Cruising Aleutian Islands, a rarely seen side of nature


The volcanic Aleutian Islands stretch between the United States and Russia in the Bering Sea. The archipelago’s largest community goes by two names: Unalaska and Dutch Harbor. These remote, mostly uninhabited islands are an area of stunning beauty and magnificent views. Located in the Northern Pacific Ocean, the isles are an elongated archipelago of 14 large-sized islands plus 55 smaller isles. They were set aside in 1980 as an Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire this archipelago is a dramatic, untamed, and adventurous region, where over two dozen volcanoes are active or were active in the last 250 years. This chain of volcanic islands belongs to both the United States and Russia, occupies an area of 6,821 square miles and extends about 1,100 miles westward from the tip of Alaska Peninsula toward Attu Island in Alaska. The Aleutian Islands is divided into groups; Fox Islands (Umnak, Unalaska, Amaknak, Akutan, Akun, Unimak, Sanak), Four Mountains Islands (Amukta, Chagulak, Yunaska, Herbert, Carlisle, Chuginadak, Uliaga, Kagamilislands), Andreanof Islands (Gareloi, Tanaga, Kanaga, Adak, Kagalaska, Great Sitkin, Atka, Amlia, Seguam), Rat Islands (Kiska, Little Kiska, Segula, Hawadax/Kryssei, Khvostof, Davidof, Little Sitkin, Amchitka, Semisopochnoi), Near Islands (Attu, Agattu), and Bogoslof. While nearly all Aleutian Islands are part of USA (Alaska State), at the extreme west Commander Islands are Russian. They also mark the dividing line between Bering Sea to the north and Pacific Ocean to the south and cross the International Date Line.

This natural boundary separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea creates a dynamic environment that supports amazing biodiversity. Wildlife watchers may spot caribou, sea otters, Steller sea lions, orca, and several types of whales against a backdrop of forests, soaring mountains still being shaped by active volcanoes, and meadows brimming with wildflowers. The islands’ natural habitat is largely unspoiled, with most of them are within the Aleutian National Wildlife Reserve. The string of Aleutian Islands is home to an incredibly rich fauna. Among its rich wildlife the Aleutians are best known for their birds. More than 10 million bird nests on the islands each summer; Puffins, auklets, gulls, storm petrels, cormorants, terns, kittiwakes, murres, pigeon guillemots, and murrelets are among the most abundant species. In addition to these species, half of the world’s emperor geese spend their winters in the Aleutians. Once endangered with extinction, the Aleutian cackling goose is now considered recovered and continues to re-colonize former nesting islands. Nowhere else in North America can whooper swans, tufted ducks, Siberian ruby-throats, wood sandpipers, far eastern curlews, and black-headed gulls be found except in Aleutian Island.

The archipelago’s climate is characterized by fairly uniform temperatures throughout the year, high winds, heavy rainfall, and persistent fog. Winter offers an Aleutian Island reality check, with colder temperatures and some roads closed for the season due to snow and avalanches. However, this is a great time for birding, with many species overwintering in Unalaska’s ice-free coastal waters. In summer, there are many fairly windless days, punctuated by strong or even gale force winds; this is a magical time when the hills are covered in a lush emerald carpet, the fish are jumping, and hiking trails – not yet covered with snow – are easier to find and follow. Many birders relish the thought of spotting the rare Whiskered Auklet, which is best seen in May and June. Whales are also active in the summer and early fall. The best time for cruising Aleutian Islands really depends on what travelers want to do and see. A cruise or a ferry into the archipelago is usually between late spring and early fall.

Dutch Harbor

The name of Dutch Harbor was given to this immense protected bay because a Dutch ship was the first to anchor there. Dutch Harbor is the port that serves the city of Unalaska. Aleutian cruises often stop there as it is considered the gateway to the Aleutian Islands. Other itineraries, such as Crystal Cruises’ Russian Far East Maiden Expedition on the Crystal Endeavor, delve deeper into Russian territory. Other cruise lines that sail in the area include Hurtigruten, Lindblad Expeditions, and Silversea. Located on Amaknak Island and linked via bridge to Unalaska Island, Dutch Harbor is a place of historical significance, stunning natural beauty, and resilient people; visitors can walk in the footsteps of the indigenous Aleut people by following trails established thousands of years ago through swaths of wildflowers dotting green valleys from which rise volcanic peaks surrounded by the sea. Even so, Russian fur traders and American armed forces did make their marks here. A visit to Dutch Harbor provides birding, beach combing, berry picking, fishing, or kayaking, also a chance to spot a famous Bering Sea fishing boat and to see how commercial fishing a part of every-day life. Visitors may be familiar with the harbor’s fame from Deadliest Catch, a TV series about the brutal struggle to harvest Alaskan king crabs—a task often called the world’s most dangerous job. While its stark natural beauty is the main draw, Dutch Harbor woos tourists with the oldest Russian-Orthodox cruciform church in North America, damaged while locals were exiled to WWII internment camps. Dutch Harbor is a “theater” for World War II when the Japanese bombed it in 1942. While intriguing museums recall a turbulent past, today the Harbor embraces the peaceful nature of its scenic surroundings and thrives as a fishing village that brings in the largest catch in the country.

Auletian Cruise Highlights:

Explore deep fjords of the Alaskan Peninsula, where glaciers shed bergy bits and brown bears and cubs forage along the shores

Island-hop the Aleutian chain of active volcanoes forming the Pacific Rim of Fire that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea

Zodiac cruise in mist-shrouded coves, where colonies of Steller sea lions roar, humpback and grey whales blow, sea otters mesmerize, and outcrops hold breeding colonies of puffins, auklets, terns, guillemots, and dozens of other species

Enjoy tundra walks amongst wildflowers adding color to smoking volcanoes.

Visit Military Glory Museum at Petropavlovsk and explore abandoned military outposts where Japanese and U.S military forces clashed in World War II.

Discover an exceptional site: Unalaska Island and its port, Dutch Harbor

Enjoy the Aleutian Islands’ forest and perhaps explore the former gold mine

Reach the heart of the beautiful Katmai National Park and Preserve

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