Friday, August 7, 2015

Valdez--Glacier Cruise

Monday, August 3, was a very special day--our 47th anniversary!!  What an incredible life journey it has been with all the twists and turns life has presented, to be able to meet all these life events together, side by side.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine all the awe and wonder we've experienced throughout our marriage.  The strength we've drawn from each other, the love and support, and just the knowledge that we didn't have to face any challenge alone has given us 47 incredible years!  And such great joy to have been blessed with three wonderful children, and now a wonderful daughter-in-law, grandson and son-in-law.  Just doesn't get any better than this! And did we have a glorious celebration that day!! Just so happens that this was the day most of us in the group were signed up for an all day cruise to go out to see glaciers and marine wildlife and it was absolutely amazing!!  We got to see see otters, some of our absolute favorite marine animals, orcas, seals, sea lions, lots of different birds--including Trisha's all time favoite, puffins!!  Plus we got up close and personal with Meares Glacier, the pinnacle of this cruise.  We were able to get within a quarter of a mile from the glacier itself, and saw a lot of calving, with some small and some quite large chunks of ice falling off the glacier face.  It was so fascinating, to just sit with the engines off, listening to the quiet, with some birds calling, punctuated by the loud cracking sounds made when pockets of air trapped inside the glacier would explode.  Sometimes this was right at the face of the glacier, resulting in the calving of parts falling into the sea, but often it was cracking deeper into the glacier that did not result in any actual falling ice--just absolutely fascinating.  The captain of the boat was so knowledgeable about everything we saw, including all the wildlife, their habitats and characteristics, the fishing operations we saw, the oil industry that's so prevalent here, and was very informative about the way glaciers work, the history of this particular glacier, as well as other glaciers within Prince William Sound.  We had absolutely gorgeous weather for most of the day, with hardly a cloud in the sky, brilliant sunshine and, though at times quite cool, it was not unduly cold.  We were so lucky, as we learned that the two other Fantasy tours that had come through a couple of weeks earlier had had nothing but rain the whole time they were in Valdez.  On the way back, there was a time when we ran into some pretty heavy fog, to the point that the foghorn was going off every 2 minutes, and at times the visibility was very, very low.  It was at the point where we could see the puffins, so I didn't get very many decent photos, but by golly, we did get to see them, so Trisha's day was complete!  The crew was very helpful, they served us a nice hot lunch, and then on the way in they served us again with some good hot soup--clam chowder for the non vegans and some minestrone for those of us herbivores--very yummy!

Learned that the original town of Valdez was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake in 1964--when the earthquake struck it caused an underwater landslide in the harbor, producing a tsunami that crashed against a mountain on the other side of the harbor, which then pushed the wave back into the harbor and town, three times!  As a result, much of the town's buildings just collapsed, but when everything was said and done, the engineers and other experts concluded that it was too dangerous to stay on the old town site, so they literally moved the town to another site, some 4 miles away on land donated by the owner of the harbor company--which is now the town of Valdez, where we are now.  Folks were able to pick out lots on which to build new homes, though some folks moved their existing homes to the new sites.  Over 30 people died, many of them being out on the dock, helping to unload a big cargo ship that was there, and were swept away when the wave obliterated the dock.  Pretty amazing that they just rebuilt the town on this new site.  Anyway, a little more about that in a subsequent post.

This wasn't the boat we went out on, but was the smaller craft the cruise outfit operates; this shot was taken from the window of the restaurant where Trisha and I celebrated our anniversary at dinner the night before the cruise

This is one of the boats featured on The Deadliest Catch!

Looking out at the channel we would take once we were under way
Looking back to shore from the deck of the boat, before we took off
These gorgeous flowers, along the windows of the restaurant where we had dinner the night before

Looking toward the biggest mountain on one side of the harbor.  This is the mountain which pushed the tsunami back and forth, wiping out the original harbor and destroying the town
Sea otters just chillin'.  We both just love these creatures, with their sweet faces as they swim along on their backs, holding fish while munching away, or just playing.  I'm just fascinated by them and can't seem to get enough of them whenever we see them.  There were so many here, though, so many more than we've ever seen in one location before.  They came so close to the boat and just seemed to be looking right at us--probably laughing among themselves at these strange creatures who weren't even swimming!

