Alaska Cruise Report: Glacier Bay National Park

From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska July 9, 2010

South Marble Island is a fascinating first stop for our full day of exploration in Glacier Bay. Steller sea lions groaned and growled from their haul-out on the glacially rounded rocks. Hundreds of seabirds frequent this island for nesting and roosting, including the delightful tufted puffins. One does not need to be a serious birdwatcher to appreciate these football-shaped divers. They fly through the water with stubby wings that double as flippers. Dressed with bright orange beaks and elegant tufts of straw-colored feathers that sweep back from their faces, these birds tend to capture our imagination. It is said that King Arthur wished to be reincarnated as a puffin. In addition to the abundant tufted puffins, we spotted horned puffins and a variety of other seabirds including kittiwakes, murres and oystercatchers.

Gloomy Knob was far from gloomy today as we approached three different mountain goats quite low on the steep cliffs. One stood almost motionless near the water and then started to graze on herbaceous plant. A short while later we discovered a shaggy nanny and her kid. The baby suddenly started to nurse, jabbing at its patient mother for a meal. These creatures prefer terrain with a 50 to 65 percent slope where they gain protection from wolves and bears. Their soft inner wool was prized by native Tlingits in making elaborate ceremonial capes known as Chilkat blankets. The goats carried on with their daily routine without any notice of the admiring crowd viewing them from our ship. 

Three national park rangers traveled with us for the day and provided a fascinating commentary and numerous hands-on props and demonstrations to enhance our experience. Younger guests worked on Junior Ranger booklets and became engaged with other special projects throughout the day. Displays of animal hair and bones added to our appreciation of the wildlife species found in Southeast Alaska.

The northernmost section of Glacier Bay is fed by two glaciers, the bright blue-white Margerie and the very dirty Grand Pacific that once filled the entire bay with ice thousands of feet thick. The National Geographic Sea Bird remained at the face of Margerie while we waited and were finally rewarded with the sight of crumbled glacial ice falling into the sea. Kittiwakes perched on floating ice and now and then a seal poked its head out of the murky water.

In the afternoon, the ship motored south towards the entrance to the bay. We identified quite a few Kittlitz’s murrelets, puffin relatives that nest near glaciers. Approximately 30 percent of all of these murrelets in Alaska are found in Glacier Bay National Park, their southernmost population center. Two courting brown bears cavorted in the vicinity of a long-dead humpback whale. They wrestled and romped together before finally wandering into the shrubbery, out of view of the many cameras and inquisitive eyes aimed in their direction. We thought that we had seen all that the park had to offer, but then more than a dozen killer whales appeared just ahead, and everyone raced back to the decks. These animals were moving fast and steadily at about 4-1/2 to 5 knots. It was a fantastic experience to watch them in action.

Our day drew to a close with a visit to Bartlett Cove. Our rangers departed, and we strode off for a variety of after-dinner walks or a stroll to the visitor center and gift shop following a busy day in this pristine and constantly changing wilderness.

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