Prince William Sound Glacier and Wildlife Boat Tour with Lazy Otter Charters
Today was our day exploring Prince William Sound with Lazy Otter Charters and we were so excited to see a new part of Alaska. We had to travel to the town of Whittier which required driving through a one way tunnel that alternated directions on the hour and on the half hour so it was important to time everything so we did not miss the boat departure.
On the other side of the tunnel is also another popular trail, Portage Pass, that I thought we could knock out before the boat departure at 10AM. May have been a bit aggressive. Working backwards, if we had to be at the dock at 9:30AM, be done the trail by 9AM (being very generous), the 4.2 mile trail would take us 2 hours to complete, so that is a 7AM start, which means we needed a 6:30AM tunnel entrance time, and they recommend getting to the tunnel 20 to 30 minutes before the tunnel time, so that is 6AM, and we were about 30 minutes away in Girdwood = 5:30AM departure time! Good old vacation math.
Everything went on schedule for our 6:30AM tunnel time. The round trip toll through the bridge is $13 that is paid on your way to Whittier. The tunnel was made back for access to the harbor for World War II – before to get to Whittier required a boat ride. It is just big enough the the train to make it through which frequents the town routinely so yes, you have to drive over train tracks. Very cool!
After the Portage Pass Trail, we made the short drive to Whittier. As soon as we started driving through, we felt compelled to learn more about the town. There were tons of trains and ships so it must have been a major port city for import and export.
Here are some facts about Whittier and Prince William Sound:
- World War II had some big impacts on Whittier. Whittier became a great spot for a military base due to high mountains, cloud cover, and that the water does not freeze in the winter – there is a huge abandoned building (Camp Sullivan) remaining in town where everyone lived and was an active military fort until 1960.
- Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was built to connect Portage to isolated Whittier specifically for the war efforts. It is 2.5 miles long making it one of the longest in the country.
- Weather is quite interesting! It is the wettest city in America and it is not uncommon to have 100 mph winds. It is said to have six months of rain followed by six months of snow. But somehow, the harbor does not freeze making it an ideal port city all year round.
- It is named “the town under one roof” as almost all of the residents (about 200 of them) lived in the same condominium building.
- Whittier has not been immune to natural disasters:
- The “Good Friday” earthquake in 1964 caused millions of dollars in damages
- The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 caused 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill in Prince William Sound and is estimated to have kill hundreds of thousands of sea birds, thousands of sear otters (of which have only just returned to the area in 2014), and hundreds of seals, bald eagles, and whales.
Whittier, you are fascinating!
Interesting reading about the weather and being the wettest city in America because today must have been an exception. It was a bright sunny day and the fog was starting to burn off. The water was completely still and there was no wind. I had my fingers crossed that I would not regret a long day on a boat even with the meclizine. We met our captain (Scott from New Jersey!), boarded our small boat, and spotted a bald eagle soaring overhead. It was going to be a good day.
Originally, we booked the 8 hour “Best of Prince William Sound” tour but the company required a minimum for four people for the tour to go. Earlier in the week, we were contacted that we were still the only ones that booked and to save the trip, there was another couple booked on the 4 hour “Blackstone Glacier” tour. Lazy Otter was able to combine our two excursion into a 6 hour “Wildlife and Glacier”. Thank you to Lazy Otter for making this trip happen!
It was just the five of us on this boat and it could not have been a more intimate and personalize experience. Our captain Scott was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the life in Alaska and educating on the region. We were able to ask him just about anything and he was on it. After our safety briefing, we were out along the Sound surrounded by massive peaks.
The goal was the drive out to the farthest point and then make the stops along the way back into town. It became nearly impossible to stop taking photos and we had not even started seeing the good stuff yet! It was not long before we got our first sea otter sighting.
- Sea otters – the most OMG cute animals in Alaska! They often look like driftwood in the water so they can be hard to spot but once you see a few it gets easier. Sea Otters were originally hunted for the fur as they have the thickest of any mammal – one million hairs per square inch with no layer of blubber. They can live exclusively on the water and use their chest, rocks or teeth to break open shelled food. And speaking of teeth, they have one of the strongest bites and jaw strength among mammals so while they look cuddly, they will hurt you. Another thing to add to the cuteness – their babies live on their chest until six months of age, they form groups called rafts and hold hands with each other. These guys are awesome.
Our first stop was a rock island to see puffins! Times like these where I knew my cell phone camera would not cut it for getting a good picture of these tiny guys but I certainly tried my best. It was so cool seeing them zoom by in the air – they moved so fast – or sitting in the ocean ready to dive for food.
