Sights from the Bow

Fasten your seatbelts for an astonishing journey through Glacier Bay National Park including one-of-a-kind wildlife encounters.  A feast for the eyes and imagination as well as an important lesson in history.  Thanks to Kurt Dunbar for another unforgettable piece:


Sights from the Bow 

Johns-Hopkins Inlet and Glacier (Wikipedia Commons) 

The Ryndam had just visited Johns-Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay National Park. In a park with many spectacular vistas it is saying a lot that Johns-Hopkins is the most beautiful and majestic of them all. Framed to the west by several peaks over ten thousand feet in elevation, Johns-Hopkins Glacier flows at a steep angle out of the eternal winter of the Fairweather Range into the sea. At the end of the inlet where the glacier enters salt water, it constantly calves blue ice of every hue off of its face. 

That day the Ryndam had slowly and carefully edged its way around numerous chunks of ice from the size of houses to thousands of smaller pieces of every size and configuration. Sheer mountain faces with numerous smaller glaciers rose almost vertically on each side of the inlet as the ship plied forward nudging bergs aside with its wake. 

The entire inlet is also a special protected area where thousands of harbor seals birth their pups on icy nurseries in early spring.  The attentive and nervous mothers stay close to their young on the top of bobbing pieces of ice. This, even as big looming cruise ships with hundreds of leering humans plows through the maze dangerously jostling and rocking their tenuous haven. I have seen seals swept off ice floes in a ship’s wake more than once. 

There is an instinctive logic to the mother seals’ choice of this inlet to give birth. Orca who prey on harbor seals, especially vulnerable baby seals, are greatly inhibited in their hunting abilities by the massive clutter of ice in the water, which reduces the effectiveness to detect objects in the water with their echo-location. 

I liked working on Holland Americas Line’s S -Class ships (named after the Statendam). All retired now, the four S-Class vessels were nearly identical in design and construction. Over several Alaska seasons, I had worked on three of the four (Statendam, Ryndam, and Veendam). What I liked most about them was the spacious, easily accessible foredeck at the bow. This area of the bow over the forecastle was decked in teak. The chest high gunnel at the very front of the bow was designed so that if you stood back about a foot or two the air flowed right over your head. Even steaming along at 20 knots (a knot is 1.15 miles) you could wear a hat at the bow without it being blown off your head and overboard. Without being scoured by incessant wind, it was a little sweet spot where I would stand watch and scan for wildlife or just enjoy the scenery. Between my time on those three ships (and the Volendam, which had a foredeck but wasn’t an S-class), I spent countless hours at the bow spotting whales and talking to passengers, which was my job. 


One of the many notable and amazing sights I had experienced on the bow was coming out of Johns-Hopkins Inlet. Transiting out of the inlet entails several turns-a sharp-one to the starboard after clearing Jaw Point and then another more gradual to port, and, in quick succession, another sharp starboard bend around a rocky jut of land and into the main channel leading out of Glacier Bay fifty miles to the south. Because of the tight successive turns, the ship goes slowly close by the face of another tidewater glacier, Lamplugh. Some of us naturalists call it “Lampblue” because of its deep robin-egg blue face and azure fissures and crevasses. It is yet another spectacular sight in that inlet, and I liked to be at the bow to share the experience with passengers and answer their questions. 

Having cleared the last rocky point, the Ryndam began to pick up speed as it entered the wide channel. I was ensconced in my plumb spot at the very tip of the bow with several passengers when I noticed something in the water ahead. Two little figures directly in front of the ship were treading water, leaving an ever so slight wake as they swam. From the wake, I could see that their present path across the channel was almost certainly going to intersect with that of the ship. I wasn’t worried at first, because I thought it was probably two sea lions and that they would halt, dive or otherwise divert themselves away from the rapidly approaching ship. I had seen sea lions do this countless times.  I pulled my binoculars up to my eyes and immediately gasped. It was a mother grizzly and her cub. She was frantically swimming across the channel straight across our path, too panicked to change direction. Worse, she halted occasionally so that the little one could catch up with her. What a good mom. But the ship was going to plow right over her and her yearling cub on its present course. I turned to look up at the bridge waving my arms and pointing ahead of us to get the attention of a watchman, an officer, anybody!  I saw the pilot give me the high sign. The bears had been spotted. Whew! At that moment, the ship tacked slightly to the port just enough to pass very close by the bears right off of the starboard bow. I was so stunned by the event and concerned for the bears leaning over the bow to make sure they had made it that I hadn’t taken a single picture.  What a great opportunity lost. I was sick.     


