Continued from Part I here.
It was cool at Icy strait point
Not considered a real town the next stop on the cruise was more of an island that the cruise line developed.
We assembled at 7am and were transported onto the ship’s tenders for our first on-shore excursion – whale watching! The air is crisp cool and we loaded onto a vessel that carried nearly 50 people! Soon, we set off towards the bay hunting for our desired prey.
The species most likely to be found in these areas are the Gray whale and humpback – frequently seen with their hind flips (aka Flukes) out of the water as they surface to take a fresh breath of air.
They come here every season to feed on the rich “soup” of fish and krill. Other species may come by occasionally and Orcas pods are also common place around Juneau all the way to Skagway.
We saw two young kayakers paddling really close to a pair of whales – their exhalations being so close! Whale tails can be spotted when the whales dive deeper into the waters.
We are not sure if it is for feeding or simply the thing they do… We had no luck with whales coming up real close to our boat today though we did see some curious Seals swimming close by before disappearing. There are so many whales in this area that we can see them from practically all angles of the boat. Except they didn’t come close!
Now no journey to this part of Alaska is complete without taking to the skies. While it is a little more costly (US$310pp for 70 minutes), the views from the air will fill you with awe.
Flying out from Hoonah, this hour long flight took us over the national parks. For the more adventurous, a landing on one of the glaciers can also be made. That can only be done with a helicopter and we did not recall seeing that as an options offered by the cruise line.
From this altitude, we can see tiny specks which are the boats. And yes, some of them are on the way to do some whale watching at Icy straits like we did. It is one of the many narrow bodies of water at the inside passage where the whales find shelter. Incredibly we could still see the kayakers getting so close to the whales that one belch made them all wet through!
Indeed, some of the smaller sightseeing boats went right up alongside the whales. Darn it, why didn’t they surface close to us earlier?
Glacial National Park and Glacial bay offers a combination of glaciers, ice fields and the blue yonder as you float amongst the clouds. Due to its location, the park experiences inclement weather conditions frequently and rains are common. Glacial ice is said to be one of the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet. Its rapid loss is a concern as the impact it has on sea levels and sea salinity affects marine life. According to National Geographic, the ice in this park has retreated 65 miles over the last 200 years!
FACTS: Glacier bay consists of 2 “arms” and has 16 “tide water” glaciers. It is 50 miles north from Juneau and has an area of 3.3 million acres. The key highlight is the Grand Pacific Glacier. Can’t tell from the photos though…sigh.
Large tracts of ice fields and landlocked glaciers also formed and most are small having no names. Because the ice reflects off most light, little heat is absorbed allowing us to see these fields even in summer. As you view the beautiful vista, you will also find beautiful contrast of blue amidst the white snow and ice that cannot be seen from the ground. These are large glacial pools of melt water, unstable and dangerous parts of the glacier/ice field as it indicates that ice is melting rapidly. Some have linked this to climate change and while we are not experts, the significant number of them suggests that the temperature has indeed risen.
Up close and personal
As part of the cruising experience, the liners will make the attempt towards some of the glaciers that calve into the sea. In some cases like the John Hopkins’ glacier, the calving is so intense that ships can hardly get within 2 miles from the glacier for fear of crushing icebergs. Not going there!
Our cruise ship though was making it close to Hubbard glacier, one of the larger ones where we could see the constant calving of huge blocks of ice into the sea.
Each huge block of ice falling into the sea caused large ripples – some enough to shake the ship!
This is one large glacier as it extends from its source in the Yukon 120km away. Based on this, it takes 400 years for the ice to traverse from the source to the foot of the glacier! The captain of our vessel made 3 or 4 turns in the bay to allow passengers to view the beauty of the glacier. Tip: It was really cold to stand on the open deck. Put on warm clothes to be able to stay out longer.
We must had stayed in the area for more than 2 hours, seeing ever so often parts of the glacier breaking off chunks of ice. The captain must have steered the vessel really close to the glacier as we could zoom in close to see the crevices! The huge blocks of ice made great waves in the frigid water. Sonic booms could be heard each time the ice hits the water. Recall that an iceberg is only 10% visible (above water), so icebergs floating away in large chunks of could do real damage to smaller vessels.
Onward we sail!
That was indeed a highlight for us, getting this close to a glacier. The entire cruise journey had been filled with adventure each day. So, with this it was finally time to cruise the open seas on the way towards the Alaskan port of Seward.
Of course not all activity takes place off the ship. The Alaskan cruise offers a variety of entertainment and food choices just like any other. The difference – you get world class views every morning when you wake up!
Remember to bring sufficient warm clothing. Even though it was middle of June, the cold of the glacier was overpowering for many who were not prepared. Better safe than sorry! You’ll also see that this advise is useful should you take to the vast interior of Alaska. Read more about that adventure here.
We sailed the inside passage in June 2009