Fiords, bays, lakes, glaciers, mountains, and hundreds of islands provide a rich and unspoiled beauty
The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is a place of great distances and greater dramas. Extending across 4.9 million acres, the refuge comprises grasslands, islands, glaciers, fiords, and active volcanoes. It is a place of contrasts, where relics of World War II slowly rust in deserted valleys, while nearby, great forests of kelp teem with life. This area has long been a place of refuge and has seen some of the most dramatic wildlife conservation stories in our nation's history.
The refuge’s environment includes a mind-boggling assortment of more than 2,500 islands, islets, spires, rocks, reefs, waters, and headlands that extend from Forrester Island in the Inside Passage, around the westernmost tip of the Aleutians, and north to Cape Lisburne on the Arctic Ocean. Traveling between its farthest-flung points would be the equivalent of taking a trip from Georgia to California.
The refuge consists of five separate units and includes the spectacular volcanic islands of the Aleutian chain, the seabird cliffs of the remote Pribilof Islands, and remote coastlands washed by the Chukchi Sea. No other maritime refuge in America is as large or as productive.
Stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the southeast panhandle, the refuge protects breeding habitat for 40 million seabirds, representing more than 30 species, and a variety of marine mammals including Steller sea lions, fur seals, walrus, sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, belugas, gray whales, blue whales, and polar bears. This abundant wildlife resides in or migrates through the area’s 2,500 islands, spires, rocks, and coastal headlands, with some isolated islands hosting unique species not found elsewhere.
Things to do
There are a number of opportunities to explore the expansive refuge. Wildlife viewing, birding, and hunting are popular activities within the refuge.
Although the wildlife viewing is excellent, access is difficult and visitor facilities are sparse throughout most of the refuge. Boat tours and other activities depart from easily-accessible towns that show visitors just a taste of the vast refuge.
In Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska, the Islands & Ocean Visitor Center features interactive exhibits on the refuge, including a replica seabird colony, complete with cacophonous bird calls and surround-view flocking. The center also offers educational programs and guided walks along trails that access beach habitats used by seabirds and shorebirds. Homer-based boat tours offer birding excursions in Kachemak Bay.
Also on the Kenai Peninsula, the town of Seward is the jumping-off point for access to the Chiswell Islands in the refuge. The rugged and rocky Chiswell Islands rise from the Gulf of Alaska at the mouth of Resurrection Bay and are the most-visited seabird colonies of the refuge. Many boat tours visit the Chiswell Islands on tours of Kenai Fjords National Park to view calving glaciers, nesting seabirds, seals, sea otters, and whales.
More than a dozen charter boats tours provide visitors easy access to St. Lazaria Island from Sitka in the Inside Passage. More than 500,000 seabirds nest on this 65-acre island, including 1,500 pairs of breeding tufted puffins.
In Southwest Alaska, you can hop the Alaska Marine Highway ferry for Kodiak and pass through the Barren Islands, which is part of the refuge and home to the largest seabird colony in the northern Gulf of Alaska.
The Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea are home to millions of seabirds and the northern fur seal. Sometimes referred to as the 'Galapagos of the North,' these islands are a mad scene each summer as a million fur seals swim ashore to breed and raise their young - the largest gathering of sea mammals in the world. The islands' ocean cliffs are also home to extensive bird rookeries. More than 2.5 million seabirds, ranging from common murres and crested auklets to tufted puffins and cormorants, nest here, making the Pribilofs the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. Visitor services are available on both St. Paul and St. George islands with several flights a week from Anchorage. Several small cruise ships offer itineraries that include the Pribilofs.
Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor is the gateway to refuge lands on Unalaska Island and the rest of the Aleutians, with scheduled jet service from Anchorage and once a month Alaska Marine Highway ferry service in summer. Spectacularly craggy cliffs, sea stacks, pinnacles, and snow-topped volcanoes make up the scenery, while rare whiskered auklet colonies along with countless other birds offer fantastic birding opportunities.
Near Nome in Arctic Alaska lies Safety Sound, a unique mainland birding hot spot with road access from Nome. Many commercial birding tours visit Nome, especially in late May to see the thousands of migratory birds that descend on the area each year.
The refuge is broken up into five units, comprised of a vast array of landscapes. The Gulf of Alaska Unit contains scattered small islands extending along 800 miles of coast from the rainforests of the Inside Passage across the arc of Prince William Sound and the fjord-edged Kenai Peninsula to islets off Kodiak Island.
The Alaska Peninsula Unit extends more than 400 miles along the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula from just west of Kodiak Island to the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
The Aleutian Islands Unit extends more than 1,100 miles in a chain of volcanic islands from Unimak Island at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula westward to Attu Island.
The Bering Sea Unit extends more than 600 miles from islands and lands on Norton Sound along the Seward Peninsula to islands far into the Bering Sea and the Pribilof Islands - the best place to watch marine birds and mammals from land on the refuge.
The Chukchi Sea Unit contains scattered islands, spits, and mainland areas extending along 500 miles of coast southwest of Utqiaġvik on the Arctic Ocean and includes the mountainous mainland area and sea cliffs of Cape Lisburne and Cape Thompson at the western end of the Brooks Range.
More than 9,000 years ago, marine mammals and birds fed and clothed Alaska's earliest coastal peoples and gave rise to prosperous Alaska Native civilizations. Unangan, Sugpiac, Yup'ik, Inupiat, Dena'ina Athabascan, Haida, and Tlingit all have roots on this refuge.
From the 1700s-1900s, fur-seeking trappers encroached on Alaska Native lands and decimated fur-bearing wildlife populations. In response to this, Teddy Roosevelt established some of the first units of the refuge in 1909. During World War II, allied forces fought the long and bloody Aleutian Campaign to take back the islands of Kiska and Attu from the Japanese.
The legacy of World War II remains in spite of ongoing cleanup efforts. Debris, toxic chemicals, and historic remnants are scattered throughout the Aleutian Islands. The military remained after the war to build a large base, now decommissioned, on Adak Island in response to the Cold War threat posed by the nearby Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 70s, three underground nuclear bombs were tested on the refuge island of Amchitka. The ecological consequences of these blasts are still being investigated.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter created the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge as we know it today by combining 11 existing refuges plus some additional land. The refuge now supports national and international scientific research on marine ecosystems.
Most of the refuge is remote and access is usually by boat. The most visited areas of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge are highlighted in the “Things to Do” section.
For more information, visit the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge website.