A passenger next to me had a very fancy camera and I asked him, “Did you get that?” He said, “Yeah, I got a couple of good ones” as he turned the camera screen towards me revealing the pictures shown here (note the distinctive blue color caused by suspended fine particles of rock ground by glaciers). It was the first time I had ever seen a digital camera, and I remember thinking how slick it was to be able to immediately see the picture you had just taken. I asked him if he would send me copies. He said, “Give me your email address, and I will send them to you.”  I had never heard of that before either. He was good for his word.   


Another time in Glacier Bay, nearer the broad open waters of the mouth, we had just started our day-long voyage north into the park. As usual I was on the bow. These waters were often a very good area to spot humpback whales and sea otters. There was also a large sea lion rookery nearby, and depending on the captain and the ship’s schedule we sometimes diverted to cruise by it, treating the passengers to the sights, sounds, and jarring smells of a crowded sea lion colony. Today however, we plied north without veering or slowing. 

Off the starboard side maybe a hundred yards off I spotted…”something.” It wasn’t a whale or an otter and it wasn’t a sea lion either. Puzzled, I peered through my binoculars and couldn’t believe my eyes. Without saying a word, I pointed in the direction of the sighting and handed the binoculars to my wife Patti who was on board with me this cruise and frequently shared my watches at the bow. She looked and almost dropped the eye glasses in shock as she exclaimed, “That’s a moose!”  I grinned and said, “Good eye and good call.” It was a moose, a big bull with huge antlers.  And it was swimming in the middle of a huge area of open water miles from dry land. I had never seen anything like it. The ship was probably doing between fifteen and twenty knots and we lost sight of it rather quickly. We both worried that it had to be in big trouble this far out in near freezing seas. 

One of my duties when the ship was in Glacier Bay was to see to the needs of the Park Service Rangers and the Tlingit native interpreters who accompany them. They all come aboard by shuttle from the park headquarters. The rangers do a presentation and broadcast commentary from the bridge about the history, geology, and biology of the park. The Tlingit from the nearby village of Hoonah share their culture and stories with passengers. They speak of their ancient ties to the area before the park was completely glaciated. Stories passed down dozens of generations recount the flight of their people from the approaching ice and their settlement across Icy Strait in the present location of Hoonah. They still consider Glacier Bay their home. Much to the credit of the Park Service, the deep connection of that grand place to the Huna Tlingit expressed in their own voice enhances the experience for all onboard. 

I got know several of the native interpreters fairly well and always tried to have lunch with them. They always had such great stories. Today, I was lucky that James and Carrol, a married couple from Hoonah whom I had befriended earlier in the season, had come on board today. I had a burning question for them about that moose. 

After describing what I saw, James told me and Patti, “Oh I have seen that before many times.” He said that sometimes wolves or bears will chase them into the water and that they just keep on swimming until they get to some land. He told the story of a moose swimming across the strong tidal currents of Icy Strait near Hoonah when he witnessed it being attacked by a pod of Orca. The poor thing obviously never made it to shore. Like I said, great stories. 


Something at least as surprising as a bear or a moose at sea, occurred in Prince William Sound. This beautiful inland sea is surrounded by tall coastal mountains and strewn with lush green islands large and small. 

This body of water is mostly known by those outside of Alaska as the place where the supertanker Exxon Valdez went aground on a reef causing a massive oil spill and one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. 

The sound is home to innumerable inlets and glaciers. None are more stunning in scenic beauty than College Fjord. Tucked into the northwest corner of the sound, College Fjord has more glaciers mile for mile than anywhere else in Alaska. Off of the major shipping and ferry routes, it is a scenic destination for day tours out of Whittier and like today, an occasional cruise ship. 

College Fjord was given its name by the Harriman Expedition of 1899. Everybody on board the expedition’s steamer the George W. Elder had been hand-picked by the leader, benefactor and expedition’s namesake, the wealthy railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman. Most of the all-male company of scientists and notables onboard were esteemed men of letters from the East. Consequently, they named the two largest glaciers at the end of the inlet Harvard and Yale. Either out of a sense of fairness, or perhaps compelled by the spirit of women’s suffrage, all the rage at the time, they named the half dozen glaciers on the west side of the inlet after women’s colleges and universities. 

