Our most recent round of travels took us on a tour of Glacier Bay; a beautiful basin and National Park just outside of Juneau, Alaska. Glacier Bay is in Southeast Alaska, so it is considered part of the Inside Passage.
As one can expect with an Alaskan destination, I (Shannon) found myself staring out at snow-capped mountain peaks. The peaks were intricately textured moss-covered cliff faces. The glacial ice so blue that if I hadn’t seen myself, I may not believe you. It’s as if someone popped out every couple of hours to sprinkle it with food coloring. The crisp white icebergs that float throughout the bay only make the water look more of whatever color it was choosing to be at that time. The water was either an ominous gray or a dazzling Caribbean-esque blue.
During the tour, Glacier Bay is a place of contrast and extremes, of grandeur and raw simplicity. It is far and away one of the most beautiful places I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to. I can’t say that we returned home with only positivity in our hearts.
My morning started like many of them do; laptop at the ready, coffee in hand. This time I had the privilege of staring out at ten shades of blue, white, and gray. A hodgepodge that if I tried to coordinate at home would look messy and confused. It looked nothing short of meditative out the boat window. Funny how nature does that.
I didn’t get far into my work before a ranger from the Glacier Bay National Park joined us on board for our tour. He began to share all about the wildlife. To be completely frank, it does not take much convincing for me to leave my laptop behind. Once someone starts talking about baby seals, humpback whales, bald eagles, and other animals (baby versions or not), I’m in.
I closed my work and made my way to the deck. That is where we were able to take in not only the colors and textures but the sounds the smells. The sheer scale of everything around us was majestic.
We watched as harbor seals playfully leaped from the water; sliding their way onto pieces of floating ice and then slipping right back under the surface. Humpback whales breached the bay’s surface in a striking display of gentleness and unobstructed power. As these creatures played (or more likely hunted, but I prefer the prior option!) behind them, a glacier collapsed.
The act in and of itself was both fascinating and mesmerizing. I couldn’t help but feel my chest tighten as I began to recognize the immediate sensation of fear, panic, and heartbreak. Our Glacier Bay Tour was taking a very different turn.
The Sounds From Glacier Bay
If you’ve never heard a glacier; and to begin, I just mean if you’ve never heard it simply existing – it sounds alive. It echoes and creaks and moans as it settles in the most haunting way. And that is a sound I would happily fall under the trance of for a long, long time. Hearing a glacier “calve” (splitting or shedding into icebergs) though is another sensation altogether.
The haunting moaning quickly turns to a noise that can only be described as the passing of a freight train. The loud, low rumble echoes consistently from the moment it breaks free till after it’s submerged. As it initially breaks, it lets through the occasional crack or popping sound as tons (literal tons) of weight are released from the glacier. When the broken-away piece finally slips into the water – from our perspective, in slow motion, it creates a rushing wave. The wave pushes water outward in every possible direction in the eeriest (yet still beautiful) way.
I don’t write this to make nature out to be a bad guy. It’s far from it. Really, it’s the good guy. It’s simply reacting to the strains that we have continued to put on it. We do so without listening to its moans, its creaks, and its decades of warning signs.
How Climate Change is Affecting Glacier Bay
We have always known climate change to be real. It’s just that we’ve found ourselves fortunate enough to never have been blatantly slapped in the face with it before this trip.
200 vertical feet of ice shed before us as we watched. It created this small tidal wave that gently rocks the playful harbor seal up along its crest and backs down. It wasn’t something we could ignore. We realized that if we’re not careful, we can mistake tragicness for beauty.
That all said, we left the bay, the boat, and the glaciers unable to shake the uneasy feeling. It was a feeling started by the collapsing glacier face. It is with nothing more than a desire for change that we share our story about our Glacier Bay Tour.
Statistics About The National Park & The Surrounding Area
- Since 1949, Alaska has experienced a 5-degree increase in average annual temperature.
- Jeff Coe, leader of the U.S. Geological Survey team working within Glacier Bay, when referring to the 2012 and 2016 landsides within the park said, “There was nothing like them in the historical record. They were two to five times larger than anything else that had happened in the historical record back to 1984.” His guess as to what’s causing them? Degrading permafrost and rock.
- Of the more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, 95% of them are currently thinning, stagnating, or retreating.
- Recent research shared by the National Park Service has found that there is 11% less glacial ice in Glacier Bay National Park than there was in the 1950s. This doesn’t seem massive until you realize that the park is 3.3 million acres and 27% of it is covered by glaciers. Now you see the severity.
What Can We Do to Help Glacier Bay?
After all, these are blocks of tons and tons of century’s old ice, in a faraway place. What impact can you have?
- Vote. The biggest single thing that we can do as individuals to protect the planet is to vote for lawmakers who respect it.
- Write, march, and sign. Sometimes people end up in positions of power who do more to hurt our natural world than help it. If they are voted into office, don’t stay silent on the topics that matter. Write to them. March against their policies and sign petition after petition for causes you feel passionate about.
- Share. As we have said above, we’ve always been believers in climate change, but never had to face the incredibly harsh reality until it was truly right in our faces. Use your social platforms and your personal relationships to put the tragedy (gently, yet productively) in the spotlight.
The Takeaway From Our Glacier Bay Tour
Yes, there are hundreds upon hundreds of other ways to make an impact environmentally, but witnessing the beauty and tragedy of what we saw in Glacier Bay really put it into perspective for me that it’s no longer about bringing my reusable bag to the store (which we will never, not do regardless!) but it’s about big, vocal, governmental-sized policy changes, protections and impact points. It’s time to act.
So thank you for tagging along through our story. We thank you for giving us the space to share, celebrate and beg for action on this magnificent and majestic, ever-changing, and resilient place we so enjoyed visiting and hope that you will also visit. Thank you, Glacier Bay for opening our eyes. The more people visit Glacier Bay and act, the more people will see its beauty, and the wildlife, and hopefully will want to protect it.
More Adventures Like This
If you are looking for tours like Glacier Bay that are just as life-changing while visiting Alaska, try the Kenai Fjords National Park Tour which also allows for whale watching and viewing tidewater glaciers.
The Grand Denali Flight with Glacier Landing flies through Denali National Park. This adventure is sure to be an unforgettable one!
You can visit Glacier Bay via a boat or flight tour from Juneau, or like most, sail through it on a cruise ship.
No. It is a National Park so there are no gift shops. Bringing anything that could create waste in the area is not permitted inside the National Park and is frowned upon. It could damage the ecosystem and harm the wildlife in the bay.
As for most parts of Alaska, the weather changes all the time. We recommend layering so you can remove clothing if it warms up. We wrote a blog post about packing for trips to Alaska to the area that may help you with the planning for this trip as well.