Alaska Cruise Report: Glacier Bay National Park

From the National Geographic Sea Bird in Alaska August 20, 2010

Those of us who heeded Cindy’s 5:30 AM call to get up on deck were richly rewarded with one of the best wildlife performances ever. Leading players in the drama were the carcass of a humpback whale on the beach, four brown bears and eight (!) wolves. Act 1 had two brown bears working the carcass and two more in the water cleaning up after their breakfast. Act 2 introduced the wolves prowling along the shoreline. In the grand finale there were two brown bears and two wolves sharing a meal. A “peaceable kingdom” indeed because usually these animals will aggressively defend their food, but in this case the resource was so great that they seemed happy to share. As a postlude, one of the wolves ate a huge chunk of whale meat and trotted back along the shore to meet four frolicking wolf pups. Our NPS Ranger Jeff Pietka offered the theory that the wolf was intending to redistribute the meal to the pups by regurgitating.

The next stop was Johns Hopkins inlet where the clouds were just parting to reveal 10,000 foot peaks rising above the glacial ice. While we were watching a few sizeable chunks calved off generating the thunderous roar the Tlingit called “sum-dum” (loosely translated as “white thunder”). Although it is late in the season there were still a few seals drifting along on the icebergs formed by the calving. Earlier in the year thousands of seals can be found here using the ice as a protective place for pupping. One big concern of the National Marine Fisheries Agency is that tidewater glaciers are rapidly disappearing so this essential habitat is threatened.

At Gloomy Knob we searched for the mountain goats expected here and quickly found them, some almost at the shoreline. Altogether eight goats, nannies, and kids could be seen at once climbing various parts of the near vertical dolomitic marble cliffs.

Further down the bay we came across a pod of at least a dozen killer whales. At first they were spread out in twos and threes across the Bay. Later they joined together in one big pod, with their magnificent dorsal fins rising and falling in a staccato pattern when they surfaced.

We continued our search for wildlife up Tyndall Cove in Geike Inlet. Nothing spectacular here except the unique sense of summit to shoreline tranquility found only in a few parts of Southeast Alaska.

On our way to South Marble Island to view birds and sea lions, we were waylaid by a group of killer whales that were exhibiting strange behavior. Our marine mammal expert, Flip Nicklin, said that the group could be either feeding or maybe misbehaving under water.

At South Marble we saw birds galore—gulls, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, common murres, oystercatchers—but the bird everyone was looking for was the tufted puffin. They totally amused us with their attempts to take flight: headlong dives off cliffs and desperate foot thrashing takeoffs from the water trying to get to flight speed velocity. Our ranger Jeff let us know that the Park Service has now written legislation to enable the Hoonah Tlingit to return to Marble Island to do their traditional harvesting of gull eggs, because research shows that this will have no significant effect on the bird life.

For the last event of the day, we finally got off the ship to do an aerobic hike with Sokie or interpretative hikes with the Natural History Staff or an easygoing stroll up to the lodge at Barlett Cove.

It was a very, very good day in Glacier Bay. We look forward to more of the same tomorrow.”

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