- Puffins – Another adorable Alaskan resident. These guys look like a toucan and a penguin cross over. They live almost exclusive at sea, bobbing in the waves where they are not diving for food. They can dive up to 200 feet! When they are in flight, it looks like they are flapping extremely fast – and they are – their wings can flap up to 400 miles per hour and reach 55 miles per hour! No wonder why I could not catch them on my camera.
Not far away was another larger island rock that housed an enormous colony of sea lions. As the boat approached, we could smell them and it took us right back to Galapagos on San Cristobal Island. These were the same loud, belching, guys down in south. We were able to spot some random enormous male sea lions that could have probably eaten one of us – we had never seen one that large. Of course it is impossible to tell the scale from the photos but trust me, enormous!
We had one more stop on the wildlife portion of this day – visiting a salmon hatchery. There are four salmon hatcheries dispersed through the Sound that assist in the salmon population numbers. Captain Scott was hopeful for some action in the area and while we approached the bay, a few sea lions were casually lounging on a buoy so it was promising more would be around looking for food.
- Salmon – there were plenty leaping out of the water… to get sea lice off of them. Very attractive, salmon! We also got a close up view later in the day of them swimming upstream. There are five types of salmon (Pink/Humpies, Chum/Dog, Coho/Silver, Sockeye/Red, and Chinook/King) and each has the ability to be born in freshwater, live in sea water, and return to fresh water to mate and ultimately die – circle of life!
At first the area looked rather calm… until we looked a bit closer and noticed thousands of salmon in the water – along with several sea lions who clearly have their pick of as many salmon as they desire. Occasionally you would see the salmon jumping in the area of aggressively swimming as a group in one direction.
We also spotted several bald eagles in this area- once you know how to spot them, they start showing up everywhere! They sit at the very tops of trees – look for golf balls among the dark tops of the trees.
It was time to switch gears to the second part of the adventure – glaciers. Now we had seen quite a few glaciers already – Exit Glacier and Harding Ice field along with the Portage Glacier on the hike this morning. Would it be different seeing the glacier on the water? Oh, yes yes yes.
I can’t recall all the names of the glaciers but we definitely hit Beloit, Blackstone, and Northland on this trip. It was such majesty to witness the tidewater glaciers, the countless waterfalls surrounding them, the ice scattered throughout the bay in from them, and sound that echoed when a piece fell into the ocean. We learned that the Harding Icefield we visited just a few days ago connects all the way to these glaciers – the Massachusetts sized ice field somehow connects Seward and Wittier – mind blown. On the other side, it is heartbreaking to learn where the glaciers used to be, even just last year. Captain Scott has been in this area for many years and can tell each season how they are receding. He was even able to show us the radar of the depth below to demonstrate where they used to be.
After the stop at the first set of glaciers, we had lunch and boy, the boxed lunches were amazing – we were impressed by how much was in these! Definitely did not skimp on the food here and it was such a great surprise – you never know what you are going to get on a tour and these were awesome.
Our next stop was Blackstone, another tidewater glacier, where we observed similar characteristics as the first stop. It is really difficult to capture not just in words but in these photos the scale and the beauty. When we got close to the glacier, the chill in the air was multiplied.
The next glacier stop was neighbor Northland which is a hanging glacier (does not touch the water) and has the most incredible waterfall! It was impossible to capture how much water was gushing into the ocean. Captain Scott would get the boat close and then let the waterfall push us back to demonstrate the sheer power and force. Kevin was in awe over this one, could not stop looking at it. It really was brilliant.
Captain Scott treated us to one final stop before we ended our time together. We went to a shore directly across from the Blackstone glacier and got to walk around a bit. It was difficult to wrap our heads around everything we saw looking back at the enormous glaciers were we were and see them so gently sitting among the rock.
The ocean continued to be smooth and settled as we made our way back to Whittier. We loved our tour with Lazy Otter Charters and it was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip. This furthered everything we knew about Alaska – it is just so incredibly massive and getting the opportunity to experience some of it up close was unbelievable. Even though we did not do a similar glacier boat tour on the Seward side, I would suggest coming over to Whittier instead.
Whittier is pretty awesome and full of history, you get to drive through an awesome tunnel, and it is not flooded tourists. We had five people on our boat and one of them was the captain! We found it to be a wonderfully relaxed but jam packed exploration of Prince William Sound and if your schedule allows for a stop in Whittier, head out with Lazy Otter Charters.