Fiords, bays, lakes, glaciers, mountains and hundreds of islands provide a rich and unspoiled beauty
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is a place of great distances and greater dramas. Extending along most of the 47,300 miles of Alaska's coastline, the refuge comprises grasslands, islands, glaciers, fiords and active volcanoes. It is a place of contrasts, where relics of a past war slowly rust in deserted valleys, while, nearby, great forests of kelp team 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.
More than 9,000 years ago, marine mammals and birds fed and clothed Alaska's earliest coastal peoples and gave rise to prosperous Native civilizations. Aleut/Unangan, Yup'ik, Inupiat, Dena'ina Athabascan, Alutiiq, Haida and Tlingit all have roots on this refuge.
From the 1700s-1900s, fur-seeking trappers encroached on Native lands and decimated the fur-bearing wildlife population. 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 refuge islands of Kiska and Attu from the Japanese.
The legacy of the war remains in spite of ongoing cleanup efforts. Debris, toxic chemicals and historic remnants are scattered throughout the chain. The military remained after the war building a large base, now decommissioned, on Adak in response to the Cold War threat posed by the nearby Soviet Union. In the 1960's and 70's 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 Carter created the refuge as we know it today by combining 11 existing refuges plus some additional land into the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which now conducts national and international scientific research on marine ecosystems.
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, to the north of Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands deep in the southeast tongue of the state, to 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's 4.9 million acres also include the spectacular volcanic islands of the Aleutian chain, the seabird cliffs of the remote Pribilofs, and icebound lands washed by the Chukchi Sea. It consists of five separate units and ranges from Forrester Island near Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands to the westernmost tip of the Aleutians and north to Cape Lisburne on the Arctic Ocean. No other maritime refuge in America is as large or as productive.
The Gulf of Alaska Unit contains scattered small islands extending along 800 miles of coast from Southeast Alaska's rainforests 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 from southwest of Barrow 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.
Stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the southeast panhandle, the refuge protects breeding habitat for 40 million seabirds, representing more than 30 species, a variety of marine mammals and other wildlife on more than 2,500 islands, spires, rocks and coastal headlands. Some of these isolated islands host unique species not found elsewhere.
Some of the most prized species on the refuge include puffins, fur seals, walrus, brown bear, stellar sea lion, otters, eagles, whales and harbor seals. Birds include auklets, kittiwakes, Asiatic birds, murrelets, ptarmigan and albatross.
There are a number of opportunities to explore the expansive refuge. Wildlife viewing, bird viewing and hunting are popular activities within the refuge.
Abundant, unique and charismatic species make wildlife watching on this refuge a joy. Although access is difficult, the birds and mammals are easy to see once you get there. Cliffs swarming with seabirds, rafts of sea ducks offshore in winter, otters, sea lions, birds blown in from Asia, and rare and unique species are viewing highlights.