July 31 Day 26 Columbia Glacier Cruise

Valdez Day 26_3101The skies were again cloudy when we woke, but it didn’t matter because we knew one way or the other we would see something wonderful, even if it rained. Once again I was so grateful for the previous day of sunshine that allowed us to see the stunning landscape around Valdez and Prince William Sound.

Columbia Glacier east armUntil now, when I heard the name Valdez, the first thing that came to mind was the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and the horrendous contamination of Prince William Sound, some of the most pristine waters in the world.  What I didn’t know about Valdez was that the original town was completely destroyed in the great 9.2 earthquake in 1964.  There are three great museums in Valdez, and I didn’t want to miss a chance to visit them, but with Abby looking forward to a day in her crate, Mo decided to stay home while I drove into town to see the museums before we boarded our boat at noon.

a happy pairI hope to write about these museums in a separate post, but for now, the road is calling and I don’t want to miss the chance to describe how it felt to cruise into Prince William Sound to Columbia Glacier.  We decided on the shorter cruise more because of the time rather than the cost, because it was only $30 more to do the 9 hour cruise that also traveled to Meares Glacier. 


As I view this map from Google, I can see that the imagery was taken before that last major retreat of the glacier. Columbia is now in what is called a “catastrophic retreat”.  oil for an oil hungry worldThe glacier waited longer than many and only began that retreat in 1980. In the last few months there has been so much ice released from the glacier that the cruise boats haven’t been able to approach as closely as we managed yesterday.  According to our captain, Andrea, only about 2,000 people have approached Columbia from the water at the 1.2 mile distance we reached since 2007.  A brilliant skipper, she negotiated the icebergs carefully, slipping in quietly to the glacier face.  We were still more than a mile away, but the size of the glacial wall was breath taking.  The front wall from the east arm to the west arm is more than 4 miles. 

Captain Andrea, been doing this for 16 yearsI loved listening to Andrea talk about Columbia like a much loved family elder, respectful, but familiar and knowing.  It was much the same way she spoke about the pod of orcas we found on the way out of Columbia Arm.  This singular pod is now in the process of extinction.  There are 8 individuals with a specific genetic signature, and this family will not mate outside their pod.  The breeding females were lost in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  Orcas can live to be 80 years old, but the pod will eventually die out.  Andrea has an image of A-2, the large male we saw with two of the females, tattooed on her arm.  She was delighted to see him.

Orcas are actually large dolphinsWe saw no humpbacks today, so my only humpback viewing has been from the beaches of Oregon. But we did see rafts of sea otters playing on the icebergs.  I fell in love, they look like big cuddly teddy bears with the most precious faces, on a par with baby seals or a newborn horse.

he said the icebergs are more blue when it's cloudyThe fresh-faced young man working his first summer for the Stephens family told us we were lucky to have a cloudy day since the icebergs only show their bluest color in the overcast.  I didn’t enhance or alter the color of any of these photos by the way, the bergs were exactly that blue.  I’m so glad that the camera captured it.

Valdez Day 26_3144I enjoyed visiting with Stan Stephen’s wife, Mary Helen, who was working on the cruise.  She laughingly told me that she now works for her daughter who runs the business.  Here is a link to the very interesting history of the now 100% Alaskan owned and operated family business.  Mary Helen also laughed when I asked if she might ever retire.  She said that her sister thinks she should, but she loves sharing the unique beauty of Prince William Sound with people like us.  Also, like many of us,  two of her three daughters have scattered, one to Minnesota and one to Seattle. 

Here is a link to the captain’s log for the day of our cruise with the animals we saw and more information about each species. 

Valdez Day 26_3100As I attempt to write about the trip and the glacier, words fail me.  It was an experience that will stay with me always. I now add glaciers to volcanoes in my deep heart space.  I finally understand why Erin and Mui travel to the cold places of the world, the Antarctic and Arctic, to see the wildest parts that are left in our planet.

If you liked the iceberg photo at the beginning of this post, be sure to check out the rest of the photos linked here.  I deleted a bazillion, but when looking at blue icebergs, my delete key refused to work properly. There are still many shots of icebergs, the glacier, sea otters and the breathtakingly beautiful fjords and waterfalls.