While You May Not Walk on St. Lazaria Island, You Can Still See It!
Sitka Sound, Alaska is a magnificent place. Surrounded by perfect strato-cone volcanoes on one side, jagged snow-caped peaks on another and protected from the North Pacific by a maze of small forested islets. The environment around Sitka is extremely pristine and teeming with wildlife that is as diverse and abundant as anywhere in Alaska. Perhaps the most decisive reason for it being a wildlife hotbed is the bathymetric profile that literally funnels deep ocean nutrients straight into the Sound towards Sitka.
Right on the very edge of this funnel lies the magnificent St. Lazaria Island and it’s towering columnar cliffs and surging ocean swells. I was lucky enough to visit St. Lazaria Island on a wildlife tour with Gallant Adventures when I visited beautiful Sitka, Alaska in 2016. Puffins have been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and I was extremely excited about this trip. While famous for its puffins and beautiful landscape, on the day I happened to visit, St. Lazaria Island also had the best whale watching EVER!
While cruising along the Mount Edgecumbe volcano coast on the way there, we were awe struck at all the different wildlife sightings. It seemed like we were getting sidetracked every 5 minutes by one species after another. There were sea lions, there were bald eagles, there were sea otters and there were harbor seals. One species after another! Then we passed a huge kelp forest that was loaded with sea otters and St. Lazaria Island was suddenly visible and looming ahead.
We pointed the bow at St. Lazaria when suddenly a spout shot up just off the starboard side - a gray whale! And yet another species to sidetrack us from Bird Island, as some locals call it. We watched as the gray whale worked the edge of the kelp forest and our guide, Captain Paul Davis, explained how this particular whale was feeding on krill. He knew this because a pink plume was excreted just as it dove the last time. Krill diarrhea.
The boat heads toward St. Lazaria Island again and it gets more and more beautiful the closer we get. Now we’re less than a mile away and I start keeping the eyes peeled for puffins when another spout appears, this time off port. Then another dead ahead. Then another off starboard. This time they’re humpback whales. And we’re surrounded!
The humpbacks are feeding on a medley of small baitfish and krill and they are using a lunge feeding technique that makes for exciting viewing! We’ve now been at St. Lazaria Island for over 30 minutes and all of this amazing Sitka whale watching action and awe-inspiring scenery made me almost forget all about puffins. Almost!
The whale action slows a bit so we decided to ease over to the island to see the birds and intertidal species clinging to the steep rocky shoreline. The Captain maneuvers the boat so closely that it feels like we are tidepooling. This region exhibits extremely large tidal swings and it happens to be low, allowing us to see a stunning array of color. Unexpectedly, a tufted puffin dives from the cliff top like a base jumper wearing a squirrelsuit and glides right past the boat. It was like it buzzed us to say Hi! My puffin bucket list is checked off!! ✔. We spend about 20 more minutes at St Lazaria Island viewing dozens of tufted puffins when the Captain says he knows where we might possibly see a SECOND species of puffin. Wait, there’s more than one type of puffin??
Captain Paul turns the Double G back towards Mt. Edgecumbe Volcano and within a very short period of time I hear an enthusiastic voice bellow “Horned Puffin dead ahead!” Sure enough, my bucket list expectations are exceeded in ways I could have never imagined – a tufted puffin in all of its glory! The viewing was brief as it quickly flew away, circling us as it did.
All good things must come to an end, as did this tour. Time sure flies when you’re having fun and, boy, was this tour over in a flash leaving me practically dazed and wanting more. I will be back – Sooner than later.