Alaska Q&A Part 2: Glacier Bay 101 with the Park Rangers

Alaska Q&A Part 2: Glacier Bay 101 with the Park Rangers

At the beginning of the week the blog featured a post from Glacier Bay Chief of Interpretation Thomas VandenBerg and the Glacier Bay ranger staff discussing what it’s like to be a park ranger and what they do while they’re onboard during an Alaska cruise.

Here’s the second part of the post with questions about what guests can expect to see while cruising Glacier Bay.

A typical cruise ship route in Glacier Bay.

A typical cruise ship route in Glacier Bay.

How long are the ships in Glacier Bay and what is the schedule like?
Glacier Bay is 65 miles long and most of the glaciers are near the far end. Ships typically enter the bay early (6-7 a.m.) and usually reach “glacier country” in a little over 2 hours. The ships spend approximately 4 to 5 hours in the upper bay enjoying the scenery, scanning for wildlife, and enjoying time in one of the world’s great wilderness areas. They then turn and retrace their route, exiting the park approximately mid-late afternoon after disembarking the rangers.

What are some Glacier Bay facts and figures?
Glacier Bay National Park and the National Preserve are 3,283,000 acres, roughly the size of Connecticut. The total marine waters are 607,099 acres, the largest marine area managed by the National Park Service.

While traveling through the bay, the ships pass over areas over 1,400 feet deep with the deepest point being 1,410 feet. Carved out by mighty glaciers of the past, Glacier Bay’s steep and deep channels allow even large ships to travel quite close to land…adding to the spectacular scene. On clear days, passengers can also see the high Fairweather Mountain range, with snow covered summits ranging from 10,000 to over 14,000 feet.

How many glaciers are there in Glacier Bay? What are they called?
According to researchers, there are 1,045 glaciers in Glacier Bay, from massive tidewater glaciers to tiny mountain glaciers. Currently glaciers cover 2,055 square miles or 27 percent of the Park. The most impressive glaciers are tidewater glaciers, the ones that actually touch the ocean. There are six tidewater glaciers on the cruise ship route in Glacier Bay. We spend an hour at the face of the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers, cruise past the Reid and Lamplugh Glaciers, and sometimes get distant views of the Johns Hopkins and Gilman Glaciers at the end of Johns Hopkins Inlet.

While the tidewater glaciers are the most impressive, the smaller ones are equally as beautiful. Look up high in the mountains to find glaciers spilling from their cliffs or sitting in their pockets. How many of our 1,045 glaciers can you find?

How often do glaciers calve and what are the chances of seeing this on a cruise?
Glaciers calve every day of the year. The Margerie Glacier drops, on average, 6 feet of ice every day. More ice from higher up in the mountains flows downhill, replacing the ice that calves from its face. Sometimes the glacier is very active, other times it’s quiet. The ship will spend an hour at the Margerie Glacier. To increase your chances of seeing it calve, plan to spend the entire hour outside, listening and watching the mile-wide face of the Margerie Glacier.

If you see a park ranger around the ship, be sure to go up and say hello!

If you see a park ranger around the ship, be sure to go up and say hello!

What is the climate like at Glacier Bay?
Southeast Alaska is within a cool, wet coastal temperate rainforest. Summer: 50° to 60° F; Winter 20° to 30° F, with extremes of -10° F. Some form of precipitation occurs on average of 228 days per year. Annual precipitation is 70 to 80 inches, including an annual snowfall of 14 feet. High in the Fairweather Mountains, over 100 feet of snow may fall year-round…making it one of the world’s snowiest places.

What types of wildlife can guests hope to see in Glacier Bay?
Glacier Bay is home to many animal species. The animals most frequently seen from cruise ships are marine mammals. Humpback whales are most frequently spotted at the entrance to Glacier Bay, at the beginning and end of the day. Look for their spouts, usually within a mile of shore. Steller’s sea lions are also seen in that area. Glacier Bay’s sea otter population is growing exponentially and they can be spotted throughout the bay. Look for two small dots resting on the water: the otter’s head and rear flippers as she floats on her back. Harbor seals tend to be near the glaciers. You may see one a hauled out on an ice berg or swimming in front of the glacier. Terrestrial animals such as bears or mountain goats can also be spotted on the beaches and hillsides of Glacier Bay.

