Spring Wildlife & Photo
Join us to experience and photograph the richness and wonder that is spring in Alaska — tens of thousands of migrating birds, marine mammals, and often bears, fresh out of a long winter of hibernation, now basking in some of the best weather of the year. Experience the endless days in the land of the midnight sun! One of Discovery Voyages’ popular annual Alaska Photography Tours, this spring voyage offers unsurpassed photographic opportunities, flight seeing, kayaking and short hikes to spectacular scenic vistas. This trip is guided by world-class naturalist, photographer and guide, Hugh Rose. Hugh describes the Discovery Spring Wildlife and Photography Voyage in Prince William Sound as one of his favorite wilderness tours in the world, and comparable to summer tours he does annually in Antarctica and South Georgia. Look for dates and prices for specific trips below. The itinerary below also applies to 2017, with the dates of May 6-18, Cordova to Whittier.
May 3 to May 15, 2016: Cordova to Whittier
The itinerary will target special areas for key bird observations, as well as the wildlife that congregates due the surge of the marine food web in Prince William Sound. With the leisure of 8 days aboard the Discovery, plenty of time exists for visits to our favorite places which include calving glaciers, whales, and other phenomenon of the region. Kayaking and hiking are also popular activities.
Trip Leaders: Outstanding resident naturalist and great personality, Hugh Rose, has led Alaska trips since 1991 with unending praise for his amazing attention to every detail and everyone’s needs. He has an extensive knowledge of all aspects of Alaskan natural history from bird behavior to geology. He is also a professional photographer. Captain Rand is captain of the wonderful “Discovery” and knows Prince William Sound and all the special places in the Sound probably better than anyone else after more than 30 years of full time experience on Alaska’s waters. Dean is also a naturalist and photographer.
Arrive Cordova where you will be met by Hugh Rose this afternoon for transportation to the Orca Adventure Lodge. A trip orientation dinner at Orca Adventure Lodge will kick off your three days of birding and photography on the scenic Copper River Delta.
Our day starts with a tour of the picturesque coastal community of Cordova, nestled along the mountainous shores of Eastern Prince William Sound, on the perimeter of the Copper River Delta. A stay in historic Cordova with time spent exploring the Copper River and Delta should be on everyones “bucket list.” In spring life pulses in this small town of 3,000 residents, as commercial fishermen bustle about the harbor and the Delta comes alive with migrating birdlife. The region’s resource rich “gifts of the sea” are vital to the survival of this seafaring community.
The rest of our day will be spent exploring the coastal habitat of eastern Prince William Sound around Cordova. Orca Adventure Lodge will serve as home base during the stay in Cordova providing all meals and lodging.
Day 3: The Copper River Delta
Day 4: The Copper River Delta
Travel to Hartney Bay to see concentrations of up to 100,000 shorebirds flying in huge flocks and feeding on the mudflats. This is a truly unforgettable sight for the birder and remarkable for the photographer! Weather permitting there will be an opportunity to do a scenic flight over the Delta with optional landing on the Gulf of Alaska coast (extra fee).
The cruise begins in Eastern Prince William Sound. Sail west through Orca Inlet and into Orca Bay watching for Bald Eagles, sea otters, sea lions and a host of resident and migratory bird life. View large groups of Common Murres, Long-tailed ducks, gulls, murrelets, mergansers, scoters and cormorants to name a few of the species that over-winter in the Sound’s protected waters. Abundant concentrations of small fish and crustaceans serve as a critical fuel source for the epic migrants, the Arctic Terns, as well as phalaropes, jaegers and loons commonly viewed along this route. Flocks of acrobatic shorebirds fly rhythmically and in unison, sweeping and turning along the convoluted shores. It’s a wonder how these tiny and delicate creatures travel such great distances. Some species travel 1,900 miles in 48 hours!
On to Sheep Bay and Sahlin Falls for a gourmet dinner. After dinner, we’ll launch the inflatable boats and explore an adjacent saltwater lagoon at the head of Sheep Bay. The shallow waters and intertidal shores of the lagoon offer a bounty of food for birds, waterfowl and land animals. Harlequin ducks, black oystercatchers, and other foragers enjoy the blue mussels, limpets and clams of the intertidal zone. During this time of year, juvenile salmon (fry) migrate out from the nearby freshwater streams into the lagoon and serve as an important food source for diving birds such as murres, mergansers, guillemots, murrelets, loons, scoters etc. Both Black and Brown bears may be occasionally observed foraging along the shores. As opportunistic feeders, the bears scavenge for animal carcasses, graze on the new growth grasses, overturn rocks in the intertidal zone in search for small crabs and fish, and feed on Pacific Herring egg masses, recently spawned and drifted on shore. Anchor for the evening in the serene waters of Sheep Bay.
