Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Glacier Cruise (Whittier)

After breakfast we set out to Whittier. To get there we had again to go through the tunnel. In this direction this required paying a toll (the logic is that most people who go out of Whittier got in through the tunnel, unlike us the first time around). The tunnel opens up for cars in each direction once in an hour, so once we got there we had to wait (only 20 minutes). We were assigned to a large RV lane, and so all the smaller cars and vans got go before our lane was up to move.

Tunnel, this time longer exposure...

We got to Whittier. It was a nice day, not as sunny as our last visit, but there were patches of sunshine. There were all kind of people about, and much kayak activity. We watched a group of kayakers set off into the water.

Kayakers on Whittier Bay

We knew there is a cruise with a medium size boat at 11am, but wanted to check if there are smaller boats where we would have more personal attention. We didn't manage to find these, and so bought tickets for the 11am boat of the Prince Williams Sound Glacier Tour.

Map of the tour (we had the blue route)
From http://www.princewilliamsound.com/

Luckily for us the boat was only half full, which meant there where quite a few (70) people on it, but still there was room to move and we could find seats. The boat was similar in configuration to the one we took on the previous cruise in Seward.

Reflections (Whittier Harbor)

We got on the boat and settled down and waited for everyone to get on board. In the mean time the kids and me went to explore the outer deck.

Kids with hats

We set out of Whittier, and immediately stopped across the narrow bay to look at a big sea bird rookery. Here it was not on an island like the one we saw in Homer, but instead on an inaccessible vertical cliff that was bisected by a waterfall.

Kittywake rookery

Otherside of kittiwake rookery

On our way out of the bay we moved across the same ferry boat we took exactly a week ago. Here how it looks from the side.

Whittier-Valdez ferry

We then went out of the bay into the greater body of water in the Prince Williams Sound. We got served a light lunch which wasn't so good. The good news is that afterwards the cooking smells slowly dissipated. On the outer deck there was fierce cold wind, but the views were beautiful.

Islands (Prince Williams Sound)

From there we continued to a big island in the middle of the Prince Williams Sound that hosts a big salmon hatchery. This is a big operation that fertilizes salmon egges, grows the young and then release them to sea. When the fish return they are "harvested". This place deals with several species of salmon and collect several million fish a year. The water close to the hatchery the water was crowded with salmons, and we could see many fish jumping out of the water. As we watched these, a small water-plane took off just next to us.

Water-plane taking off

Our next destination was a formation of shallow rocks that serves as the home for sea-lions.

Sea-lion Rock

An otter

A fishing boat with a strange name....

The boat then passed through a narrow fjord that separates a island from the main land. On the map this passage looked like a narrow channel. In real life, it was narrow but not that scary. Apparently it is shallow and so harder to navigate than it seems.

Into the Esther Passage

Once we cross the passage we got a bay that contains many glaciers running into it. We crossed it and entered a sub-arm of the bay and got close to a glacier called Surprise Glacier. As we got closer to the glacier the water contained more and more ice. Although we spotted many otters throughout the cruise, here we started seeing groups of them sitting on small icebergs. The water became more and more slash like with a layer of small and larger ice pieces.

One otter

Many otters

The glacier face loomed above us. It was clear from the 300 meters away that this was a huge structure.

Surprise Glacier up close

The captain killed the engines and we stood on the boat railing listening to the glacier. Every few minutes we could hear load noises, like cracks or bangs from the glacier. Often we could see the spray of pieces of ice falling into the water. Several times we saw larger pieces fall resulting in a shower of smaller ice shards after them. The sounds these falls created reverberated through the air. While we watched all of these we could see a large group of otters and seals on the ice in front of us (it is warmer on the ice than in the water and it is less accessible to predators). There were many young otter pups that where rushed to further spots by their mothers upon seeing us.

Watching the glacier face...

Beware! Falling ice...

Otters and one seal

After about 25-30 minutes in front of the glacier we moved on and started to make our way back toward Whittier. When leaving the glacier, another moved in. This pictures give you a sense of the proportions....

When we were about half way the captain announced that has a "treat" for us and it seems that we have orca's in front of the boat. Yay!


Immediately the whole outer deck was full of people. We could see few of the orcas far away, but
one of them swam across the path of the boat, rising to the surface every two or three minutes.

A closer orca

This was a nice finish for the cruise.

Nir after seeing orcas

We landed back in Whittier, and strolled around "town" a bit more (a set of water-front shops) and then headed back across the tunnel. Tonight we searched for a camp with electricity and showers, and found one a bit further down the road.

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