In 1986, UNESCO declared an area of 57,000 acres (23,000 ha) within the Park a World Biosphere Reserve. This was the largest UNESCO protected biosphere in the world. In 1992, UNESCO included this area as a part of a World Heritage site, extending over an area of 24,300,000-acre (98,000 km2) which also included the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kluane National Park (Canada) and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park (Canada).
We were up bright and early this morning and super excited about what lay ahead for us. We left Skagway at 9:00 PM last evening and are arriving in Glacier Bay at around 7:00 AM this morning. Now once we arrive at the entrance of the bay, we will be taking on board Glacier Park National Park Service Rangers who will interpret what we are seeing. We pick them up at Gustavus, Alaska. The Glaciers we are here to view are in the far reaches of the Bay about 55 to 60 miles to the Northeast.
A large and leisurely breakfast is called for in anticipation of our long and very exciting day today! Breakfast was expertly prepared with meticulous care in the Lido Buffett by our Filipina friend Lydia.
A little later, we are out on deck marvelling at the vistas. It was relatively ‘ho hum’ earlier in the morning but things got considerably more interesting as time went on.
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We are slowing, perceptibly, which indicates to me that we are in range of the National Park Service Ranger Station at Gustavus.
So, we should be taking on the pilot and the Park Rangers in a few minutes. On every Holland America Line cruise to Alaska, guests get to meet and mingle with enthusiastic Glacier Bay park rangers who have a passion not only for the region, but also what they do. They come onboard for the day to give guests a better understanding of what they’re looking at and experiencing at Glacier Bay, making it a more fulfilling scenic visit.
As we entered Glacier Bay National Park, several park rangers joined us and provided a running commentary about the area. The interpretive rangers’ day begins early, usually around 5 a.m. at the park headquarters. A small pilot boat ferries the rangers and their gear to meet the cruise ship at the entrance to Glacier Bay. During an underway transfer, the pilot boat matches speed with the ship, the ship’s crew lowers a rope ladder, the rangers carefully climb aboard to share the visitors’ day of discovery in Glacier Bay National Park. It is an exciting way to start a day and one of the most unique commutes anywhere.
A variety of ranger programs are offered on the cruise ship: a formal ranger presentation in the show lounge, commentary over the public address system while in glacier country, a children’s program and opportunities to meet rangers at the desk set up for them by the crew. A favorite part of the day is looking for wildlife with the passengers: mountain goats on the hillsides, bears on the beach, floating sea otters in the water, a variety of birds, and spouting humpback whales.
Once the Rangers are on Board we head deeper into Glacier Bay – our visit today, will take us 55 to 65 miles into the Bay. The views and vistas improve with every mile we go deeper into the Bay. Glacier Bay is currently 65 miles long. In the mid-1700’s the Grand Pacific Glacier extended all the way down to Point Gustavus covering the entire bay with ice. Today it will take us 4 hours to reach the top of the bay.
The one thing that strikes you as you see this for the first time is the sheer magnitude of it. It is huge, seemingly never-ending, just miles upon miles upon miles of scrub and rock and ice .And every now and then you see some dolphins playing and frolicking in the waters of the bay and then you spy several majestic whales breach the surface and you see their majestic tails wave goodbye to you. It is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen in my life.
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As we penetrate deeper into the Bay more and more ice can be observed floating in the bay. The ice is usually covered with seals and sea lions which use the flows to birth and raise their ‘babies’ during the summwr season away from the prying eyes of the various types of whales closer to the open seas. Birthing their babies in the Bay is a safety measure which in a small way ensures the survival of the species.
And here are a series of photos which I personally believe are among the best I have ever taken. I love these photos and hope you do too. They are taken as we penetrate deeper and deeper into Glacier Bay.
We come upon our first tidal glacier, the Lamplugh Glacier, a dirty river of ice with two or three black bands along it from the material it had scoured up. A thing of beauty it isn’t! But it is certainly interesting, particularly its texture and the subtle blue color. We reach the Lamplugh Glacier at about 9:30am, it has taken a little over two hours to travel this far down Glacier Bay and after about 45 minutes to an hour we proceeded into Tarr Inlet and cruise another half hour to reach the bottom of the inlet and the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers.
We then moved into John Hopkins Inlet to view the glacier of the same name. It is one of the only advancing tidewater glaciers of the Fairweather Range. Access to the face of the glacier is limited to the John Hopkins Inlet.
We leave the John Hopkins Inlet and turn left into Tarr Inlet to view both the Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers and the ‘bottom’ of the inlet. And we start to see more signs of human life. There are small ‘private’ sailboats and motor boats around as well as other larger tour boats…
The Margerie Glacier is the most spectacular of the two rising some 250 feet above the water. The ship stayed in the area for almost an hour and we were able to watch several pieces of the glacier calve off. Although they were difficult to photograph we did manage to get a series of fairly good shots of the calving process.
Here we are approaching the Glacier.
Our first ‘close-up’ view is actually awe inspiring, it is truly a magical moment. To think that we are on the top deck (of 10 decks) of this ship which makes its height from the water line about 158 feet high. The Glacier then, towers over the ship by about another 100 feet – simply awesome and massive.
