Today is the day! We are visiting the Hubbard glacier. The raison d’etre of our Alaskan cruise on board the Celebrity Infinity.
It’s 8 a.m and there is an announcement on the ship PA system reminding us that we will be getting to the Hubbard Glacier around 9.30 a.m. I lean out of the balcony in our cabin and I can see a strip of white between two mountains in the distance. It’s the glacier.
We are currently inside the Yakutat Bay. Yakutat Bay is a 29-km-wide bay off the the gulf of Alaska. As we head further inside, the bay narrows and it becomes Disenchantment Bay. This is where we will come face to face with the Hubbard Glacier.
Around 8.30 a.m., we head over to the Constellation lounge at the very front of the ship. The die hard Glacier watchers are already here. We take up a couple of seats by a window, but soon I’m jumping around switching between the lounge to the outside deck to capture the best views of the glacier.
Named after Gardiner Hubbard, the Hubbard glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in North America. Its 76 miles long and 1,200 feet deep. In contrast to many other glaciers around the world, it has been “advancing” ever since its discovery. Every year, snow falls on to the glacier and hardens to form glacier ice. As the glacier grows, it becomes heavier, it pushes itself forward, essentially becoming a frozen, (very) slow moving river. Where it meets the ocean, the wall of the glacier starts melting and breaking into the ocean in a process know as calving. When the rate at which a glacier is pushing itself forward is more than the rate its calving, the glacier is said to be advancing. When the reverse occurring it is retreating. Most glaciers around the world are now retreating, so Hubbard is one of the few exceptions.
As we get closer to the glacier, huge chunks of ice start to float past the ship. The biggest probably the size of a 4 by 4 vehicle. This is re-assuring as I really don’t want to end up in a Titanic scenario.
Cruising through Yakutat bay and Disenchantment bay takes great skill. So the cruise ship has picked up a pilot who specializes in these waters early in the morning, even before most of the passenger get out of bed, to navigate us safely through the waters.
Around 9.30, the ship slows down its advance as we part through what I can only describe as icy slush.
We head down to the bow of the ship, aiming to be as close to the glacier as possible. From here, the glacier is a sight to behold, as it gets larger and larger by the minute. Its that icy white-blue colour, just like you see on TV. There are streaks of black and brown running through – this is rock debris.
Now that we are closer, I can see the face of the glacier better. Its not smooth like I had imagined, but rough and jagged with a lot of overhangs. Then without warning, a huge chunk of ice breaks and falls in, creating a plume of white. It sound like a clasp of thunder. Another couple of seconds later, it happens again. This is the biggest surprise for me. I didn’t expect the ice to break off so frequently.
I could watch it forever.
It takes about 400 years for ice to traverse the length of the glacier, meaning that the ice that we are seeing at the face of the glacier is about 400 years old. Ice calves off due to the glacier (which is freshwater) being eroded by the salty water of the sea. Where the glacier meets the bay, most of the ice is below the waterline, and newly calved icebergs can shoot up suddenly, so any vessels must keep their distance from the edge of the glacier.
The earlier cloudiness has cleared up, and its turned to be a bright sunny day. Given the clear conditions, our ship gets to about 2km off the face of the glacier before it has to stop.
Up until now, only those at the very front of the ship are getting the best views. The captain starts to turn the ship, so that the starboard side gets a good view of the glacier. Our cabin is on starboard, so we rush back to the room. Our run is rewarded with an even better view of the glacier.
About 20 minutes later, the Captain turns the ship the other way, so now the port side has the glacier view and those of us on the starboard are looking at Yakutat bay.
I head to back to the top deck for a better view. Now that I’ve seen the glacier, I also take the time to look around the surroundings a bit more. To our left is a mountain range and the smaller Turner glacier.
To our left is the Haenke Island, which was named in 1791 by the Italian explorer Alessandro Malaspina for Thaddäus Haenke (a Czech geographer), who was serving as botanist and naturalist with Malaspina’s expedition, which was searching for the famous Northwest passage.
Behinds Haenke Island we can see Gilbert point. The Hubbard glacier has advanced right up to this point in the past. When this happens the Russell fjord on the other side of Gilbert Point from the Disenchantment bay and creating the Russell “lake” instead. Previous blockages have always melted away, but experts bevel that given the advancing rate of the Hubbard glacier, this might be permanently blocked one day.
Its time for us to head back. Because the weather is so nice, the captain decides to pilot the ship through the narrow channel between the Haenke Island an the mainland. This offers up some great views of the Island from the back,
Sweeping valleys that used to hold glaciers,
Snow capped mountains and seasonal waterfalls.
As the ship is turned around, there is time for one last look at the glacier, one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen.
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