Saturday, July 5, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Day 17 Columbia Glacier Cruise

Today’s activity was a 9-hour cruise on the Stan Stevens excursion vessel Valdez Spirit. Billed as a glacier and wildlife cruise, this trip delivers on both counts. We normally try to limit the number of pictures we post, and we especially try not to post more than one picture of the same thing. We will warn you that we took over 500 photos on this cruise, and were not able to adhere to our normal practice. Hence, you will see four whale pictures instead of one. It’s so hard to choose!
The Valdez Spirit

Departing the Valdez small boat harbor, the boat passes through Valdez arm into Prince William Sound. On our way through the Port of Valdez we were treated to a close up view of the small boat harbor, with it’s myriads of fishing boats, and of our campground on the harbor channel.

Valdez Small Boat Harbor

Fishing Boats Abound in the Harbor

Passing our Campground on the Excursion Boat

Once into the main harbor there is a fine view of the pipeline terminal. We use the term fine advisably. Since 9/11 there has been an exclusion zone around the terminal, marked by prominent yellow buoys. We were told that the fine for violating this zone is $30,000!

$30,000 Fine to Pass on the Left

We also saw sea otter in the harbor. We were told that the fur is of exceptional quality and fineness, with up to one million hairs per square inch. The main activity of the sea otter is eating, floating on its back and resting.

Sea Otter Seen in Valdez Harbor

Eagles abound in the Prince William Sound area. While we were too far way from the shoreline to photograph the many nesting pairs we saw in the trees, we were able to photograph an eagle’s nest with a lone occupant.

Eagles Nest with Lone Lookout

Valdez Harbor exits into Prince William Sound through a one-quarter mile wide passage called Narrows. While it may seem wide, there was great concern about navigation of supertankers through the narrows when the pipeline terminal was built. All traffic is monitored by radar, and strict traffic lanes are established for large vessels. Ironically, the only serious oil spill occurred well past the narrows, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in 1989. Our captain told a somewhat different story from what we all heard on the news back then. We guess you pays your money and you takes your choice of what you want to believe.

Approaching Valdez Narrows from Prince William Sound

Radar Tower on the Point at Valdez Narrows

Navigation Marker at Bligh Reef

Our Tour Boat Squeaks Through a Side Passage

Our boat turned west in Prince William sound, then turned north into Columbia Bay to view the Columbia Glacier. Columbia is a tidewater glacier, which means that the toe is afloat. Columbia is receding; there is no sheer face, and no dramatic calving.

Columbia Glacier

Because Columbia is receding, there is a substantial underwater terminal moraine in the middle of the bay, where the toe was located hundreds of years ago. Glaciers scrape up and entrain significant quantities of rock and loose stones as they descend. When the toe of the glacier sits in one place for a long time, this load of rubble accumulates on the bottom of the sea as the ice melts and drops its load. This accumulated pile of rubble is called a moraine.

As the boat approaches the Columbia Glacier, the first thing one notices is thousands of “icebergs” drifting south from the toe. We put the word iceberg in quotes to denote its use in the generic sense, as meaning a chunk of ice floating in the water. According to our guide, there are really four different classes of bergs. The smallest, less than 3 feet, are called brash. Chunks from 3 to 7 feet are called growers, while those from 7 to 15 feet are named bergy bits. Only those over 15 feet are permitted the designation iceberg. Bear in mind that 9/10 of the berg is underwater, so that even the smallest fully fledged iceberg is substantially larger than the nominal 15 feet. For what it is worth, our captain maneuvered very carefully so as not to bump into these larger chunks. We were very grateful for this. One can often see critters resting on the floating ice.
Iceberg Floating in Prince William Sound,
With Hinchinbrook Island in the Background

Harbor Seals Resting on a Bergy Bit

Harbor Seals Frolicking near the Bergy Bit

Glacial moraines can be quite large. There is a very large moraine south of New York and Connecticut, named Long Island. The ancestral moraine from Columbia glacier is underwater. On both sides of the moraine, seaward and landward, the water is about 800 feet deep, whereas it is only 35 feet deep over top of the moraine. Because this water is so shallow, many of the larger bergs broken from the present day tip, further up the bay, ground on the moraine as they drift south. We approached the moraine near low tide, so that the high water mark was clearly visible on some of the grounded glaciers, as shown below.

High Tide Line Etched Into an Iceberg Grounded on Glacial Moraine

Exiting the Columbia Bay, we turned west for a few miles, then north into Unakwik Inlet to view Meares Glacier. Along the way we spotted this pretty waterfall.

Waterfall Seen on the East Shore of Unakwik Inlet

You might think you seen one glacier, you seen them all. Not so. Columbia and Mears glaciers are quite different. The first difference is that Mears Glacier is advancing. In contrast to Columbia, the face of Mears Glacier is high and shear, with large facets of fresh ice in view. We hung around the face for about 15 minutes waiting for action, but did not see any major calving activity. The sun began to peek through the clouds as we approached the glacier face, so the view was spectacular, even without the calving action.

Panoramic View of Mears Glacier

Close Up of the Glacier Face

Close Up of Keith Waiting Patiently for a Calving Event

Close Up Showing Dirt Entrained in the Side of the Glacier

Our Boat Stirs Up Glacial Flour Suspended in the Water

We saw many humpback whales throughout the day. One of the more interesting sightings occurred near the end of the day when we came across a whale blowing bubbles in a circular motion. Our guide told us this is a feeding activity and he was attempting to corral the fish in the area for his evening meal. This is unusual behavior for a humpback whose main diet consists of plankton and krill.

Characteristic Humped Back of a Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale Frolics With Seal Lions

Humpback Whale Becomes Annoyed with Sea Lions and Prepares to Dive

Classic Humpback Fluke Display

We also came across a small flock of puffins. There are 2 types, the Horned Puffin and the Tufted Puffin. They are very fast and elusive birds, but we were able to capture a few images.

Puffin Takes Flight as Our Boat Approaches

On our return from Mears Glacier we passed close alongside a colony of Sea Lions at Bull Head. We were told that these are mostly juvenile males, kicked out of the nearby rookery by the more mature, dominant males. Basically, it’s a hangout for teenage guys, and as you might expect they were bellowing boisterously.

Bull Head

Teenage Sea Lions Hang Out in the Hood at Bull Head

Returning to the harbor we passed near a number of boats engaged in purse seine fishing. With this technique, the boat sets a long seine across the current to trap fish. An auxiliary skiff is used to haul the outboard end of the net, which hangs down about 30 feet, and is left in place for an hour or two. At the end of this period, the skiff draws the loop closed. A drawstring is then pulled through the bottom of the net to close it, forming a purse, for which the method is named. The closed purse is pulled aboard to recover the trapped fish. After recovery, the fish are off loaded to a larger vessel for transport to the processing plant, allowing the fisherman to continue fishing without interruption.

Fish Boat Setting a Purse Seine

An Auxiliary Skiff Hauls the Net in Place

Recovering the Purse Net

Off Loading to the Buy Boat

Our day of cruseing was punctuated with a tasty lunch consisting of chicken on a bed of rice, smothered with Alfredo sauce. Late in the afternoon we were treated to clam chowder. We returned to the dock at 7pm, a group of tired but very satisfied WIT campers.

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