Glacier Bay – Rivers of Ice

posted in: Alaska | 1

May 14th and we were back out in the Gulf of Alaska for a sea day before arriving in Glacier Bay, over 500 nautical miles to the south.

It just doesn’t look like 500 nautical miles on this map. It’s all about scale and Alaska is enormous!

It was an overcast and cloudy day. The EXC presentation, “Ancestral Memories, The Past is Present” was especially good, probably the best one of the cruise. It was about the indigenous peoples of southeastern Alaska, the Tlingits and Haida, in their own voices.

It was Mother’s Day so there was a special buffet and more desserts than I’ve ever seen in one place. We skipped the buffet but did taste a couple of desserts. Therefore, we also did a few laps around the deck. 😉😋.
I had the pool to myself!

We awoke on May 15th to clear skies and sunshine, very welcome after yesterday’s fog and rain. In fact, it was a spectacular weather day. We were surrounded by glaciers but felt the warmth of the sun all day long.

The typical cruise ship route in Glacier Bay. A maximum of only two cruise ships a day are allowed to enter the park. Most cruise lines don’t visit Glacier Bay on their Alaska itineraries. 

National Park Rangers boarded the Nieuw Amsterdam in the morning and spent the entire day with us on the ship. Glacier Bay is one of 400 areas managed by the National Park Service. Dedicated as a National Monument in 1925, Glacier Bay was designated as a National Park in 1980. It has been a destination for visitors cruising on ships since 1890.

Glaciers are “rivers of ice.” Snow falls in the mountains, compacts into ice, and slides downhill. Each year, snow must fall to replenish the glacier.

Glacier Bay’s Glacier Statistics

  • Number of glaciers: 1,045
  • Longest glacier: Grand Pacific Glacier, 40 miles
  • Fastest glacier: Johns Hopkins Glacier can move up to 15 feet per day.
  • Area of Glacier Bay National Park covered by ice: 2,055 square miles, or 27%

Glacier Bay didn’t exist over 250 years ago. This sprawling valley was all glacier and no bay. A massive river of ice, 100 miles long and thousands of feet deep filled the deep basin surrounded by mountains. Beginning in the 18th century, the glacier started retreating up the branching valley. In 1750 the glacier had reached its maximum jutting into Icy Strait. Forty-five years later it had melted back 5 miles into Glacier Bay, gouged out by the glacier’s movement. Less than 100 years later in 1879, the glacier had retreated another 40 miles. Today, you must travel 65 miles up the bay to view the tidewater glaciers. This single collosal glacier has since shrunk to many smaller ones tucked within steep fjords, creating hundreds of miles of coastline and a new marine habitat.

The views ALL DAY LONG were incredible. To be surrounded by this natural phenomena was an experience that won’t be forgotten, although the names of each glacier may be. I did not want to pause and take notes so I have forgotten a lot. 😞 We spent the day moving about the ship to see everything from different perspectives. The bow on Deck 5 was open for viewing and Deck 10 provided some awesome views, too. Honestly, even our own verandah was great for private viewings.

Early morning at the beginning of Glacier Bay.
Ranger Dan is from North Haven, Connecticut (does anyone else find it curious that we encountered two Connecticut natives, experts in wildlife and nature, on this one cruise in Alaska?)
Pea soup on the bow, mid-morning. That’s pea soup, the edible version, not the fog version – only bright gorgeous sunshine all day long! I think of soup as more of a lunch food than breakfast. It wasn’t really that tasty, I make better.
This photo sure looks like a glacier to me. It might be Reid Glacier which was the first one we passed.
A few of the sizable bergs floating past. And sea otters.

Majorie Glacier is all the way up at the head of Glacier Bay, 65 miles from the mouth.   It is about 0.85 miles wide, with an ice face that is about 200 feet high above the waterline. The glacier is approximately 21 miles long and begins in snow-fields of the Fairweather Range where elevations exceed 9000 feet. The ice flows about 3-7 feet per day. 

Margerie Glacier is the highlight of Glacier Bay National Park.

The ship stayed here for at least an hour and turned around and around so that everyone had views of the glacier. We changed our positions from port to starboard, fore to aft, just enthralled with it all.

A little closer….
And closer yet….. by camera zoom. The face is 200 feet above the surface!
There we are! With Marjorie in the background.
There is a boat, and not a small one, passing in front of Marjorie Glacier. There were kayakers paddling in the water from the boat. That would be so cool to do? Or maybe just cold.
The dinghy and kayakers are just visible behind this boat.
We ate lunch outdoors on an upper deck. Can’t complain about the view at this restaurant!
On the return journey, the ship turned into Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Johns Hopkins Glacier is formed from numerous tributary glaciers, many of which extend 12 or more miles into the surrounding peaks. Debris can be seen in the ice face and extending up the glacier. This debris is transported in and on the ice and released either by the melting of the ice face or calving of icebergs into the Inlet. 

Johns Hopkins Glacier is about 1-mile wide and 225-300 feet high at the face.

Lamplugh Glacier sits at the entrance of Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Lamplugh Glacier is 0.9 miles wide, 165 feet high at the face, and over 19 miles long. Its flow rate is approximately 0.75 – 1 foot per day.
Lamplugh Glacier is noted for the intense blue color of its ice. The thicker and purer the ice, the bluer it appears. I don’t think I captured that blue.
By 5:00 pm the Nieuw Amsterdam arrived back near Bartlett Cove where the National Park Visitor Center is located. The rangers departed the ship at that point.

Then there was a bit of excitement. The Captain announced that a passenger needed to be evacuated so our journey’s continuation would be delayed while he was taken to shore. We got to see a lifeboat/tender put into action.

Clockwise from upper left – Tender ready for action, Passenger in wheelchair to be boarded, Tender lowered to the water, Tender with passenger on its way.

Another day came to an end. We never saw any calfing, but we were happy to see the glaciers and grateful to have had exceptional weather. At the rate of change and retreat these glaciers may not be here for the next generation.

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