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The Grand Finale: Four Alaskan Jewels

Glacier Action at John Hopkins, Ice Kayaking, Aurora Borealis and Bubble Net Feeding Humpback Whales

sunny 57 °F

I love the way Alaska says goodbye. I’ve spent a lot of time here this season-just shy of three months. There are so many moments, images and people to celebrate. I have sublime memories of it all. However, I feel as though Alaska has saved the best for last- a grand showcase of the Southeast Alaskan environment. I am an appreciative audience. In the past week, I’ve seen the best glacier calving I’ll probably ever experience. I’ve gone kayaking among the ice floes and icebergs of South Sawyer Glacier. I’ve witnessed a spectacular show of the northern lights off our stern. Finally, in Snow Pass I spent two hours in the evening among bubble netting humpback whales against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset.

I feel as though Alaska is reminding me why I love it here (as if I needed one). It’s successfully planting the seeds of adventure in me for next season. There aren’t enough creative adjectives to describe what it like to witness what I’ve seen these past few days. How many times can I say something is beautiful? The same goes for words such as, fantastic, wonderful sublime, spectacular, awesome, amazing, and so on. These are good words, but they are no substitute for being in my shoes.

John Hopkins Inlet, September 4th, 2012
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Can you feel the warmth of the bright sunshine on your face? Can you sense the fresh coolness of the air with every breath? Can you hear the small chunks of ice “crick” together as the ship negotiates through an icy passage of bergy-bits? Can you see the sheer black walls of the fjord, covered in a swirl of passing cloud? Can you see the jagged grin of the glacier as we weave closer to its face? I can, and I hope I never forget this day.
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I’m standing atop the highest point on the ship laughing and bantering with my mates. A quarter of a mile away from me is the John Hopkins Glacier. The John Hopkins is a tidal glacier-meaning that the face of the glacier is over the ocean. The glacier face is very wide. It stretches from one side of the inlet to the other for several miles. It is also quite tall, rising several hundred feet above the greenish gray waters of the inlet. The face is a crooked smile of jagged icy teeth. There are twisted impacted spires and buttresses that would repel any attack from below. If I were designing a castle, I would replicate the face of glacier, complete with unstable and unpredictable falling of massive ice chunks.
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The glacier is very active. I’ve never seen so much calving. Normally, seeing one section of the face of a glacier calve off and fall into the ocean happens maybe once per visit. It is a memorable event. Today, the ice is rolling off the glacier every couple of minutes. I hear the icefall before I see it. A calving glacier sounds like a mixture of a thunderclap from a strong thunderstorm and an avalanche. The natives called it “white thunder” - an apt name.

Rivers of ice and snow flow down crevasses in the glacier like a waterfall. There are white explosions of water backlit against the shadow of the glacier. The cloud dissipates, and I wait a few more minutes for the next “crack” of ice.
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While I wait, I realize the improbability of our timing. The John Hopkins Glacier is a hard glacier to reach. It has a narrow fjord, which is normally jammed with ice. This ice often thwarts most vessels from getting close to the face. On previous attempts, we have only navigated within a mile of the face. Today, we’ve reached the safe and legal limit - a quarter mile away. Besides our proximity, the fact that the glacier is almost continuously calving is amazing.

Then I heard several loud “cracks” off in the distance. In a sequence I’ll never forget, several apartment-sized chunks of ice tumbled and fell off the face of the glacier into the greenish silt water of the inlet with explosive force. It looks like they are falling in slow motion, but they aren’t. It’s a matter of perspective and distance. When the ice hits the water, the detonation of foam, ice chunks, water and spray is tremendous. It is awesome, truly awesome. The force of the ice creates a surge wave that radiates quickly in all directions. We are soon bobbing up and down, rising and falling four feet with each swell. The shoreline closest to the glacier takes direct hits from the wave. Seconds later, another even larger piece of ice dislodges and hits in the same spot. This time the splash is gigantic. I can’t believe it. The surge wave is HUGE, and not only did I get to see it, I managed to keep my finger on the shutter.
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Tracy Arm, South Sawyer Glacier, September 5th, 2012
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My expedition leader burst into the crew lounge and asked me if I wanted to go kayaking. Not feeling particularly energetic, I came up with a quick barrage of excuses as to why I shouldn’t go. She looked at me, and began picking apart my defense, as a well-practiced prosecutor would have. I buckled under the cross-examination. I put on my rain pants, grabbed my little point and shoot, and loaded myself into a red kayak. I like Sue. She’s good like that.

