seemed easier to find at first, the sea lions nearer to town, the puffins, somehow more colorful. And then, right on Day 1, that big black fin cut through the water, perhaps oblivious to us, perhaps profoundly aware, but orcas nonetheless, 5 black and white creatures where seconds ago nothing had been, plying the rich green water with their seasonal visit, reassuring us that all was still well, out in the Park.”
Killer whales were spotted on our first cruise back on the water, and continued to be spotted every day for almost a month. Our lives may have changed drastically, but being back on the water with our familiar pods of resident orca whales brought a calmness and hope over both crew and passengers. Through the rest of the season, our captains reported on some incredible wildlife encounters. On our 6 Hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise on June 15th, Captain Chris reported “Outstanding day! Whales everywhere, tail-lobbing humpbacks, 3 pods of orcas spy hopping, breaching, and swimming under the boat! Best orca day of the season so far!” So with days like these, positivity was easily achieved.
We safely made it through the season with a healthy crew and happy guests, and we can’t thank everyone enough for their hard work and their excitement of exploring the fjords. The silver lining of this season has been with the Alaskan locals. The resilient Alaskans took advantage of our state this year and helped support local tourism businesses. We had so many locals on board that had lived in Alaska their whole lives and were cruising the fjords for their first time, some of them even seeing whales for the first time. Getting to explore Seward and the Kenai Peninsula was at the top of to-do lists for many of our residents, and supporting locally owned companies like Major Marine Tours and Harbor 360 Hotel was very much reflected in Alaskans this year.
We are now in the off-season and continuing to adjust our practices to the changing global environment and travel needs. We remain positive and optimistic about our cruises going into 2021, and we can’t wait to see everyone again in Kenai Fjords National Park.