There may be more sea otters in other parts of Alaska, but I never seen so many in the shortest period of time than in College Fjord. And they do something there I haven’t seen anywhere else: they get up on the small low icebergs that calve off of Harvard and Yale, the two large tidewater glaciers at the twin head of the inlet. 

The smallest marine mammal, there are sometimes as many as a dozen otters on a single berg and dozens and dozens more on bergs up and down the last several miles of College Fjord. Otters have the thickest fur of any mammal. Unless disturbed, say by an oil spill, it keeps them quite cozy in frigid waters. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died as a result of the spill in 1989. The lucky little otters of College Fjord were spared due to favorable winds and tides, which kept the oil out of that northwest corner of Prince William Sound. But throughout the rest of the Sound, hundreds, perhaps thousands of otters perished of exposure when their coats became completely ineffective after being soiled by the thick black goo that had poured out of the belly of the Exxon Valdez after striking Bligh Reef.   

The glaciers on the west side of the inlet flow out of the icefields of the Chugach Mountains and into College Fjord. The naturalist John Muir, a member of the Harriman Expedition wrote that, “They came bounding down a smooth mountainside through the midst of lush flowery gardens and goat pastures, like tremendous leaping, dancing cataracts in prime of flood.” 

However, it wasn’t otters that were the highlight that day. 

Leaving College Fjord, the ship crossed the broader waters of Prince William Sound as we plied south towards the Gulf of Alaska. The morning fog had burned off and we were greeted by an absolutely beautiful cloudless day. The previously veiled white capped chain of mountains that encircle the sound on three sides were now revealed in stunning grandeur. The seas were uncharacteristically calm, the surface of the water as flat and shiny as a polished mirror. It was a perfect day to be in my accustomed place at the bow. 

The favorable seas and pleasant weather drew several hardcore birders I had met earlier to the bow hoping to spot some sea birds to add to their lists. Free of waves, the clarity of the deep blue water presented almost perfect conditions for sighting anything on or in the water. Right away we starting seeing salmon sharks.  Swimming near the surface, at first they only could be seen as a moving bump on the placid water, their dorsal fin not quite breaking the tension of the water. As the ship passed near them, looking down you could see theirsix foot long bodies silhouetted against the dark blue of the deep. We all got pretty good at spotting them and saw several more in quick succession. 

Salmon sharks weren’t the highlight of the day either. 

After a time, one of the birders asked me, “Where are all of the birds?” We had seen a few gulls and a couple of eagles far off, but that was it. I told the disappointed birder that Prince William Sound was still so devastated by the oil spill that ground nesting sea birds like puffins, petrels, and shearwaters had not really recovered. I told him that we naturalists call this area a “bird desert.” He nodded glumly and asked, “Is it still THAT bad?” By a sad coincidence, at that very moment the ship crossed a line of sea detritus and bits of flotsam where tides crunch together. Along that tideline you could easily see the rainbow sheen characteristic of oil in the water. I pointed to it and said, “See for yourself.” I later looked up drop-jaw in the dictionary, and there was his picture. It couldn’t have been timed better. 


The sour mood of that moment was broken as I pointed towards something dead ahead straight off of the bow. The ship was headed towards a bright green spot in the dark blue waters of the sound. Green I tell you. Florescent green! It was the color of a crossing guard’s safety vest and about size of a football field. We all watched mystified as it got closer and closer. We were going to go right through it. What the hell was this? 

As the ship passed over it, I peered over the bow and down into the now clear green water and almost lost myself in the wonder of the sight. A phantasmagorical green canyon opened up winding its way down into the abyss and out of sight. The walls of the chasm were comprised of countless blisters or bubbles. I had the sensation that the ship was suddenly airborne, suspended as if flying above a surreal landscape of green bulbous hills and valleys. After an eternity that probably only lasted a few seconds, I realized what I was looking at: millions and millions of moon jellyfish. There were so many of those Frisbee sized creatures reflecting and diffusing the light through their lens-like bodies, it changed the color of the lapis colored sea into a florescent wonderland of green. Astounding! It was truly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in over twenty five years at sea. Of all things, Jellyfish! 

A photo of moon jellyfish-color not enhanced.