Birds, including bald eagles, feed and nest throughout Glacier Bay. Look for bald eagles perched on ice bergs or as small white ornaments in the trees lining the bay. Gulls, puffins and cormorants nest on the cliff next to the Margerie Glacier.

Be on the lookout for eagles and otters and humpbacks, oh my!

Be on the lookout for eagles and otters and humpbacks, oh my!

A few tips and tricks can enhance your wildlife viewing opportunities. First, remember perspective. An 800-pound brown bear may appear the size of a hamster from the upper deck of a cruise ship. Next, listen to the ranger commentary or visit the ranger desk. Rangers can update visitors on the most recent sightings. Binoculars are very helpful. The more time you spend looking, the more likely you are to see something of interest! You never know when an eagle may fly by or a bear emerge from the bushes.

What do you do in the winter? Are you still at Glacier Bay National Park?
Every ranger spends his or her winter differently. Seasonal rangers (as most are) may migrate to homes elsewhere, work in other national parks, take classes, or travel the world during the winter season. Some rangers do work year-round in Glacier Bay and live in the neighboring town of Gustavus, population of 400.

Those who do stay know that winter in Glacier Bay is special. It is a time of quiet and solitude. The park does not close but few people choose to visit. The birds and whales head south, taking their chatter and song with them. Other animals, like bears, slumber the winter away. Daylight hours are short and the nights are dark. The ocean doesn’t freeze, but the storms may be fierce. At sea level, it may rain or snow, but the tops of the Fairweather Mountains are one of the snowiest places on earth and the continuous falling snow feeds the glaciers for years to come. Come spring, Glacier Bay changes dramatically as the plants, animals, rangers and visitors return.

While onboard, park rangers chat with guests causally sitting in the lounges and while on deck viewing the glaciers.

While onboard, park rangers chat with guests causally sitting in the lounges and while on deck viewing the glaciers.

What are the most common questions you get from guests?
The most common question is “When do we see the glaciers?” In general, visitors spend about four hours in “glacier country” and one hour in front of one of the more active tidewater glaciers. While in glacier country, rangers provide an intermittent commentary over the public address system. If you are where you can hear the main public address system, you can hear the rangers intermittent commentary telling of key points and features in Glacier Bay.

The second most common question is “When is good time to see whales?” The best time to see whales is near the mouth of the bay when the ship enters and exits Glacier Bay. Although there is a possibility of seeing them up and down the bay, the humpback whales particularly like the shallow, narrow waters at the entrance where there is a much tidal movement. In this area these baleen feeders can get more fish per scoop. Humpback whales are the most numerous whales in the bay, but orcas (killer whales) or harbor porpoise may also be seen.

What’s the funniest question you’ve ever been asked by a guest?
A kid once asked me “What’s the hardest thing about being a park ranger?” I told her, “Not being able to go in the swimming pools!”

What is your most amazing Glacier Bay experience?
Glacier Bay provides amazing wilderness experiences, opportunities for inspiration, challenge, humility and renewal. Surrounded by a landscape of outstanding beauty, it is easy to let go of personal troubles and concerns. I feel proud to be a ranger, to share the stories of Glacier Bay and take part in protecting Glacier Bay for the future. The most amazing experience is seeing visitors’ awe and appreciation for their National Park.

Have we answered all of your Glacier Bay questions? If not, ask us in the comments below and we’ll do a follow-up post in the months to come!


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  1. Eizabeth parker July 15, 2019 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    Amazing talks on Westerdam left Vancouver June 30. I would like to contact the two speakers. One a ranger. The other. Klingit speaker. Please send me contact info.

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