Everyone’s wondering who will be the first person to spot a whale.
And where. And when. It’s that once-a-year moment that’s got all of southcentral Alaska buzzing.
Today, there are three harbor seals in the water just outside Ron Wille’s office. He can see them from his desk.
"They’ve been here goofing around all morning,” he says.
It’s a quiet scene, but there’s a hint of the excitement to come. As the General Manager of Kenai Fjords Tours, located right on the Seward harbor, Ron knows his view is going to get busier and busier as springs creeps towards Alaska.
PHOTO: The view from Ron Wille’s office in Seward.
The annual migration of dozens of species of wildlife is happening right now. Birds and whales—lots of them—are en route.
Out in the Pacific, humpback whales are heading north from Maui. Gray whales are off the coast of Vancouver Island coming from Mexico. They’ve all spent the winter in warm waters mating and giving birth, and getting their calves ready for the trip. Now they’re hungry. And so they head north.
Feasting on Plankton
Longer, warmer days with more sunlight lead to large blooms of plankton in the waters of Resurrection Bay. The water color starts to change from blue-gray to brown-ish as the plankton grow. Bait fish come first to eat the tiny organisms floating and drifting in the bay. The bait fish are chased by migratory birds like Arctic terns, puffins and Murres. Then, come the whales.
Gray whales will be passing Kenai Fjords National Park starting in late March, on their way to the Bering and Chuckchi seas. They’re bottom feeders, so they like shallower water to be found further north. Millions of birds will pass by Kenai Fjords in the spring as well, making their way to the north slope of Alaska to feast, breed and give birth.
Loads of species will stick around the Gulf of Alaska for the summer. Humpback and Fin whales will even take up summer residence in area. But in spring, the action is intense.
“It’s a huge ecosystem change,” Ron says. “Winter is so quiet. But then ‘bam’! The next thing you know, there’s all kinds of critters all over the place! They’re all out here eating like crazy. ”
PHOTO: Rufous hummingbird
Keeping watch for hummingbirds
On the land, Ron has his eye out for the first Rufous hummingbird of the season—a tiny bird that migrates from as far away as Florida. That’s another “sure sign of spring,” he says.
Above the water, another sure sign of spring is the arrival of Arctic terns. They have one of the longest migrations on the planet, coming from as far away as Antarctica!
“For us, it’s the birds that kick it off,” Ron says. “Then come the whales.”
PHOTO: The Kenai Fjords Tours Fleet is ready to get back out on the water
Getting the Fleet ready
On land, the Kenai Fjords Tours team is busy getting its fleet ready. Boats have been cleaned, maintenance to-do-lists checked off. Captains are migrating too—booking their flights back from places like Maui where they spend the winters watching the whales.
Days are getting longer, and restaurants in town—many of which shut their doors for the winter—are starting to open.
“It’s nice to be out of the cold,” Ron says. “We’re gaining 30 minutes of daylight each week right now. The sun’s shining and it makes a real difference.”
Shake off the winter blahs close to home
Springtime in southcentral Alaska is a season of anticipation. Few of the world’s ecosystems can match the stark seasonality.
For Alaskans, Wille says it often feels like spring is just for them. Seward is an amazing weekend get-away from Anchorage, he says. It’s a great day trip or weekend get-away.
“It’s so close and so easy, and it’s an amazingly beautiful drive.”
Wille encourages Anchorage residents to explore their own backyard. In April and May, there are fewer tourists, hardly any ‘traffic’ on the highway and lots of natural excitement to witness once you get here.
For more information on wildlife and their migration, Ron Wille recommends the National Audubon Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. Another good resource for tracking whale and bird migration is Journey North—it’s updated regularly by conservationists.
See what Ron’s view is like right now on the live Kenai Fjords Tours webcam.