Since moving to Alaska, I’ve wanted to explore as many national parks as possible including the Kenai Fjords National Park. Like most National Parks in Alaska, The Kenai Fjords are challenging to visit. Because it’s mostly only accessible by water, the easiest way is to take a day cruise from Seward. I kept seeing these cruises recommended in the local facebook forums, and they got me excited. I wanted to take our family on a Kenai Fjords cruise!
Last summer when traveling with family, we decided against taking a day cruise due to the added expense (we were staying in hotels for over 10 nights, and in Alaska, during peak travel times hotels are insanely expensive). We also had booked the ferry to Valdez and thought the wildlife cruise would feel redundant in the short time we had to explore Alaska.
Finally, this summer, we had another opportunity and we took it. I’m so glad we did, even though the day wasn’t ideal with our unpredictable toddler.
You can choose one of two main options;
1. Cruise Tours. Larger, popular, more budget-friendly (for Alaska) cruise. There are two main companies that offer tours, Major Marine Tours and Kenai Fjords Tours. Most people choose these. We did; we booked a Major Marine half-day wildlife tour because we had a discount through a TourSaver coupon book. I also learned that they assigned seating so we didn’t have to stress about arriving too early. In addition, Major Marine Tours has a National Park Ranger on board the ship to narrate and answer questions. I don’t think you can go wrong with either company.
2. Charter Boats. Smaller, customized and flexible, less budget-friendly option. I didn’t do much research into this because I knew I wanted to go with a cruise tour, but if I had an opportunity to take the tour on my own for the sole purpose of photography or it was my only visit to Alaska, I would have researched this more. If you have the budget and want something more personalized, you should look into hiring a charter.
3. Kayak Tours. Yep, that’s an option! Not an option for a toddler though, maybe someday…..
Each tour company offers multiple tours a day, with different itineraries. They generally range from 5-9 hours (Major Marine does offer an even shorter option). The longer your tour, the more you’ll see. We booked the 5-hour wildlife tour because that was the only option with availability when we booked the day prior. Part of me would have preferred a longer experience, but with Jackson being Jackson that day, I’m glad we ended up on the shorter cruise. The shorter cruises stay in Resurrection Bay, so if you or your family is prone to sea-sickness, they might be a better option. If you’re set on seeing as many glaciers and wildlife as you possibly can and know your kids won’t ruin the experience, take a longer cruise
Whatever you decide, I really don’t think there’s a bad option. Anything that could go bad is out of your and the tour operators control (weather, animals that hide, a cranky toddler, etc)
Typical for us, we ran late that day and arrived only ten minutes before departure. I was worried we were the last ones to board, but there were others behind us. When we boarded, they told us what table inside to sit at. We were assigned a table for six, with another family of three. It was nice to have seating assigned, but there wasn’t much room for our “Shtuff” (aka my photography backpack and all the crap we bring to try and keep Jackson sane.) The tables were also close together, and that made it hard to get in and out for anyone other than those sitting on the end.
The ship had three decks. The first deck was where most of the seating was, and where they served the buffet and sold snacks/drinks/etc. The second deck had more indoor seating and also an outdoor deck, with some seating along the sides. We could also access the top deck that was mostly open, other than the crew area (I don’t know enough about ships to know what that’s called). Certain areas did get crowded when looking at wildlife, but I never felt like I had to rush anywhere to get a shot. I appreciated that while even though the boat was mostly full, there was still space for everyone to get the picture they wanted.
Fortunately, the weather was decent that day so we felt comfortable walking and standing outside watching the scenery. There were a few places to sit outside (not reserved), but for the buffet lunch, it was most comfortable to stay inside. I think sometimes the weather can be very cold and uncomfortable, so make sure to look up the weather or ask your tour provider the day prior to how best to dress.
Also fortunately for us, the sea was relatively calm on the day of our cruise. That’s not always the case. They do sell motion sickness medication on board, both Dramamine and Bonine, so don’t worry if you forget yours.
Not long after our boat departed, we were served the buffet lunch. The food was better than I was expecting (the salmon was excellent and I’m picky about my salmon!), and worth the extra cost. Soon after eating, a whale was spotted. As the Ranger described, it was probably diving deep for fish, because he barely was seen when he came up for a breath. We did see a few otters swimming from far, some puffins, a porpoise, sea lions, gulls, and many eagles. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I guess had hoped to see more than we did (man, I’ve been spoiled living here in Alaska). Even with my 400mm lens (560mm equivalent with the extender), most of my animal pictures look like little specks.
At the start of the cruise, the park ranger handed out booklets to all the kids for them to fill-out. At the end of the cruise, those that completed the task were given a junior ranger patch in a cute little ceremony on deck. I thought that was a special touch for those traveling with kids. I feel it is so important to get a personal connection and respect for the natural environment at a young age, and I think the junior ranger program is an awesome program for so many reasons.
Kenai Fjords Cruise with a Toddler – The Toddler
We took this cruise on day 3 of our 11-day camping trip. We weren’t sure how Jackson, our three-year-old, would hold-up for the trip. I thought he would be fine and entertained because he usually likes being on boats and seeing different wildlife, but that was not the case on this day. He was overtired and cranky, and there wasn’t anywhere for him to run around. He wanted to be held all the time, but as the crew reminded us, we couldn’t hold him when we’re on the deck. I guess toddler in parents hands and the boat jerks = toddler overboard. I would recommend if you own a wrap or toddler carrier, bring that with you. Also, we’re trying reeaallllyy hard not to give Jackson an iPad every time he is fussy, but I did wish I brought one for him to use so both my husband and I could have enjoyed the cruise.
Most of the time Mike was being awesome and letting me go photograph, but I did try to give him a moment or two (there was definitely no photographing when parenting our kid on that trip). I have an awesomely supportive husband and I wouldn’t be able to be the photographer I am without him. Despite our experience on that day, I do think the wildlife cruise can be a great option for your family. Not all toddlers become demons like ours when they don’t get enough sleep and even if they are, you’ll still get to see some awesome wildlife and scenery and have great memories with them (since bad memories are often forgotten and the good is remembered 🙂 )
When I arrived home at the end of our vacation these were the first pictures I edited. I ended up loving the scenery of the images way more than I thought, this might be telling of how much Jackson’s crankiness affected our experience. Anyways, enjoy!
Warning – lots of pictures!
Whew, that was a lot of pictures. If you want to see a few more, or would like to purchase any prints, click here.