VIAlaska08: Glacier Bay

Massive Glacier Dumps Ice into Ocean Waters


July 28- August 6, 2008


IAlaska08: Flight to Vancouver

VAlaska08: Skagway & Train Ride

IIAlaska08: Visit to Butchart Gardens

VIAlaska08: Glacier Bay

IIIAlaska08: Ship M/S Ryndam

VII: Shopping in Ketchikan

IVAlaska08: Juneau for Whale Watch

VIII: Flight Home to Memphis




Return To Nolan Travels Home Page (Page updated Aug. 25, 2008)


(To View Photo Album of 298 Pictures mainly taken by Betty Nolan, go to, sign in and look for lewis_nolan/ photos. Or, email so he can send you a link with automatic admission to the website.)


Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008 – To Alaska’s Glacier Bay to Watch Calving of Massive Icebergs


One of the most dramatic sights in Alaska is watching house-sized chunks of ice sheave off their parent glacier to splash mightily into the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean’s Glacier Bay.


It was 6 a.m. when our ship, the M/S Ryndam, entered Alaska’s Glacier Bay. We cruised among small chunks of ice then stopped about 10 a.m., 400-to-500 yards from the face of the Margerie Glacier. The ship then moved a short distance about an hour later so we could see the nearby John Hopkins Glacier. U.S. Park Rangers were aboard to provide narrative. The cold water was thickly dotted by tiny icebergs that reminded me of a humongous milkshake. The steep-sloped mountains on either side of the bay were covered with snow and ice.


I had my usual breakfast delivered by room service. It consisted of bacon, two scrambled eggs, two pieces of whole wheat bread toast, a wedge of hash browns, slice of orange, small glass of tomato juice, Diet Coke and a glass of ice water. I had also ordered a small bagel with cream cheese and a pastry for a mid-morning snack later. While I worked on my travelogue notes, Betty went upstairs to the Lido Restaurant buffet to enjoy her usual light breakfast, which this time consisted of coffee, fruit and a raisin bun.


We were told that Glacier Bay was impenetrable to ships 200 years ago because it was blocked by a giant wall of ice. Since then, ice in the bay has gradually receded to uncover a new waterway that is 65 miles long, containing many fiords and inlets. At some times, visiting boats have sightings of seals, whales, porpoises, mountain goats, bears, eagles and a variety of birds which live in the bay.


Betty spotted two bears on a distant shore. One brown bear (maybe a grizzly) cavorted off the beach and into a thicket of shrubs as she watched through binoculars. The PA announced another bear on my side of the boat (the starboard), but I never could spot it. Even with my 7x35 binoculars, the shoreline images a half-mile away were quite small.


I sat by a big picture window on the pool deck and watched the glacier for calving activity through my binoculars. The face of the glacier was an imposing sight, with centuries-old ice perhaps 80 feet tall and taking on a light blue tinge from the reflected sunlight and its compression by the massive weight of ice. Every now and then a large section of ice would shear off the face and make a big splash as it hit the water. It was a real treat to see firsthand such a magnificent sight in nature that has become commonplace on television and in the movies.


A ship’s brochure told how Glacier Bay was discovered in 1879 by naturalist-adventurer John Muir. As a young Boy Scout in the 1950s, I had camped in beautiful woods near San Francisco that had been named in his honor. Tourists started coming to the bay soon after its discovery and it is today one of the most visited places in Alaska. We learned that the glacier is more than 4,000 feet thick in places, up to 20 miles wide and extends more than 100 miles to the St. Elias Range of Mountains to the northeast.


Muir had found in 1879 that the ice had already retreated 10 miles since he first discovered it a decade before. By 1916, the gigantic Grand Pacific Glacier had retreated 65 miles from the head of the bay to Tarr Inlet. Geologists note that such rapid decline in size is not known anywhere else in the world.


We were also told that on a worldwide basis, glaciers and polar ice store more water than all the planet’s lakes, rivers, groundwater and the atmosphere holds combined. Scientists say that 10 percent of the Earth is under ice today and equals the amount being formed. If the world’s ice ever is completely thawed – and there is much debate about the so-called “global warming” today – the sea would flood half of the world’s cities. That seems to be one of the reputed scientific “facts.”


The Greenland and Antarctic ice caps are two miles thick. Alaska is supposedly 4 percent ice. Those are difficult facts to grasp. I might ask, “So where’s the gin?”


After seeing the mouths of the massive glaciers dump so much ice into the ocean and reading about record snow fall the last two years in Alaska, I came to have my doubts about the scare talk over the perils of global warming. That is despite some of the scare coming from today’s political leaders, even former Vice President Al Gore whom I admire.


Glaciers form, the National Park Service Rangers told us, because snowfall in the high mountains exceeds snowmelt. The snow flakes first change to granular snow – round ice grains – when the weight of falling snow compresses them. The accumulated weight eventually presses the snow into solid ice. Eventually, the force of gravity causes the ice mass to slowly flow down slope as much as seven feet per day.


The Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve takes in 12 glaciers that calve into the bay, as the process it is called when big chunks of ice shear off the face and fall into the water. The huge icebergs may last a week or more. They provide temporary perches for bald eagles and other birds. According to the Park Service, white bergs hold many air bubbles. Blue bergs are dense. Greenish-blackish bergs may carry moraine rubble scooped up from the earth. Even a modest looking berg may suddenly loom enormous when it tips over to form a threat to close boats or anybody so foolish as to be walking on it.


