Day 8 |
Jul 26, 2014

St Matthew Island & Hall Island, Alaska, US

By Victoria Salem, Historian
Co-ordinates: N 60º36.6’, W 172º51.0’
Weather: Foggy to start; overcast with sunny spells later
Air Temperature: +10ºC
Sea Temperature: +6ºC
Pressure: 1018 hPa
Wind: WNW4

After a night of rocking and rolling we awoke to our final day in Alaska. I got on the scout boat at 7:30am and we headed through the fog to a landing on a pebbly beach. St Matthew Island was inhabited by Aleuts in prehistoric times, though lies uninhabited today. Russians from the Russian-American Company attempted a colony in 1809 and reindeer were later introduced, but neither humans nor deer made a success of it.

Today it was both beautiful and bleak. The long beach was strewn with driftwood and the tundra meadow behind full of wild flowers. Birds swooped overhead and the tall and overgrown grass was full of Ground Squirrel burrows.

As Zodiacs arrived at the shoreline, we divided into small groups and headed off for hikes, starting with some beachcombing and later climbing up to the sloping tundra. I was with James, so our tour had a focus on rocks and history at first. After examining the cliffs and testing beach pebbles for magnetite (with James’ magnetic name badge!) we came upon some Bowhead Whale baleen plates and were able to demonstrate how a curtain of baleen (made of keratin, but often referred to as ‘whale bone’) worked as a sieve for feeding rorqual whales. My group of happy hikers decided to construct a ‘puffin trap’ made of flotsam, jetsam and plastic detritus; time and the next group of guests to visit St Matthew Island will be able to judge its success – perhaps as a modern work of art rather than a means of subsistence hunting.

As we clambered up on to the tundra our attention turned to birds and flowers. The bright blue (but deadly poisonous) Monkshood dominated a luxurious display, but there was also a profusion of other blooms in pinks, whites and yellows. A Longtailed Skua was spotted diving and the McKay’s Bunting was triumphantly spotted (this is one of the best viewing sites in the world for them). We met up with Lars, who had the good fortune (and skill) to spot a Rock Sandpiper on a nest in the grass, almost completely camouflaged. As we approached it flew away. Coming closer, we could see the eggs, with two small chicks just emerging from the shells! After extremely hasty photos we backed off and watched the parent return to the nest with some satisfaction. Lucky we didn’t trample them; they were so well-hidden.

We turned back towards the beach at this point, looping round again towards the Zodiac landing site. Most people chose to take a short Zodiac tour past bird cliffs before heading back for lunch on Silver Discoverer.

Fortified by the hot and cold buffet, I was on the marina deck by 1:00pm, this time helping to prepare the boats for a Zodiac cruise. By shortly after 1:30pm we had all disembarked the ship and were approaching Hall Island. This was an amazing location, a few miles NW of St Matthew Island and only about 5 miles (8 kms) in length. The bird cliffs here are home to many different species – we saw kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Northern Fulmars, Least Auklets, Tufted and Horned Puffins, Pigeon and Common Guillemots and Harlequin Ducks (and this is not an exclusive list!). These birds were nesting in crevices or on cliff edges, roosting on rocks, swimming on and diving into the ocean and flying in all directions, constantly in motion as they went about their daily business of fishing and feeding chicks.

But it wasn’t only the birds. Hall Island itself was a magnificent sight, with tall, jagged cliffs plunging sheer into the ocean. In the shadow of these cliffs we saw large, umbrella-striped floating Jelly Fish. And as we progressed along the shoreline the light changed again and again – first cloud creeping down, then sun peering out, then birds looming through mist in an ever changing rotation of weather. As we neared the end of Hall Island, the number of caves and tunnels increased (thank you, Akvile, for taking us through the tunnel; it was hugely atmospheric). We also came across Steller Sea Lions cavorting in the water, with a male and female ponderously heaved out on one of the few flat rocks available.

Our turning point was when we had reached a couple of arches and windows through which we could see large sea swells on the other side of the island. Since it was time to turn back anyway, we made a virtue of necessity and slowly cruised home, allowing plenty of time to review the many bird species and enjoy time with swimming Steller Sea Lions as we went.

Our arrival back at the ship was timely, as afternoon tea was served at 4:00pm, accompanied by Jorge on his keyboard (very civilized). Shortly after that, I headed for the Explorer Lounge and Claudia’s talk on ‘Crossing the line: The discovery of Longitude and why it matters.’ It is fascinating to think how difficult it was for sailors before they could measure longitude (or had GPS)!

The formal programme for the day finished with a Recap and Briefing at 6:45 pm. Then it was time for dinner (I had been invited to ‘Hot Rocks’ under the Stars, but because of worsening sea conditions, we ate in the Restaurant instead). The lounge-bar was humming with life for a while afterwards, since we were gaining another two hours when we went to bed…only to lose a whole day of our lives tomorrow (does anyone have a birthday on July 27th?!), as we will cross the International Date Line during night en route to Provideniya in Russia.