Passing the terminal for the pipeline, where the oil from Prudhoe Bay ends up in these tanks to await loading onto tanker ships or trucks for transport

The captain said it takes about 14 hours to load a tanker this size
The glacier and snow covered mountains are just beyond words beautiful!

Below is a telephoto shot of the face of the glacier in the picture above
Many waterfalls like this carrying melted snow and ice down to the sea
We could maneuver around this series of two or three tiny islands, just off the edge of the main channel

For a few brief moments these low lying clouds made the view a little less clear, but it did clear up soon after

Dramatic effect of the sighting of this completely snow covered peak way in the distance beyond the near range

This is a commercial fishing operation, called set netting.  When they get to the spot they want to fish, the small skiff pulls one end of a huge net out away from the main boat and comes around to form a circle.  The bottom of the net has a series of weights along the bottom edge, so the idea is to have this big wall of net that the fish swim into, the skiff and the main boat meet to close the circle, and then there is a winch to pull a cable through loops on the bottom edge, sort of like a drawstring, so the end result is basically gigantic basket, hopefully full of fish!  The net is then hauled up onto the main boat and the fish dumped down into the hold.  A fishing boat like this typically holds about 80,000 pounds of fish.  It's a pretty complex system they have to keep tabs on the fishing, to make sure that these waters are not over fished and to ensure the continuation of a healthy population of salmon.  This involves a lot of data collection, including arial surveillance to measure the rate at which salmon are returning to their birthplace to spawn, the size of the catch on the various commercial boats, etc.  The boats are allowed to begin fishing at 6:00 AM and can take all they can catch for 14 hours, when they must stop.  Depending on the results of the monitoring, it may be several days before they are allowed to go back out again, so they have to make the most of every hour they're allowed to fish.
Here you can see the yellow top edge of the net, as the skiff is pulling it out away from the fishing boat
Now you can see them starting to pull in the drawstring and close the "basket" to haul in the catch

As we make our way toward Meares Glacier, we begin to see these lines of ice floes in the water--basically a lot of small icebergs

This is just an amazing sight--knowing your'e out here amongst a whole bunch of icebergs.  Even though there is a lot more modern and sophisticated technology to inform the captain and crew about the size and location of the below the surface part of these bergs, couldn't help but feel like we were on the Titanic!
The difference in color and texture here between the blue or almost clear ice and the part that looks whiter is the result of how much air is trapped in the ice.  The captain said that most of these will melt in a few days.

This turquoise floe was just beautiful!

And some sea otters just hanging out on a floe

And just as the captain had announced lunch and we were all heading for our tables, he announced that he had just received word from another boat that there was a group of whales about a mile away, so they put lunch on hold and we all hightailed it out onto the deck to get a good view.  For about a half hour we got to watch this family of orcas as they swam and played--never saw one completely come out of the water, but we could see them blow and then surface and dive.  Just beautiful animals and it was so incredible to see them.  The captain knew exactly which ones were which and all about them, but it was a real treat to get to watch them for this long!

Bye whales, on our way toward the glacier!

Another fishing boat/skiff team of set netters, starting to winch up their haul

All around us are glaciers!

When a glacier moves, it crushes and grinds up the rocks and dirt in front of it, and the result is called a moraine.  Here you can see some evidence of this with what looks like a sandbar.  The captain said that while we were in water about 750 ft. deep, once we got closer to the glacier the depth rapidly changed to about 50 ft!

And we came up on another group of sea otters!
Their little faces are just so adorable!!

