Day 40…Boat Trip in Valdez AK

Day 40 (Friday Aug 7) was devoted entirely to our boat trip on the Lulu-Belle over to Columbia Glacier…which is supposedly the highest calving glacier by number of icebergs produced per day.

Ok, a little education on icebergs. They are categorized by size…the smallest ones up to 3 feet in size are called growlers, next comes bergy bits up to 13 feet. After that there are small, medium, large, and very large with the latter being over 240 feet. Once they’re icebergs and not growlers or bergy bits…they also get classified by shape…steep sizes, flat top, and at least a 5:1 width to height ratio are tabular…everything else is non-tabular. Non-tabular gets further subdivided into dome, pinnacle, wedge, drydock, and blocky based on the overall shape. You’ll typically see layers in an iceberg from being in the glacier, the layers were once horizontal. I’m not sure that you really are about all of that…but I put it in there anyway as you should learn something new every day.

The Lulu-Belle was purpose built to go and visit the Columbia Glacier and has been owned and operated by Captain Fred since 1979. It’s a pretty nice boat…Oriental carpets and varnished wood everywhere with a steel hull for better ability to get close to the glacier face and hence into the ice that has calved off the face.

It was about a 40 or so mile transit over to the glacier and we were hoping to spot more whales, Orcas or porpoises on the way over…pickin’s were pretty slim though. Captain Fred kept up a running commentary the whole 9 hours we were out…he had an opinion on everything from glaciers to global warming to local government to the federal government to the oil companies and was plenty willing to share all of them with us. He was also more than willing to drive his 80 foot or so boat worth probably $10 million into some pretty narrow places…at one point he nosed into a cave to look for some puffins and while we had deep water right under the boat there were vertical rock walls on both sides 3 or 4 feet away. I’m sure he knew what he was doing of course…but with swells in the ocean it doesn’t take much to push the boat sideways and ding up the hull…we would probably not have hit hard enough to cause any leakage but denting up the outside of your boat is bad form. I guess he only does it on really calm days when it’s (mostly) safe.

On the way out of the harbor here in Valdez…we spotted a couple of crab boats…they come down during the summer and serve as tenders for the salmon fishing vessels offshore so the smaller boats can offload their catch without having to go into town then the tender takes them into the cannery at the fishing port. One of these will be immediately recognizable by those readers who watch Deadliest Catch.

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The Kodiak was offloading salmon into the Peter Pan Processing Factory.

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The Lulu-Belle alongside the dock before we left.

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Once over at the glacier we nosed right up to within about a quarter mile of the face…at that point the water was still over 700 feet deep and remains deep all the way to the face…with the face sticking at least 400 feet up this makes the overall thickness of the glacier at least 1,100 feet and this is after it retreated. The glacier has retreated dramatically since 1979 with the biggest retreat taking place in the last 20 years or so…and despite the claims of some it isn’t necessarily all due to the earth getting warmer as many of the glaciers in this area are (according to Captain Fred…who I suppose was probably telling the truth but very well could have just been making it up) actually advancing. What happened to Columbia is that in the mid 1990s as the face calved and the glacier made it’s way downhill a large split opened up in face that allowed water to penetrate deeply into the interior of the glacier. It’s thought that this split/crack may have been a direct result of the earthquake back in 1964. Once the downhill end of the crevasse was exposed to the water at the face and the interior flooded…ice melts much faster underwater due to better heat transfer so a very large portion of the glacier melted from the inside due to being exposed to warmer seawater.

We had another beautiful day in the North Pacific…temps in the upper 60s except for up at the glacier where it was in the low 40s or upper 30s but wasn’t too cold as long as the  boat wasn’t moving to generate wind. Who would have thought that our last 3 boat trips…one in Ireland last summer out to Skellig Michael and two up here in Alaska would all be on beautiful, almost flat calm days.

Anyways; on to the photos.

A tanker about 900 feet long over at the oil shipping facility on the south side of Valdez Bay about a mile further seaward than the small boat harbor we left from.

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A sea otter just lazily floating along…he just backstroked out of our way as we came by.

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Another of the many glaciers in the area, Shoup Glacier at the head of Shoup Bay.

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We were briefly visited by a pod of Dall’s Porpoises again but they only surfed on our bow wave for a couple minutes as we had interrupted a hunting/fishing operation they were on.

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A bergy bit floating out in the open water of Prince William Sound.

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Bald Eagle on one of the small islands in the area.

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One of the two small caves we nosed into…the center cave section is about 6 feet high and 8 wide.

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A very brief glimpse of a Humpback whale…it wasn’t breaching as that requires deeper water so it can get under it’s prey…the water here is only 80 or so feet deep so a 50 foot long whale is practically scraping the bottom when it dives. He was down for 8 or 10 minutes each time feeding and moving slowly along but in random directions so we could never get very close despite trying for 40 minutes or so. 

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An unnamed glacier in Columbia Bay…we have not gone around the point out of sight to the right that hides Columbia Glacier from this spot.

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And finally after rounding the point our first view of Columbia Glacier…about 8 or 9 miles away at this point…and the top of the face is about 400 feet above the waterline. We were in water well over 1,000 feet deep then as we closed we went up and over the terminal moraine at the point where the face used to be about 6 miles southward from it’s current position. After the moraine it sloped back down and stays in the 1,000 to 700 feet deep range all the way to the face. The moraine is is composed of the rock that the glacier pushes in front of itself as it moves…sort of like a wall composed of rubble at the bottom of the face where it moves on the bedrock. When the glacier recedes the moraine is left behind. There are also moraines on the sides of the glacier.