And, of course, she was right. This was to be my last chance to kayak among icebergs for the season, and I soon began to enjoy myself. I paddled over to a likeable iceberg. It had a giant sculpted sphere of ice balanced on top of it. It was lit up beautifully in the mid-morning sunshine. It took awhile to maneuver into the position I wanted, but in the end, I was satisfied. I had this beautiful berg, a kayaker in the distance, and finally the massive face of the South Sawyer Glacier.
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Frederick Sound, 11:10 PM

I was making a complete walkthrough of the ship as part of my nightly engine rounds when I decided to peek off to the north to see if the northern lights were out. To my surprise, I saw a large greenish halo just below the big dipper (as I call it). To make sure, I pulled out my camera and took a test photo. When I looked at the playback, I saw the green sky of the aurora borealis. I smiled, and walked into the dining room to spread the word. Before I could check them out, I had to finish my engine round. By the time I returned to the bridge, there was a small crowd of people on the aft portion of our bridge deck gazing in awe at the greenish swirls in the northern sky.
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The second mate released me to go enjoy the show. I grabbed my camera, and joined the small crowd. A waxing half moon was rising out of the east, which cast a long moonlit reflection on the water. Though not ideal for watching the foxfires, it was pretty in its own right. To the north, halfway between the big dipper and the horizon, tall greenish spires began to form. They intensified in brightness and design, dancing among the stars to a sonata few people get to hear.
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For my part, I set my camera for night work and tried to keep it as stable as possible. I love the way the camera can the greenish light of the borealis. It makes for a beautiful scene - far more intense than what the eye can actually see of the foxfires.

It was the best northern lights show of the season. I made a mental note to myself: Remember to look off to the north once in awhile on clear nights. You never know when the foxfires will burn.

Snow Pass, Southbound, September 7th, 2012

I knew this was going to be the last group of bubble net feeding humpbacks I was going to see this year. Fortunately, I was working on the lido deck. The lido offers a great vantage point to watch whales because it is our highest deck. I had my camera, and I was in position, just as the group surfaced. It was going to be a good show.

The world was gorgeous. God rays snuck through heavy clouds to the west illuminating the sea with a heavenly backdrop. The water patterns were a hypnotic swirl of blue, gray, black and white. A kaleidoscope of the sea.
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The captain gave permission to stand on top of the pilothouse, which offered an even better view. The whales did not disappoint. There was a pod of six whales working together.
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After they dove down in single file, we dropped our hydrophone to listen to their calls underneath the water. Nobody really knows what is being communicated. However, the noises they make seem to have some effect. It is surmised that once the whales dive below, one or two of the whales circles the bait ball while blowing air bubbles. The bubbles rise and form a net, which traps the fish inside of it.
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Other whales are crying out with and eerie short like blast of calls. This is to scare the fish into a tighter ball. I know it would scare the crap out of me, if I saw a pod of six whales entrapping me in a net and began crying at me. The noise they make does kind of sound like a whimper, but a whale sized whimper. This goes on for twenty seconds to a minute, before the call changes. One whale blasts a tremendous long trumpeting call, which seems to be the signal for the whales to swim through the net. Think of a cavalry brigade’s trumpet and the order to “CHARGE.”
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Meanwhile, on the surface, nothing seems to be happening. Then, if conditions are right, you can see a perfect circle of air bubbles appear on the surface of the water. If birds are present, they begin flying around and calling to one another until they zero in on the surface point. The bird squawking reaches a frenzy just before the whales break through the surface. When the whales do lunge through the water, it is surprisingly quiet. For an animal fifty feet long and weighing ninety thousand pounds (I weighed one, it's true), they hardly make any noise at all except for the expelling of their breath.
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I’ve seen bubble netting whales dozens of times, and I’ve yet to tire of it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Alaska is very good to me. I will miss it, but I know I will be back for more. The season has ended and it’s time to search for new adventures somewhere else.

Thank you, Alaska.

Posted by Rhombus 15:04 Archived in USA Tagged alaska oceans kayaking glaciers photography whale icebergs foxfires auroraborealis

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