Alaska Cruise Report: Glacier Bay National Park

From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska July 28, 2010

As a silvery morning mist enveloped the landscape of Lower Glacier Bay, we picked up our team of National Park Rangers (Steve Schaller, Marieke Slovin and Randy Thomas) and began our 60 mile journey to the head of the Bay.

Our first wildlife viewing opportunity was at the South Marble Islands, which we could smell as well as see. This barren set of metamorphic rocks is in the intermediate stage of revegetation after being scraped bare by the Little Ice Age glacier which occupied this part of the Bay just 200 years ago. Assisting in the plant growing succession is the guano of innumerable seabirds nesting in the crevices of cliffs and sea lions lounging on the gentler slopes near the sea. The prospective Junior Rangers on board engaged in a bird naming exercise, finding numerous examples species such as puffins, marbled murrelets, common murres, pigeon guillemots and at least one oystercatcher.

Cruising on up the Bay we encountered our first brown bear just down from Gloomy Knob. The tide was very low and he was ambling through the intertidal zone chewing mussels off the rocks and turning over small boulders to find crabs and other squirmy delights. At Gloomy Knob itself we learned the latest developments in the geologic story of the marble rocks here. There is now evidence that they originated 400-500 million years ago as part of a coral reef along the fringes of the ancient continent of Baltica, located in the equatorial Atlantic. When Baltica broke up into separate pieces the Gloomy Knob rocks became part of the Alexander Terrane moved to the position of the present day Pacific, where it eventually collided with the Wrangellia Terrane and moved northward to Alaska. In addition to the rocks, we also were able to observe the rock climbing ability of numerous mountain goats.

At Russell Cut we were looking for more bears. What we found was the faunal highlight of our Glacier Bay day–a lone wolf prowling the fringes of the alluvial fan at Russell Cut. For the natural history staff this was a sighting expected only once a season, but it seems that this voyage is destined to see all of the charismatic fauna of Southeast Alaska.

Coming into Johns Hopkins Inlet we were looking for calving glaciers. We found another brown bear. This one seemed determined to take an afternoon nap. He raised his sleepy head a couple of times to check us out, but persisted in his prone position. Did we see calving? Wow, did we ever! After about a half hour of small but satisfying ice drops the glacier performed the main event as a huge block toppled from the ice front. There was a splash almost 200 feet high and a shock wave that definitely rocked our boat.

Heading back down the Bay we stopped to check out the carcass of a humpback whale washed up on the shore. We were hoping to see bears and other carnivores taking advantage of an easy meal, but saw only a dozen or more ravens plus an unidentifiable small, dark, four-legged creature that scurried from the scene when we arrived—could have been a wolverine.

We wrapped up our day with a natural history and art exhibition by the youth on board, followed by a recap featuring the Glacier Bay Rangers. For those still looking for more action after dinner there was an excursion onshore at Bartlett Cove. Some of us hiked, some toured the museum, and others just relaxed at the lodge savoring memories of a very special time in Glacier Bay.

Enjoyed this Alaska cruise report? View the detailed itinerary…


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