As we mentioned earlier, we have the opportunity to see the Glacier calving.
This is what happens. There is a massive discharge of water from the glacier as can be seen in the photos below. That “river” flows for anywhere from 2 or 3 minutes to 30 to 45 minutes and then it stops. Just a few minutes later there is a crack like a clap of thunder but 10 times louder than anything you’ve ever heard and then a piece of the glacier breaks off and drops into the sea below. Depending on the size of the block that calves – a fair sized iceberg could be formed or a mass of small ice floes. In our case if was a mass of smaller ices floes. The wave caused by the splash is fairly big but in this case if hardly affected the Zaandam.
And at a closer viewpoint this is what we observe, especially the calving of the glacier.
There are many who would like to know more about this process. We have found the article below by Mark F. Meier which explains fairly clearly what is happening when a glacier calves. This is taken from The Encyclopedia Britannica on-line (www.britannica.com).
“Tidewater Glaciers: Many glaciers terminate in the ocean with the calving of icebergs. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers are the seaward extensions of ice streams originating in ice fields, ice caps, or ice sheets. Some tidewater glaciers are similar to surging glaciers in that they flow at high speeds—as much as 35 metres (115 feet) per day—but they do so continuously. Tidewater glaciers share another characteristic with surging glaciers in that they may advance and retreat periodically, independent of climatic variation.
The physical mechanisms that control the rate of iceberg calving are not yet well understood. Empirical studies of grounded (not floating) tidewater glaciers in Alaska, Svalbard, and elsewhere suggest that the speed of iceberg calving is roughly proportional to water depth at the terminus. This relation can produce an instability and periodic advance-retreat cycles. For example, a glacier terminating in shallow water at the head of a fjord will have a low calving speed that may be exceeded by the ice flow speed, causing advance of the terminus. At the same time, glacial erosion will cause the deposition of sediment as a moraine shoal at the terminus. With time, the glacier will advance, eroding the shoal on the upstream face and depositing sediment on the downstream face. The shoal, by reducing the depth of the water at the glacier’s terminus and thereby inhibiting iceberg calving, will allow the glacier to advance into deep water farther down the fjord. This advance phase is slow—typically 9 to 40 metres (30 to 130 feet) per year—and in an Alaskan fjord it may take a period of 1,000 years or more to cover a typical fjord length of 30 to 130 kilometres (20 to 80 miles).
Such a glacier, in an extended position and terminating in shallow water on a moraine shoal, is in an unstable situation. If, for some reason, the terminus retreats slightly, the deeper water upstream of the shoal will cause an increase in iceberg calving; this will result in further retreat into deeper water, which will further increase the calving until the calving speed becomes so high that the normal processes of glacier flow cannot compensate. A rapid, irreversible retreat will result until the glacier reaches shallow water back at the head of the fjord. In contrast to the slow advance phase, the retreat phase may take only a few decades. The fastest glacier retreats observed during historical time (for instance, the opening of Glacier Bay, Alaska), as well as those inferred during the demise of the great Quaternary ice sheets, were caused by this mechanism. Information on the advance and retreat of tidewater glaciers should not be used to infer climatic change, however.”
Mark F. Meier
We were able to find this fantastic youtube video of a massive calving occurance at the Magerie Glacier captured by: Andreas Schwabe
We had to move on and that we did – we moved over to the Grand Pacific Glacier not much farther into Tarr Inlet. The Grand Pacific Glacier is just to the east of the Margerie and forms the border between the State of Alaska and the Province of British Columbia in Canada. It is known as a “dirty glacier” because of the fact that it is literally covered with the dirt is has scoured up over the centuries which makes it somewhat difficult to recognize the structure as a glacier.
After spending almost two hours here at Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers, it’s time we start to head back to Gustavus to deliver the Rangers to their base and then we can head south towards Ketchikan.
After a day of blue ice, wildlife, and wilderness, the rangers climb back down the rope ladder and wave us all farewell and until the next time.
Surprise, surprise another fabulous dinner awaits and we have a wonderful time…this time it’s the Chef’s Dinner…
In closing our adventure to day I would say this to everyone, taking the time to visit with us: It’s only after seeing this whole region that I said to myself and I am proud to repeat, “If you came here, doubting there was a God, as I did, then this cannot fail to convince you how wrong you are. This just didn’t materialize and it was certainly not created by man. Only a power greater than anything we could possibly dream of could be responsible for creating all of this incredible and majestic beauty and that to me says that there is definitely a GOD who is responsible for all of this magnificence”.
There it is! We’ve spent some 9 to 10 hours cruising Glacier Bay and now that we have dropped off the Park Rangers we finally leave the Bay for our overnight cruise to Ketchikan, which will be our last stop before heading back into Vancouver and our respective flights home.
Goodnight! It’s been a very long day and we’ll see you in Ketchikan in the morning, sleep well all!
Episode 11 of our Magnificent Alaska Adventure of Discovery will follow in a few days, make sure to come back soon!