An unpromising start to the day, with overcast skies and rain threatening, even the Storm petrels where taking shelter from the miserable conditions on the deck of the ship. However the rangers, whose launch had come alongside from the headquarters at Bartlett Cove, assured us that when we had traveled the 65 miles up Glacier Bay to the tidewater glaciers and the heart of the Fairweather Mountains the weather would improve and the sun would be out.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a highlight of the journey up the Inside Passage and part of a 25 million acre World Heritage Site – one of the world’s largest protected areas. Just 250 years ago, Glacier Bay was all glacier and no bay, a river of ice 100 miles long and thousands of feet thick occupied the entire bay. Today that glacier has gone retreating north leaving fewer than a dozen tidewater glaciers.
Wrapped up in several layers we braved the icy cold to stand on deck for hours and watch the amazing spectacle of the glacial scenery surrounding us unfold as we travel up the bay. Incredibly as promised the sun began to show signs of coming out. The commentary of the rangers explained that although most of the glaciers were retreating unlike most other areas some were still advancing. As the ship slowly moved up the John Hopkins inlet the beautiful icy blue of the Lamplugh and John Hopkins glaciers were the first to appear as they carved their way through the mountains to the sea.
After spending some time in the inlet we headed back and then made a left turn into the Tarr Inlet on route to the Margerie Glacier. Amazingly, as we were watching, a group of four or five sea otters leisurely lying on their backs with their heads and tails out of the water cruised past us. Next, we saw what we thought was another otter swimming through the icy water, but on looking more closely rounded ears and a hump back identified it as a grizzly bear. Astonishingly, this was the first time the rangers and the ship’s captain had seen a grizzly swimming through this area of Glacier Bay.
We then cruised to the Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers. The Grand Pacific glacier was grey black with terminal moraine and looked stark in comparison to the stunningly beautiful Margerie glacier. Tidewater glaciers are valley glaciers that flow all the way down to the ocean producing cliffs of sculptured ice on the face. As the seawater flows underneath the surface it produces rapid melting and causes spectacular calving as the icebergs fall from the face in to the sea, something that everyone aboard was hoping to see.
As we arrived at the glaciers face there were signs that we might experience a calving. After about half an hour a small piece about the size of a car broke off and crashed into the ice floes below the glacier. It was sometime before the sun and tide stirred the glacier into action definitely well worth the two-hour wait to witness this. To begin with the glacier growled and grumbled all the time as the ice moved.
As the glacier calved it was accompanied by a sound like a cannon shot. “White thunder,” the Tlingit (native people) called it. A tiny shower of shards of icy heralded the calving of an iceberg of about 300 feet as it plunged into the sea, submerging with huge splashes and then surfacing, showering the surface with ice and disturbing the seals resting on the ice floes
The sound of “White thunder”