We didn’t see any whales in Glacier Bay, but a Park Service brochure said Alaskan waters host 10 species of baleen whales (which have a screen of sorts of toothy substance to filter out tiny shrimp from the water) and 5 species of toothed whales. Bay waters contain baleen whales, Minke whales which migrate and feed on cod and Pollock, orca (also known as Killer Whales with distinctive black and white markings) and humpback whales.


The humpback whales are acrobatic and heave their massive bodies and large flukes by leaps and turns out of the water. Only 7 percent of their pre-whaling numbers still remain and they are now protected from whalers. Adults are up to 50 feet long. They are coastal feeders that frequent Alaska and feed there in winter on krill, shrimp and small fish. “To see these large whales,” said a Park Service publication, “in their native habitat surely counts as one of the great experiences of a lifetime.”


Tellingly, the Park Service publication says “most of the available information about whales derives from attempts to hunt them, not to save them from extinction.”


After spending an hour anchored near one glacier, the ship moved to be close to another glacier where a big fountain of milky water gushed from a large hole at the base of its face and into the ocean. It was quite a sight. No commentary on the subject was offered and I suspected the glacial fountain could be the subject of a promising scientific paper by an ambitious student.


Once the ship upped anchor, Betty and I joined our new friends, Dr. Ulrich Bauer and his wife, Susan Brown, for lunch in the Lido Restaurant. We enjoyed a glass of wine and the beautiful sight of a nearby glacier as the ship swung around and moved on. The ice had shades of blue and deep striations lines of soil and rubble it had picked up as it flowed down from the mountains and carved a gulch into the valley.


Ulrich, whose nickname is “Uly” (pronounced you-lee), told me about coming to America at age 6 with his family. The trip out of Nazi-controlled Germany came because of the intervention by a family friend in The Netherlands who persuaded the government to permit the Bauer family to immigrate to the United States. It took a while for his father to go through the physician license hoops, but he soon did and practiced medicine in a Boston hospital and in New York State. Uly’s uncle survived World War II by hiding in a friend’s attic in Amsterdam for four years. That story is similar to that of Anne Frank who lived long enough to write a book before she was ultimately captured and died in a concentration camp.


Notwithstanding the stomach-turning horror of hearing the stories from the Bauer’s about their family’s escape from Nazi clutches, we had a great view of the glaciers and the coastline of this desolate area of Alaska. I had seafood and Cole slaw salad, a tiny piece of beef and some smoked salmon. Susie snagged a plate of smoked turkey and another plate of yummy desserts for our table.


Later, Betty and I walked around the ship’s Promenade Deck four times to get in our daily mile. We arranged to meet the Bauers and Tony and Shelly Fernandez for dinner in the Rotterdam Restaurant at 8 p.m. that evening. I spent part of the afternoon working on my travelogue while Betty attended a presentation on native crafts of Alaska. Unfortunately, the dog-and-pony show was diminished because the room was dim and unheated.


We also spent some time late in the day in the ship’s Internet Café, where I paid $18 to check my email. I saw that my stock in Schering-Plough (the company I retired from) had been pounded in the stock market last Friday after FDA refused to approve a new company drug to help patients recover from anesthesia. This was the second or third adverse position FDA has taken recently against SGP, a cause for concern for me and other investors.


While I was bothered by the negative news about my investment performance, I was pleased to see positive emails from my loved ones – son Casey, his wife Caroline and her mother, JoAnn Glass. They all wrote they were looking forward to seeing photos Betty and I were taking of our cruise and visit to Alaska.  Betty has so far taken more than 300 photos so I know I’ll have some work when I get home to have them properly posted with captions on the Internet.


We joined the Bauer and the Hernandez couples for dinner in the Rotterdam Restaurant that evening. It was a “formal” – which is taken to mean “dress up” and not necessarily requiring a tuxedo – affair so I wore a sport coat and necktie and Betty wore one of her sleek, black dresses with a jeweled top she had purchased in Gulf Shores, AL. We enjoyed a festive evening with new friends at the table.


Tony Hernandez treated the table to glasses of sparking wine or champagne.


The attentive wait staff produced first-class menus for the six of us. I went for the “surf and turf” dish of lobster tail and a six-ounce cut of filet mignon; both were perfectly cooked. I also enjoyed escargot (snails) burgundy and a Caesar salad. Betty had braised veal on the bone and also a serving of escargot. We both passed on the Baked Alaska dessert due to lactose intolerance. But the desserts were nicely presented by marching chefs waving sparklers while stepping to Sousa music. Other kitchen staff joined in the march that circled the elegant dining room.


Our conversation with the Bauer and Hernandez couples was excellent. It produced a lot of laughs when Susie recounted the humor behind Jewish quips about “mayonnaise and white bread” and other aspects of the lifestyle and innocent miss-understandings concerning gentiles like me and Betty.


As usual, our group was among the last to call it an evening and depart the restaurant shortly after 10 p.m. I had the good fortune to sit next to Uly during dinner and came to a greater appreciation of just how smart and witty he is. He retired as a colonel from the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the mid-1990s and is a fun guy to talk to about the military and experiences it presents those who honorably serve.


Continue With Part VII, Shopping in Ketchikan  /  Return To Nolan Travels