Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Icebergs, Seals, Waterfalls and Whales

As the iceberg scraped against our boat, it made an unfriendly grinding sound, but I wasn't worried. By this time in our journey to Tracy Arm Fjord, I was 100% confident that our Captain, Steve Weber, knew what he was doing. For many summers, he's daily taken visitors into this wonderland of waterfalls, glaciers, seals, whales, and yes, icebergs. He skillfully navigated us through them all, giving us the experience of a lifetime. Here he is, confidently pushing an iceberg away with a stick:

The adventure started early that day. Just after we boarded Steve's 56-foot boat in Juneau, we noticed that the captain of the huge cruise ship that towered over us didn't seem to realize that our little boat was there. At first, the tourists on both ships were having fun yelling greetings to each other, but when the cruise ship kept getting closer, and Closer, and CLOSER, Captain Steve realized that the situation was getting serious, and so he pulled our little boat out into the harbor. Here's what the big cruise ship looked like as we hurried away:

"That was a little too close for comfort!" Steve boomed over the PA system. "If you have to start yelling "Don't spit!" to the passengers on the deck of the ship above you, then you've got a problem! Usually those cruise-ship captains are excellent--I'm not sure what went wrong today. Anywho, I left my employees back on the land there, so we'll have to swing back around to get them once the big cruise ship gets out of the way."

Soon, the employees were on board and we started the 45-mile journey to the entrance of Tracy Arm Fjord, passing the beautiful Alaska scenery, like this, along the way:

Along the way, we enjoyed seeing Captain Steve guide the boat with his feet on the wheel.

Captain Steve invited us to feel free to move around the boat, including coming up to sit by him. "The chain across the stairs by me is not here to keep you out", he explained. "It's here to remind you that the stairs you had to climb to visit me are still there when it's time for you to climb back down. People forget that sometimes!"

We all enjoyed moving around the boat, visiting with each other, and seeing our first glimpses of icebergs. At first, we were excited to see even little icebergs, but the house-sized icebergs at the entrance to Tracy Arm Fjord spoiled us, and we were much harder to impress after that. Captain Steve took the boat in a big circle around the big blue one here, so we could get a good view of it:

Here's a closeup of the jagged edge of it:

The iceberg is blue because the weight of the glacier from which it came packed the ice so dense that the long-wavelength blue light can't get through it, and is reflected back.

Next, we made our way into the steep-walled fjord, where we began to see gorgeous waterfalls in the distance.

Another thing we noticed right away was the beautiful teal color of the water in the fjord, which is related to something from the glaciers that is suspended in the water (sorry, I forgot what that something was):

The interesting thing about fjords is that not only are the walls really steep above water, but the walls are steep BELOW the water too. As a consequence, our little boat could go right up close-and-personal to the walls--I even touched the rock wall at one point while we were checking out this waterfall:

I had fun pretending to wash my hair in another waterfall:

And capturing this photo from the side of the waterfall:

The waterfalls dropped very long distances. If you look closely in this photo, you can see the waterfall which starts high up in the green section of the mountain, and cascades it's way down to a great big drop at the bottom:

As if the gorgeous waterfalls were not enough, we soon begin to approach the South Sawyer glacier. The area around this glacier was filled with the icebergs it had created, as large chunks of ice "calved", or fell, off the glacier.

This is where the icebergs began scraping the boat, but Captain Steve just slowly and patiently guided us through them. I mentioned before that we were free to go anywhere on the boat, but that wasn't completely true. There was one place that was strictly forbidden. This area was marked out with red tape. If we stood there, we'd block Captain Steve's view, which just wouldn't be cool while he's trying to navigate through icebergs. Here's a fun photo my mom caught of all the folks trying to take photos, while also trying to stay out of the forbidden area:

Once we got close enough for a good view of the glacier, Captain Steve turned off the motor, and we just relaxed there for 45 minutes or so, enjoying the view and waiting for the glacier to calve.

During that time, I captured this photo of the brilliant blue portion of the glacier:

Here's a photo of my parents and I:

Finally, the glacier began to calve. As the ice fell down, it created a huge splash and then a huge wave that gradually made its way out to rock our boat. For those of you who can't watch videos, here's a photo of a glacier just as a large piece is falling:

Here's a video that my mother captured of it:

Before we left the area, Captain Steve motored us to a place where hundreds of seals were basking on icebergs.

Here's a closer seal photo:

We then made our way to the North Sawyer Glacier, which isn't as impressive. Here's a photo of it:

Along the way out of the Fjord, we stopped to pick up a man and a woman kayaker, who had camped on an island there. Captain Steve was clearly a pro at loading people and kayaks into the boat. He'd been frustrated by the guy when he dropped him off the day before, because the guy kept insisting on how it should be done (and was wrong). So when captain Steve first saw them from a distance he said something like "Amazingly, they're still alive!" Tell us how you really feel Captain Steve! He was able to get them loaded into the boat again without a problem.

We were happy and content as we made our way back to Juneau, but then had another awe-inspiring experience. We encountered two humpback whales, who were very close to our boat, and who were in the mood to jump. The two of them launched themselves out of the water, falling back again with a crashing splash, at least a dozen times each. My camera's memory card was full, so as the whales went underwater for a few minutes between jumps, I deleted photos as fast as I could to capture their leaps for joy.

Here are a few videos of the whales:

When they show their tail like this, they are often diving deep.

Sometimes they just like to slap the water, like this:

For those who can't view videos, here are a few photos:

I found myself filled with awe at this display. Unfortunately, one of the passengers on our boat had a flight to catch, so we could linger no longer and had to move on after watching them for about 30 minutes. One of the employees, who'd spent the entire summer doing this, said she'd never seen anything like it. As we pulled away from that spot, Captain Steve said over the PA, in a reverent tone: "THAT was a very special experience." I had to agree.

I love Alaska.

Here's a link to Captain Steve's website, in case you'd like to take a trip like this yourself someday: http://www.adventureboundalaska.com/adventure.htm. I highly recommend it!


Paige said...

How glad I am you posted whale photos. My husband is convinced they don't exist because he has gone looking on three separate occasions with no luck at all. But I want you to know: I believe you saw them.

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