Alaska Cruise Report: Tracy Arm

From the National Geographic Sea Lion in Alaska, August 1, 2010

We spent the night sailing south from Juneau to one of the most magnificent places in Southeast Alaska. Tracy Arm is the perfect place to start the first day of our expedition. Majestic fjords that create 4,000 feet tall walls, with countless waterfalls, emerge from the seawater. The deep arms lead our way to two tidewater glaciers called Sawyer and South Sawyer. These giant rivers of ice carved the entire landscape as they made their way into the sea for millennia.

The volume of ice that flowed through here, producing the soft rounded shapes of the mountains, may have reached about a mile in altitude. After the Wisconsin Ice Age, most of this ice melted, exposing the lifeless rock to the elements. As years went by, the rock’s surface has provided a substrate for lichens, mosses and other pioneering plants, which have gradually made their way to suitable places to germinate as the air transported them.

We sailed through the morning admiring the scenery until we stopped at the face of Sawyer Glacier. The fjord was almost ice-free. We observed it from the bow of the ship for a decent amount of time, until our patience paid off and we saw our first calving glacier, followed by a “white thunder”.

This afternoon we explored South Sawyer Glacier from our Zodiacs. South Sawyer was a lot more active, and the fjord was packed with icebergs. We slowly made our way, admiring the deep blue color of the icebergs, and some harbor seals swimming around them.

As we got closer, we saw the glacier calve several times. The massive pieces of ice splashed violently over the water creating a white explosion, which was followed by a huge wave. We always stay at least one fourth of a mile away from the face, and at this distance, the waves gently move the boats up and down. In the distance, we could see dozens of harbor seals resting on the floating ice quite unconcerned as the glacier calved in the background.

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