Wildlife in Alaska

Posted February 16th, 2010 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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The “Big Five” in Alaska probably are: the bears (brown bears and  black bears), moose, caribou (also known as reindeer)  wolves and Dall Sheep.  My goal at the beginning of this trip was to make sure that we saw all of these  animals in their natural habitat.  We started off very well; within half an hour of landing in Anchorage, we spotted the Dall sheep.  We were driving down the TurnAgain arm, a spectacular drive that hugs the coast through the Chugach National Forest, and we had just stopped for our very first photo op.  Seejo, with his 20/20 vision noticed some animals on top of the mountain. I immediately dug out my binoculars and saw that these were indeed a herd of Dall sheep climbing up the steep mountain cliffs.  They were quite recognizable due to their snowy white coats and characteristic curved horns—appearing like a cross between a sheep and a goat.  A solitary sheep had wandered down the cliffs almost as if to  pose for us while we clicked away furiously.

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We hoped that we would be able to catch the next four while we visited Denali National Park.  DNP  has a total area of 6 million acres and most of it is true unchartered wilderness with no easy access trails. The only way to see Denali is to  take a park shuttle bus that takes you only about 90 miles inside the park: the rest is pretty much inaccessible although you can hike into the wilderness, if you are not scared of the bears and the wolves.  The bus is quite slow due to the narrow winding single track and low speed limits; the whole 90 mile trip to and fro takes about 12 hours.  There are about 4-5 designated stops but the driver does make unscheduled stops if any passenger spots wildlife or a particularly beautiful scenic vista that someone wants to photograph. Although it is extremely restrictive to see a National Park through a tour bus,  I must confess that as a result of limited access, Denali is truly untamed and wild and I did get the feeling of being truly in the middle of nature at its wildest.

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However, I found Denali trip quite disappointing because  we didn’t see as many wild animals as we hoped we could and  what we saw was few and far between.   We came across several herds of caribou in the plains below — they were too far to get good photographs.  We had almost given up the thought of seeing any good wild life at Denali when two brown bears decided to pose for us. This pair of Mama Bear and Baby Bear, walked right in front of the bus. The baby bear would wander away inquisitively surveying the area around, but periodically would scramble right back to the mother as if to make sure that she was really there and then go off on his own again.  We watched their antics for a long time.  But overall Denali was a big letdown both in terms of wild life and also in terms of freedom to explore the park. I have no complaints over the natural beauty – the place is truly beautiful.  The polychrome pass had some dramatic and colorful views of the mountain ranges and so did the view from the Eielson Visitor’s Center.  At Wonder Lake we did manage to see the peak of Mt. McKinley— a rare sight.  The mountain is so tall (20,000 ft or so) and it lords over the peaks of the rest of the Alaskan range.  Infact if Mt Everest, wouldn’t be on the Tibetan plateau, Mt. McKinley might well be one of the tallest mountains peaks.  The peak of Mt. Mckinley is difficult to see amidst the clouds swirling around it  so we were especially lucky to see the clouds clear for an hour or so and glimpse the snow covered peak.

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After the Denali excursion, I had almost given up on the seeing the other animals that make up the  Big 5  when  they decided to find us. We came across the other animals while we were driving towards Seward and Homer,  these   wild animals wandering quite near in the city downtowns in Alaska. In downtown Homer, we saw a lot of Moose— they were blithely criss-crossing the road while we were driving upto our bed and breakfast inn.   A mile from downtown Seward, on our way to the Exit Glacier, we had a close encounter with a black bear.   We saw Dall sheep again, just half an hour from the city of Anchorage.  The only animal out of the big 5 that we did not see truly in the wild is the wolf, though we did see a one when we visited the Alaska Wild life Conservation Center.  I strongly recommend The Alaska Wild life conservation center for all visitors to Anchorage. It is not a big zoo ,  you can cover the whole wildlife center is less than an hour but it is a great opportunity to observe many of these animals very closely.  The highlight for me were 4 tiny moose calves, barely a month old , tottering by on legs that are none too steady but posing delightfully for the camera.   I could finally see the difference between elk, moose and caribou because I could see them all near each other.  But between the wildlife center, our bear watching trip, and the animals that wandered over the roads of Alaska to meet us and the Denali bus ride we did manage to see all of the Big 5!

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We also managed to see a lot of the aquatic wildlife at Seward.  We took a day cruise through the Kenai Fjords National Park at Seward  to see the sea-based wild life.  The Kenai Fjords are coastal fjords—which means they are long steep sided valleys that were carved from the movement of the glaciers but are now filled with water.  The park is dominated by the Harding Icefield and all along the coast, several glaciers from the icefield meet the sea. We started off from Seward into the Resurrection Bay.  It wasn’t a very good day for a cruise. The sea was rather choppy and ride was rough.  But there were plenty of bird sightings. Kittiwakes and cormorants and muir birds and auklets – were seen in plenty. I am not a keen birdwatcher to distinguish between all of these birds but the bird enthusiasts on the boat were delighted.  Despite my ornithological ineptitude,  I could see that the puffins were something out of the ordinary. They were tiny birds with disproportionately large bright orange beaks they would jump into the sea from their nests on the sea-cliffs and bob about in the water.

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The tour took us to  the  calving Aialik glacier.  Calving glaciers are one of those sights that you can keep watching for a long time.  On our way back from the Aialik towards the Alaskan Gulf, we managed a few sightings of the humpback whale but did not manage to get a good picture of the breaching (Breaching is when the whale is in the water with the tailfin above the water, in a perfect T-shape).  The boat was moving quite fast and the waves were making it very difficult to photograph.  We passed the Chiswell Island, home to the endangered sealions and harbor seals that were enjoying a siesta on the rocks near the sea-cliffs. The islands rise vertically from the sea, and are actually tall rocks without any surrounding flat land. I think one of the best animal sightings was the sight of a Stellar Sealion sleeping blissfully between two rocks, with his fins tucked in front of his body seeming absolutely contended even though he was literally between a rock and a hard place.

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As in our Glacier cruise, there were plenty of otters floating on their backs between the chunks of ice in the chilly waters that are fed by the glaciers.  Colorful starfish cling to the base of these cliffs even as the waves lapped at them constantly. As we made our way towards Seward, we also passed a kittiwake rookery with thousands and thousands of birds nesting  I felt as though I was in one of the national geographic specials where they show a cliff out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but seals and stellar sea-lions and sea-birds.  A solitary bald eagle watched the domain carefully. Only then did I realize that these are indeed the kind of places that National Geographic features in their specials.

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