The southern portion of Alaska's panhandle, with its extensive network of channels and inlets, offers opportunities to see a variety of wildlife. The trip by ferry from Ketchikan to Wrangell is about 90 nautical miles and generally takes about six hours.
Many species of birds and animals can be found year-round near the busy Ketchikan waterfront and out in Tongass Narrows. Cormorants - large, long-necked diving sea birds Â¬- are commonly seen on pilings, buoys and rocks, often perched with their wings out-stretched to warm and dry in the sun. The pelagic species, generally associated with open waters, is more common here than the larger, orange-faced double-crested cormorant.
Flocks of the small, black-headed Bonaparte's gull are common in summer. Killer whales have been seen swimming in Tongass Narrows right near town, but are more commonly seen in Nichols Passage or Behm Canal. Seals and sea lions are present here as well. Seals are much smaller than sea lions, and usually cruise with only their round head showing above the surface. Sea lions are three or four times the size of seals and tend to show much more of their bodies as they swim.
Shorebirds such as red-necked phalaropes, dunlin and small groups of semipalmated plover are also likely to be seen flying low over the waters of Nichols Passage, Tongass narrows and around the Annette Island area. They feed in shallow water, probing for marine worms, crustaceans and small fish with their needle-like bills.
Tongass Narrows, Behm Canal and Clarence Strait intersect just north of Ketchikan. Clarence Strait is a 126-mile-long submerged valley that was formed initially by a geologic fault and later enlarged by glaciers. The southern end opens onto Dixon Entrance, a deep, broad sound that is the gateway to the open North Pacific Ocean. Most of the water in southern Southeast Alaska funnels through the southern end of Clarence Strait, which is a major corridor for fish and marine mammals.
Killer whales are found throughout Clarence Strait. Particularly good places to look are the waters off Meyers Chuck, a tiny community at the tip of Cleveland Peninsula north of Ketchikan; and Steamer Point, at the western end of Etolin Island, where Stikine Strait and Clarence Strait converge. Humpback whales are in Clarence Strait most of the year, but are present in greater numbers in May and June. Numbers fall off in July, August and September, coinciding with an increase in sightings north of Petersburg.
Clarence Strait is one of the few places in Southeast where Pacific white-sided dolphins are commonly sighted. These gregarious dolphins will gather in large groups. They are most often seen in the open ocean, but have been observed throughout Clarence Strait and even in Stikine Strait. They will approach ships and bow ride. (See the section on porpoises for more information.)
Prince of Wales Island lies to the west of Clarence Strait. The island is well-known in Southeast Alaska for its populations of Sitka black-tailed deer, black bears and Alexander Archipelago wolves. The third largest island in the United States (after "the big island" of Hawaii and Kodiak Island in Southcentral Alaska), Prince of Wales has become a hotspot in recent years for spelunkers and paleontologists. Limestone caves underlie the island, including El Capitan Cave, the largest known cave in Alaska. The bones of long-dead brown and black bears have been found in these caves, raising questions about how these two bears coexisted here thousands of years ago.
A road system on Prince of Wales Islands connects the small communities of Hollis, Coffman Cove, Klawock, Hydaburg, Thorne Bay and Craig. An interisland ferry system connects Hollis and Coffman Cove with Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg.
Zarembo Island lies to the northeast of Prince of Wales Island, across Clarence Strait. Stikine Strait meets Clarence Strait at the south end of Zarembo and leads north to Wrangell.
Roosevelt elk, which are not native to Alaska, were introduced for hunting on Zarembo Island in 1987. During the late-fall and winter months, elk are sometimes visible foraging along the Zarembo shoreline. They also swim to nearby islands.
The Stikine River is the prominent feature of the landscape near Wrangell, and the ocean itself is diluted and colored by the influx of fresh, glacial-fed river water. The Wrangell to Petersburg chapter offers more information on Stikine area wildlife.