Snorkeling the Keku Islands

From Ashley Bolwerk, Expedition Guide on Wilderness Adventurer

Over my nine years in Alaska, I have found very few activities that are as magical as snorkeling along a rocky beach in Southeast Alaska. Despite the proximity of this vivid, diverse ecosystem (literally, attached to the shoreline) few locals have ventured into our cold waters.

At an extreme low tide, many fantastic organisms can be found exposed on the beach. However, by donning a wetsuit, mask, snorkel, and fins, I can not only observe the organisms that are out of the water but gain access to a whole new world of organisms that are otherwise inaccessible due to our poor summer water visibility. The kelp forests that cover these environments are the home to dozens of animals of every color, shape, and size: bright orange anemones the size of grapes, sleek black mounds of chiton, and slender-armed sea stars in every shade of the rainbow dot the shoreline.

However, snorkeling in Alaska is not for the faint of heart. As a snorkel guide, I do my best to prepare others for our dive into the cold waters of Southeast Alaska. I hold a meeting before we go snorkeling to get everyone fitted in head-to-toe neoprene, go over timing and logistics, and share my excitement about our upcoming underwater adventure.

When it is time to load our small expedition team onto our skiff, it takes a group effort to make sure that everyone is tucked into their various layers of neoprene and gear. As we waddle like penguins down the stairs for our short skiff ride to our snorkel site, the anticipation builds. Once we arrive, we slip one-by-one from our awkward land positions into the weightlessness of the sea.

The initial flush of cold water into our suits is both shocking and invigorating, awakening our senses for our grand adventure. We then swim our way to the shore, where we quickly forget the initial chill of the cold Alaskan water, both because our suits have warmed up and due to the kaleidoscope of color and diversity that fills our view. We slowly cruise along the beach sharing interesting findings through spurts of barely intelligible underwater conversation and bobbing at the surface, but no one wants to stay above water long.

We continue sharing and exploring as the cold of the massive sea that surrounds us slowly overpowers our ability to stay warm, even in our wetsuits. Our crew dwindles as some return to the skiff to warm their toes and fingers in a cooler of hot water. Yet, some refuse to turn away from the vibrant menagerie of sea creatures before them; For many, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

But all good things must come to an end, and we eventually return to the skiff through no small effort of the driver, who helps haul gear and cold bodies into the boat. Over a cup of hot cocoa, we recount the highlights of our adventures, having forgotten our chill and awkwardness out of the water. Even more than the snorkeling itself, this is my favorite moment of a snorkeling trip: the comradery and awe of a skiff full of freshly minted Alaskan snorkelers abounds.