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We started closing in through the debris field.

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About a mile out here.

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Harbor seal on an ice floe.

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Connie and our friend Mary Alice on the bow of Lulu-Belle.

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And the obligatory, cheesy “we were here” photo of Neil and Connie on the bow. Might make our Christmas Newsletter this year I’m thinking.

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Beautifully calm water showing the reflection of the glacier…about a quarter mile out here and with the exception of a slight swell whenever the glacier calved the surface was glass smooth.

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The results of the first calving we saw. Calving is when pieces of ice fall off of the glacier face. Notice in the lower left of this photo the brownish splash…this is the result of the roof of the ice cave falling in. Doesn’t’ look like much…but remember this is from a quarter mile away and the top of the face is 400 feet above the water…which makes that splash about 50 feet high. Made quite a noise when it cracked off.

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Ok, the next 14 photos are a sequence shot in rapid fire at about 6 frames per second…this was the second (and major) calving that we observed. It started with a loud crack…sounded like a large piece of wood cracking but loud and remember this is a quarter mile away. All the action in this sequence takes place about 1/3 of the way from the left edge right near the section of face that’s got the vertical shadow on it. Neil heard the crack…and luckily had the camera already set on continuous burst mode and had prefocused and set the exposure for this area of the face…he waited about 30 minutes for this calving to happen. Heard the crack…yanked the camera up and mashed the shutter button and then focused and framed as best he could during the 5 seconds or so for the whole thing.

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First pieces falling free…about 1/4 the way up from the water and at the left edge of the shadowed section. Remember, it’s 400 feet to the top so the chunk you can see is probably pickup truck sized.

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More breaking loose above the shadow area which was where the major crack occurred.

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Lots of little stuff coming off here.

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Huge chunk almost at the water edge in this one…just above the beginnings of the brownish splash…that chunk is probably 60 0r 70 feet tall so we’re talking like a two story house sized chunk.

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And the big finale…the splash. Remember, the face is 400 feet high so the splash is probably 500 feet wide at it’s widest…that’s 1.7 football fields. Wow. Made a tremendous roar and splash noise then a couple of minutes we got a 3 foot swell out where the boat was floating about a quarter mile out. The surface still stayed like glass though…but just looked like flexible glass.

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More shots in the really slushy section of ice.

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A medium sized berg…probably 250 feet wide…sitting right off the edge of the glacier, probably calved off yesterday or earlier today sometime. I left the boat in the frame to give you a sense of just how close we were sitting. Truly cool.

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180 degree pano of the entire glacier face…it’s got to be close to 1.5 miles wide at this point and ranges from 400 feet high at the right side to only 200 or so on the left side…with another 700 or so feet of ice under the water down to the bottom. You could make quite a martini out of this thing.

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We spent well over an hour at the ice face…taking pictures, watching the calving happen including one great sequence that we could see and hear but it was way over on the left side and we were at the right side…and it was sort of behind a point of ice so we couldn’t see it well anyway…but it went on roaring and splashing for almost a full minute. After that it was time to turn and slowly make our way back out of the ice filled section until after 2 miles or so we got back into open water and headed back to the dock.

On the way back we spotted this really nice, tall waterfall falling down the side of the bluff…this is probably 300 feet tall for the section in the photo.

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We passed another couple of sea otters on the way back…the second one looks like he’s talking to us saying something like “What you talkin about, Willis?”

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And spotted a few more Stellar Sea Lions.

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After docking…Bill and Linda headed home but Connie and Neil were still hungry so we stopped by The Fat Mermaid bar and grill again and had a pint and some fried onion petals. Saw this little bunny on the way back to the house after dinner and got a photo of him. Really quite tame…just sat there eating the leaf while we passed.

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Well, that’s it for our day on the water. As I said…we have been really blessed with good weather for both of our trips out into the waters off of Alaska this trip…nice visibility, low sea state and good weather for photos…not to mention great photo opportunities for both wildlife and landscape. We hope this continues for the remaining 20 days of our trip.

Saturday and Sunday we stayed in Valdez. We got a few photos on our Saturday excursions that I’ll post later along with whatever we get tomorrow. We also found the local Elks lodge and will be headed out there for dinner Sunday…we missed out on the northernmost lodge a week or two back as it was being used for a funeral but want to get to at least one lodge here in Alaska before we leave…and once we leave Valdez on Monday morning our last two days in the state are in towns named Tok and Chicken so not likely to be one in either place. Wednesday we’ll cross back into the Yukon and spend the remainder of the trip in Yukon and British Columbia except for a couple of days spent in Hyder AK in 10 days or so. We did head out today and get some more flash frozen halibut for the freezer…found the cheapest prices we have seen for it so far…$17.75 a pound and we have about 12 or so pounds in the freezer to bring back with us and eat over the next few months. Got some nice inexpensive Ahi tuna and scallops as well.


About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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3 Responses to Day 40…Boat Trip in Valdez AK

  1. Mj Trainor says:

    Whoa, Nelly! This post required a brief scroll, then a Hail Mary, then a pause. After the interlude, I’m reseated with a toasted hamburger bun with butter (salted), parm sprinkles, and a glass of wine. ❤

    • Neil Laubenthal says:

      It only had 51 photos in it. But wine goes with pretty much everything.


      The three kinds of stress…nuclear, cooking and a&&hole. Jello is the key to the relationship.


  2. Mj Trainor says:

    Now that I’ve had some sustenance …. WOW!!! ❤

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