Friday, August 08, 2008
Sailing the Fjords and Glaciers of Alaska
Now that I have blogged about the overall experience (and setup) of our cruise in Alaska, let's talk a bit more about some of the specific trips we made. Our cruise left from Whittier and sailed south-east, starting out with 2 days at sea, visiting some great glaciers, before we sailed down the "inside passage", all the way to Vancouver:
For me, this first part of the cruise was the main attraction. I simply wanted to see some of those gigantic tidewater glaciers "calve". Those are glaciers who reach all the way down from the mountain to the ocean. The face of the glacier is often 10,000 year old ice that got pushed down from all the way up the top of a mountain. As glaciers flow down slowly, the face gets pushed into the ocean where the ice mixes with salt water, causing it to break of bits and pieces. Often, these "bits" are quite large. As they break off, they form ice bergs (or "bergy-bits", which are the smaller variation of ice bergs that occur in the Pacific ocean). The process is loud and spectacular.
However, glaciers are also retreating, and there are fewer and fewer tide water glaciers left. Whether this is caused by global warming or not is a different story (my money is on "yes"), but either way, they are retreating no matter the reason. So seeing this was very high on my list.
Our cruise left from Whittier at around 9:30pm the first night (at bright daylight, I might add) and sailed to our first destination: College Fjord. College Fjord has a number of different glaciers, some tide water, some further up. And you guessed it, they are all named after universities. College Fjord is not very far from Whittier, so we arrived there at 6am. Not my preferred time, but it really didn't matter so much. We got up and watched in awe. The glaciers are spectacular, and sailing through waters full of small floating ice bergs (yes, they are really called "bergy-bits") isn't something you see every day. The most spectacular glacier here is Harvard Glacier:
A look at Harvard Glacier from the ship on an early morning of a gloomy day.
You do not see any glaciers calving here. There also is a limit as to how close the ship can get to the glacier itself. Nevertheless, it was well worth getting up early (and after all, we could go back to sleep at around 9am). We saw amazing scenery, several glaciers, and even quite a bit of wildlife on shore. We counted at least 2 or 3 bears. However, they were admittedly quite far in the distance.
The rest of day 1 was spent at sea. This was also the only day, where, for a brief period of time, we were out of the sight of land. Amazingly, the ocean was completely calm with maximum wave heights of less than 1 foot. Quite unusual, from what I understand.
The next day, we arrived in Glacier Bay. This was the part of the trip I looked forward to the most, and in hindsight, I can only recommend a cruise that includes Glacier Bay. We entered the bay at around 9am, and right away, we were rewarded with the sighting of several Humpback whales. Some even quite close to the ship (which at that point had to sail very slowly to protect the many whales in that area). Seeing your first Humpback whale relatively close is a sight you won't forget. I just stood there for at least an hour watching for whales and seals.
At around 1:30pm, after sailing past awesome scenery and several glaciers, we arrived at the main attraction: Margerie Glacier. This is about as amazing a tide water glacier you will ever see, and the ship stops right in front of it for about an hour (quite close too). The size of the glacier is just amazing. Its face is about a mile wide and reaches 250feet (almost 100 meters at the tallest parts) out of the water (another 100 feet are below the ocean's surface). The whole glacier is about 21 miles long (34km). The amazing aspect here is that you can just wait for the glacier to calve. Every few minutes, a piece will break off with a thunderous roar and a big splash. It is a peculiar experience. Most of the time is spent waiting for something to happen (camera at the ready), and then each "event" is over in just a few seconds, followed by half the ship saying "dang... I missed the photo opportunity!". But it is one of the most amazing natural sights I have ever seen. Right there, the whole trip would have been worth it!
At Glacier Bay, even very large ships like the Diamond Princess can get very very close to the calving glaciers. Is is a very very impressive sight that you surely won't forget.
Glacier ice is blue due to its compression over tens of thousands of years. In the middle of the picture, with the sun shining through, it is most apparent.
Looking back at Glacier Bay as we are sailing away on a gorgeous day.
The ship we were on (Diamond Princess) was a great vessel to see this from. Despite there being 2,600 passengers on board, we had no trouble finding a spot on deck that allowed us to witness everything comfortably. The captain did a great job at giving us enough time to enjoy the spectacle, and he turned the boat around, so absolutely everyone had the chance to see it. (And yes, there even was enough room for everyone to walk over to the other side once the ship turned and watch some more).
Of course, standing by the railing wasn't the only way to see the glacier. Some people used one of the ships many hot-tubs to watch everything in their bathing suits, with a cocktail in their hands. What a trip!
However, a word of warning is in order: Glaciers are frozen because temperatures are low! I had expected temperatures in the 50s, but with the wind chill, things can get very cold, and I ended up buying a hat, scarf, and gloves. Luckily, I had brought enough sweaters and a winter jacket. Nevertheless, it was rather cold (and having caught myself a serious cold the week before in Seattle didn't help either [Update: 6 weeks later it turned out that I actually had pneumonia... but hey! Can't let little details ruin a great trip, right? :-)]).
The rest of the day we spent traveling back out from Glacier Bay towards our first real stop. We watched tons of great scenery and saw quite a bit of wildlife. Bears, seals, whales, and eagles. You can expect to see them while you watch for them on deck, or you can see them from one of the ship's bars, or the dining rooms, or... well, you see them practically all the time! And that didn't change as we sailed on towards Skagway. That however shall be the story of my next post...
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:
Posted @ 1:07 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)