Day 6: Prince William Sound
We continue west and south through the Sound’s southern-most barrier islands, observing the birds and wildlife along the way. The nutrient rich waters of the Gulf of Alaska pour into the Sound through Hinchinbrook Entrance, a narrow passage way between Hinchinbrook and Montague islands. As we near the Entrance, catch a view looking out of the protected Sound to the expansive Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Ocean. The ocean currents bring much of the region’s food (in the form of plankton and small fishes) through this waterway creating a popular feeding ground for birds, fish and marine mammals including both Humpback and Orcas. To observe the sights and sounds of these powerful, but gentle giants of the sea, is truly a remarkable experience.
If time permits, enjoy a casual walk along the shore of Montegue Island at low tide or hike into the world’s northernmost temperate rain forest, rich with ferns, mosses, and towering spruce, hemlock and cedar. After a brief scramble through the shore side timber, the terrain opens up into peatland bogs of mosses, lichens, grasses, tiny wild flowers and bonsai-like hemlocks with small fen waterways trickling through it all. Unforgettable. Relax in the evening to a delicious meal and enjoy a pleasant evening anchorage along the area’s quiet shores.
Day 7: Prince William Sound
Our trip coincides with the peak of the Pacific herring season in Prince William Sound and the herring spawn can be thick along the shores. This food source draws tens of thousands of migrating sea birds, presenting a feast of great proportions for both wildlife and photographer. We’ll remain flexible and opportunistic in order to capitalize on local marine activity or special wildlife sightings. Destinations may include St. Matthew’s Bay and Columbia Bay.
Within a single bay it is possible to see flocks of 40,000 Glaucous-winged Gull, mixed groups of more than 30,000 Surfbirds and Black Turnstones, several thousand Common Murres, Long-tailed ducks, Pelagic and Red-faced cormorants, Horned and Red-necked grebes, Pigeon Guillemots, Marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets, Common and Red-breasted mergansers, Arctic, Red throated and Yellow-billed loons, Horned and Tufted puffins, groups of Mew, Bonaparte’s, and Herring gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Harlequin Ducks, Surf and White-winged scoters, Arctic and Aleutian terns, and hundreds of Bald Eagles. These are joined on occasion by Brown Bears, several hundred Settler’s Sea Lions, pods of Orcas and breaching Humpback Whales.
Day 8: Prince William Sound
The theme of a casual morning breakfast continues as the Discovery sails north up a 20-mile-long long fjord which terminates at one of the most spectacular tidewater glaciers in Prince William Sound. Near the glacier, enjoy a kayak excursion that enables you to thread through the many icebergs that have recently fallen from the 200- to 300-foot face of the glacier. Sea otters and hundreds of harbor seals make the inlet their summer home. If you’re quiet and lucky, you can paddle up close to seals resting on the bergs. Arctic Terns, Bald Eagles, and other birds frequent the area, and kayaks serve as a gentle and quiet mode of travel to access this magical fjord.
Enjoy a shoreside hike, which takes you up the hill adjacent to the glacier and opens a tremendous view of this river of ice, bending down through the mountain valleys. This glacier’s terminus has been slowly advancing down Unakwik Inlet while most glaciers globally are receding. The scene for visitors is one where the sides of this massive hundred-foot-plus blue-white face is pushing into the temperate rainforest consisting of not just mosses, ferns, and lichens, but also huge 400-year old western hemlock and Sitka spruce. A short visit here to see this ongoing event is a must. Afterwards relax on board with appetizers. Enjoy the sounds of ice tumbling into the sea, while the chef prepares a fine evening meal and the Discovery turns to head southward again to a quiet evening anchorage.
Day 9: Prince William Sound
The shores of Unakwik Inlet are lined with rich old growth sitka spruce, western hemlock, and rarer Alaska yellow cedar. The glacial ice floating in this fiord often have sea otters and harbor seals hauled out onto them resting or otherwise socializing. Later in the summer months, there can be large runs of salmon working their way to natal streams located in the area. This draws commercial fishing activity, which can be interesting to witness. This large mass of salmon, when reaching their streams, can also become food for the local black bears, who are interesting to watch and photograph as they feed their way along the stream banks and channels fattening up for the long winter to come.