Another area where ice floes coming off the glacier were floating all around

Now we began to see seals, out on the floes as we neared Meares Glacier

We're now approaching the face of Meares Glacier, in this shot we're about half a mile away

You can see how the glacier goes up and curves around to the left, behind this one mountain

And another arm of the glacier goes up to the right

Now we're about a quarter mile from the face of the glacier.  The captain told us it's about .6 mile wide here, about 100 ft high above the water line, and about 30 ft. below the water line; I thought it would have been deeper below the water, but it's because of the moraine that the glacier has been pushing.  This glacier is particularly known for calving, when air that has been trapped inside the ice begins to expand as the ice around it melts, and pieces of ice on the face fall off.  You could hear these loud cracking noises all the time we were there--think how your ice cube cracks when you drop it into a drink, only much bigger and louder here!  Sometimes the cracking was happening deep into the glacier, rather than near the face of it, but we got to see several times when chunks of ice would fall down into the water.  Hard to catch in pictures, since you never knew exactly where on the face it would happen, and, of course, since light moves faster than sound, by the time you hear a cracking sound, you were too late to catch the calving on film.  It was just an absolutely fascinating experience, to see this process in motion!  From so far away, the surface of the glacier appeared smooth, but, as you can see from the following photos, the surface is actually quite rough, a series of crevasses and peaks formed as the ice moves at differing speeds in different parts as it advances.
Now that we were this close, the face of the glacier just appeared as if there was nothing behind it, but we knew it extended back for miles, from our earlier views
Here you can see cracks in the face where it will eventually calve off pieces of it

This shows a pile of ice chunks that have come off the face near the right hand edge of what we could see

Here you can see some ocean spray coming up from when a huge chunk of ice came off and hit the water

What a place to spend an anniversary, huh??!!
In these shots, I kept changing the telephoto setting to try to focus on different parts of the face of the glacier

It was really fascinating to see these seals just hanging out on the ice floes, right in front of the face of the glacier, seemingly oblivious to the huge chunks of ice falling all around them.

If you look closely at this picture, you can see what appears as a vertical plume in the center--that's ice coming down
The crew members netted a couple chunks of ice and brought them aboard, so folks could see and feel the ice up close!  I was on the upper deck when I took these and this crew member was on the lower deck

Just caught the ice hitting the water here, to the left of center
Our friend, Lin, holding her own personal iceberg!!
And here it is up close!
Some more ice hitting the water
This next series of 8 shots is the best I did in catching the whole thing, as a chunk of ice was coming off the face and falling into the water

A couple of seals as we headed back out from the glacier
This is another phase of the commercial fishing operation:  since the boats can only fish for 14 hours and they don't know when they can go out again, it would take too much time out of their alloted period to come back into the dock to unload their catch, since they can catch in the 14 hours more than they can carry in the hold of the boat.  So, the fish processing companies send out these tenders, that can hold much more, and they buy the fish from the individual captains right out in the ocean!  The tender has a big suction pipe that goes down into the boat's hold and sucks the fish out and deposits them onto the tender, in a sorting and weighing machine, and then into the hold of the tender.  Pretty efficient operation!
If you look at the person in this shot and to the left, you can see the fish coming out of the sorter conveyor, dropping into square box, that goes down into the hold
Another shot from the other side of the boat
Now we're on the way back, and passing the area where the puffins are--some pretty thick fog had settled in, so these pictures are not as clear as I would have liked, but you can still make out the puffins if you look closely, and if you enlarge these shots you can see them a little better.

This is also a "haul out" area for Bull Head Sea Lions, where they haul themselves out of the water up onto the rocks.
Now the sun is coming back out through the fog

And a couple better shots of some puffins

And some sea caves

Nearing the harbor, this is an oil tanker, coming into the terminal to be loaded
Looking back behind us as a layer of fog is rolling in
Eerie view of a boat in the fog behind us
An escort tug that is mandated by law to accompany tankers out of the Narrows after the Valdez oil spill
A loaded tanker heading out
And a sailboat right near the harbor entrance


  1. Happy Anniversary Jack & Trisha! Looks like you had quite an amazing day on the water. Brings back memories of the day I got to cruise the Kenai Fjords out of Seward. Really enjoying all these posts & pics of your Alaska journey!

  2. Thanks so much, Lynne. It was great! We didn't get to do the Kenai Fjords out of Seward, since Trisha was sick while we were there and Homer; thankfully she's doing much better now!