Williams Cove and South Sawyer Glacier

Jul 23, 2018 - National Geographic Sea Lion

Our journey today included several fantastic experiences exploring areas around Tracy Arm in Southeast Alaska. From early morning until late in the evening, our expedition was filled with large chunks of radiant blue glacial ice and curious wildlife. Throughout it all, we couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather on our first full day of the expedition with glowing skies filled with sunlight.

We began today by leaving Stephens Passage, turning east into Tracy Arm. Near the entrance on the northern side, we settled into a calm, majestic area called Williams Cove for the morning.  It was in this cove that we were given opportunities to kayak the flat waters near two massive icebergs and slowly explore the temperate rainforest on a walk through the hemlock and spruce trees near the water’s edge.

Kayaking was certainly one of the highlights of the day, taking a moment to listen to this tranquil area from the water’s surface. At first it was off in the distance, then closer and more often, we saw harbor seals peeking into our kayaking adventure from down below. With their heads perched just a few inches above the water, we were able to take glimpses of the harbor seals just a few feet from the kayaks, but they often seemed to disappear as sneakily and quickly as they arrived.

Our walk into the forest was exciting as we entered another world below the towering Sitka spruce and western hemlocks. Signs of recent bear activity revealed themselves almost immediately. In fact, we had barely even left the exposed upper-tidal zone when we began noticing holes in the meadow below our feet. There was clearly something large scouring the land for food very recently. It didn’t take much time to realize we were wandering in spaces where bears had been only hours before. With the abundance of ripe, wild salmon berries and blueberries in the forest, we weren’t surprised - this was a great spot for a bear to feast! Near the berries, we found an outstanding collection of plants lining the trickling streams such as skunk cabbage, cow parsnip, devil’s club, false lily of the valley, and twisted stalk.

In the afternoon, we were fortunate to travel deeper through the fjords down Tracy Arm within just a few miles of the South Sawyer Glacier. It was there that Zodiacs traveled even closer to the terminus of the glacier. As we rode through the water, we were fortunate to hear a symphony of glacier instruments beginning to play music. Small pieces of brash ice and bergy bits got pushed together, clanking together the simple rhythm. Thunder rocked from deep within the glacier itself, occasionally releasing percussion tunes as chunks of ice fell off the front of the glacier’s face.

While the songs played, our experience in the icy channel was made even more perfect when we realized we were not alone. In the distance, our ice chunks were topped with harbor seals hauled out enjoying the relative warmth of our glorious day.  At first, it seemed there were just a handful, but within a few minutes we noticed the seals were covering every large piece of ice in the area. Weaving left and right in our small boats, we passively observed the incredible creatures, savoring our luck in visiting Sawyer Glacier on this wonderful day.

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About the Author

Christine West

Undersea Specialist

Christine was fortunate to grow up in the Pacific Northwest on the shores of the Puget Sound. After graduating from the University of Washington, she decided to pursue her love of the ocean and exploration. Her passion for marine biology has inspired her through over 4,000 scuba dives around the globe in temperate and cold-water conditions, as well as snorkeling and freediving in extraordinary habitats such as in river beds with spawning salmon, in recently de-glaciated bays and lagoons filled with ice and glacial silt and in deep blue water with large marine animals including humpback whales, hammerhead sharks and pilot whales.

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