A tour boat in front of Holegate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska.
Well, back to Kenai Fjords. The easiest way to experience this amazing park is on a boat tour. Which tour is one question I am frequently asked, and since I have a lot of opinions on the subject, I thought I would write about them here today.
Most companies offer half and full-day tours. Now this is the most important advice I have to give – whatever you do, make sure you take the full-day tour. The full day tour takes you over to Aialik Bay and up close to at least one very active tidewater glacier. Seeing and hearing a glacier calve into the ocean is definitely a peak experience! You will see glaciers in the half day tour, but they are off in the distance, and none of them are tidewater glaciers.
The other big advantage of the full-day tour is the whale viewing. I have heard different numbers, but I think in the neighborhood of 90% of the full day tours see whales. Orcas and humpbacks are the most prevalent, but you never know what you might see. I have seen plenty of whales on half day tours, but they are not nearly as common, and you don’t have as much time to spend watching them as you do on the full-day tours. The full day tour will also visit some wonderful bird rockeries full of puffin and other colorful birds.
The full day tours do cost more, but if you have spent the money to come all the way to Alaska, now isn’t the time to start saving.
One of the nice thing about the tour operators in Seward; the captains all cooperate and share wildlife sightings, and even coordinate their arrivals so that aren’t multiple boats watching the same animal.
The other frequent question I receive is what tour company do I recommend? Fortunately, I can honestly say they are all excellent, and you won’t go wrong with any of them. Here are the main competitors, and I have made multiple trips with each of them over the years:
Kenai Fjords Tours is the biggest operator and they have a nice fleet of boats, and great captains. Unfortunately, most of their nicer boats (like the one pictured) don’t have a lot of outside viewing space. Most passengers prefer to be inside out of the rain where they can stay warm and dry, but for photographers, we need outside deck space so that we aren’t trying to photograph through the windows. Kenai Fjords Tours does have one nice option – it is called the Mariah Tour. It is on fairly small, slower boat, but you will have plenty of deck space. This tour does cost more, and take more time, but I think is the way to go if you are using Kenai Fjords Tours.
Renown Tours – Renown has a catamaran that is not only large, but fast, and has plenty of outside viewing space. Most tours seem to be about the same length in time – timed around the arrival and departure of the Alaska Railroad. Since the time is fixed, faster boats are nice because they provide you more time to sit in front of the glacier, and for whale watching, as they are able to make up time while in route. Renown also provides every passenger a nice little small book with our photos and interpretive information.
Major Marine Tours. Major Marine has large, but slower boats, along with plenty of outside viewing space. Major also offers a very nice prime rib buffet that can be very enjoyable. Each passenger on Major is assigned a table, so you have a nice spot to call your own, this is great for storing extra gear. The other tours are first come first seated, so you kink of need to stake out a location, and if you are outside a lot, you can lose your spot. In addition, Major Marine also provides its passengers a copy of the same book as Renown.
Weather Permitting. A great option that most people are not aware of is Weather Permitting. This company also shuttles kayakers, so you will likely be riding along with people doing part day and even multi-day kayak trips. One of the treats with Weather Permitting is that you will probably run up on a beach for drop off and pick up giving you a chance to walk around a bit. If you would like, you can opt for a quick kayak paddle, or explore Aialik in their boat while waiting for the kayakers. Since they are a small operation, their schedule varies, so I would talk to them about your particular needs.
Others. Alaska Northern Outfitters offered a great tour, but I think they have switched entirely to fishing charters. There are some other small operators with excellent reputations such as Alaska Saltwater Lodge – I have limited my comments to tour operators that I have actually used.
I do what I can to avoid the full boats, but in the middle of summer, that is hard to do. In general, the early morning, and evening tours tend to be less crowded.
Sea sickness can effect some people – for the full-day tour, you do spend some time in the Gulf of Alaska as you round the peninsula that helps form Aialik Bay. Some days can be dead calm, others so rough the tour has to be cancelled. If you need sea sick medicine, take it before you depart- if you wait until you begin feeling sick, it is too late. The larger vessels tend to handle rough weather better – that is one reason I referenced boat size in my discussion of the different tour operators.
The full day tour is a wonderful trip, and no two are the same – just make sure you have plenty of film / digital cards and batteries!