Leaving the inlet, we stop to view Cascade Falls, a 300 ft. high waterfall that thunders fresh water into Eaglek Bay. After a visit to the falls, travel south along the bay’s remote shores to visit the Oyster Farm of Pristine Products. The oyster lover will enjoy a taste of one of the Sound’s most delicious sea products, fresh “Pristine” oysters.
Day 10: Prince William Sound
Depending on time and interests, we will head to the Nellie Juan Glacier, a remnant of the force which carved these waterways many years in the past. A short kayak paddle or skiff ride to the face of the glacier is well worth the effort. The ice floating in the glacial lagoon can be highly photogenic and, for whatever reason, Nellie Juan has the most blue colored ice of all the glaciers in Prince William Sound. The onshore hiking in this area is some of our favorite in the entire 10,000 square mile region. As the glaciers here have receded, they’ve left behind miles of smoothed granite with pockets of bonsai forest pioneering their way back into this new land. The snow capped peaks make way to countless waterfalls with the warming of the summer. This is one of those places that you could spend weeks exploring and never tire of “what’s around the next bend.”
Day 11: College Fjord, Cascade Falls and Knight Island
Awake to a casual breakfast and an exciting day as we head to Barry Arm and Harriman Fiord for our final full day aboard the Discovery. The enveloping mountains of this inlet stretch skyward to nearly 10,000 feet, with glacier after glacier descending the terraced mountain valleys. Alaska’s lush rainforest vegetation drapes the hillsides in green as streaming waterfalls fall from the rocky cliffs. Listen to the cracks, pops and thunderous roars of the Cascade, Barry and Coxe glaciers while the Discovery, dwarfed by blue and white walls, drifts silently by these actively calving rivers of ice.
For those who wish for a different perspective, the Discovery crew will launch the inflatable Zodiacs for a guided exploration of this magnificent area. Touch the impressive face of Coxe glacier, watch the showy Black Oystercatchers strut across the rocky shorelines, sense the presence of the curious Hoary marmots and drink in the bright pinks of fireweed and the intense blues of the alpine lupine.
After lunch, spend time exploring the wonders of Harriman Fjord and Surprise Glacier. There will be more opportunities to capture sea otters and harbor seals hauled out on flotillas of ice that has recently crashed from the face of the glacier, and time to hunt for other shots you may have missed. Walk along the shore among beached icebergs stranded by the ebbing tide, another interesting subject, or take an upland hike for spectacular views of the Chugach mountain range and broad glacial valleys. Then the Discovery will explore deeper into the ice filled fjord for a chance to kayak and up to the face of Harriman Glacier. On this journey, you’re entertained by families of playful sea otters foraging the shellfish-rich shallow waters of their favorite feeding ground. As a protected species, these otters exhibit little concern for human presence, instead offering great opportunities for photos and up-close observations. Nature offers few chances to see animals in the wild as “cute” and adorable as these mothers with young pups.
Day 12: Return to Whittier and drive to Anchorage
After breakfast on board the Discovery and a walk on shore to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the Sound one last time, or photograph the beached icebergs at the Black Sand beach we depart for the 4-hour cruise back to Whittier. Our last stop will be to visit the bustling black-legged kittiwake colony located across Passage Canal from Whittier. This picturesque colony of over 5,000 birds is located on a 200 foot cliff with three waterfalls pouring down its face. It is a buzz of activity. Upon our arrival into Whittier Harbor and bidding a fond farewell to the Discovery and her crew we will drive by van through the longest car tunnel in North America, from Whittier to Bear Valley/Portage. A different world awaits us on the other side as we drive along the scenic shores of Turnagain Arm and return to Anchorage. Accommodations included in downtown Anchorage.
Day 13: Homeward Bound
Departures home will be at your convenience. The airport is a short ride from downtown.
Not included: A gratuity to The Discovery crew or anyone else of exemplary service. While complimentary beverages and drinks (wine, beer, sodas, water, juice, etc) are included onboard the Discovery they are not always included at our land-based accommodations. Transportation to and from the airport and land accommodations in Cordova and Anchorage not included. Guide will provide orientation upon arrival with details.
Reading and Field Guides: We recommend Field Guide to the Birds of North America, published by National Geographic and the Guide to the Birds of Alaska by Armstrong. The Discovery also has a nice library on board with many field guides.