It’s low tide, on a clear, blue sky morning as Ellie Schmidt leads a group of visiting cruise ship passengers to the waterline for a snorkel tour. But the group isn’t in the tropics, and they’re not in the usual beach day attire. Instead, they’re wearing thick wetsuits, on the rocky shores of Sitka, Alaska’s Magic Island State Park.
Strands of bull kelp bob on the water’s surface. Below, a thriving kelp forest home to vibrant sea stars, urchins, and jellyfish awaits. Back at the shop, when I ask the snorkelers how they chose this somewhat unusual attraction, one of them says, “Who can say they’ve snorkeled in Alaska?”
Another remarks he’d never even heard of snorkeling in Alaska until this trip.
Even on a summer day like today, water temperatures wont go above 55 degrees. But Schmidt- founder of Selkie Snorkels in Sitka- says it’s part of what makes snorkeling in Alaska special.
“I think there’s sort of this post-snorkel high that you get when you get out of the water, the cold water” she said. “There’s this hyper-rich, nutritious water that creates incredible abundance of biodiversity and animals that’s really striking and unique compared to, even like, tropical places.”
Selkie Snorkels opened this June, only two short months after Schmidt conceived of the business. While snorkeling may not be a quintessential Alaska pastime, Schmidt hopes Selkie Snorkels can be an eco-friendly attraction for summer visitors.
“I think from a standpoint of a tourism industry that’s focused a lot around fishing — which of course is wonderful — it’s kind of cool to have tourism that’s just focused on looking and maybe taking photos,” she said.
The idea of ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ tourism is not a new one, but in rural destinations like Sitka, it remains especially relevant. According to Cornell professor and sustainable tourism expert Megan Epler Wood, sustainability looks different in every community, but the framework is always the same.
“The idea would be that tourism doesn’t damage the environment…where visitors visit, and that it doesn’t hurt the chances of local people to prosper,” explains Epler Wood.
As tourism returns to Sitka in record breaking numbers this summer, the city has been embroiled in conversations about how best to handle the strain on local resources. It’s unclear what the future of tourism in the Southeast will look like, but according to Wood, businesses like Selkie can play a part in protecting vulnerable ecosystems.
“We have a lot of good research and ecotourism because it’s been around the longest, where you see that it really has contributed to the conservation of natural areas, it absolutely does provide revenue, and a reason for people to conserve the natural environment,” said Epler Wood.
Fred Drake runs a snorkeling operation in Ketchikan, perhaps the first in Southeast. His company Snorkel Alaska has been up and running for nearly 20 years. Like Schmidt, he fell in love with the intricate ecosystems beneath Southeast’s frigid waves.
“There’s more marine life in our intertidal zone than there are most places in the world. And people don’t realize that you look at the surface of the water, it looks black, it looks cold, hard. As soon as you put your face in the water, there’s all this color,” Drake said enthusiastically.
While he’s never labeled himself a sustainable tourism company, his goal has always been to share and educate people about the beauty of Alaska’s ocean life.
“These creatures are harvested by commercial divers like extreme here in Southeast Alaska — cucumbers, sea urchin, giant geoduck clams. I mean, they take so much of it out of the water and ship it all over Asia and Japan for profit,” he said. “We’re educating people about them, letting them handle them, take photos with them, and then we’re putting them back.”
Like Selkie, Drake’s customers are majority cruise ship passengers, but he said his business still holds value for the locals
“I can’t tell you how many locals have come back and thanked me for introducing them into the underwater world here,” said Drake.
Schmidt hopes in the coming summers, her business too can benefit the community, by making snorkeling more accessible to locals and tourists alike.
“It’d be great if we could do sort of like educational tours in the future. Or have sort of a more co-op style where we’re sharing gear, and making the ocean a little bit more accessible,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt said she plans on returning for next summer’s tourist season. And while its unclear exactly what Selkie will look like in the future, it’s clear snorkeling in Sitka is here to stay.
Visit our sponsors
Wise (formerly TransferWise) is the cheaper, easier way to send money abroad. It helps people move money quickly and easily between bank accounts in different countries. Convert 60+ currencies with ridiculously low fees - on average 7x cheaper than a bank. No hidden fees, no markup on the exchange rate, ever.