Tracy Arm and South Sawyer Glacier

Aug 04, 2018 - National Geographic Sea Lion

Our expedition began six days ago with a spectacular visit to Glacier Bay, then moved on to see the beauty of lush rainforests, humpback whales breaching and cooperative bubble net feeding, brown bears fishing along the coastline, black-tail Sitka deer resting in the vast muskeg, and salmon swimming in the creeks and streams along the shores. Our journey has now gone a full circle, going back to the beginning by closing with more time spent admiring glacial ice and exploring the length of Tracy Arm including an intimate visit to South Sawyer Glacier.

With steaming beverages in hand, our morning started early as we travelled deep down the Tracy Arm in some of the coolest and breeziest conditions we have seen in the past week. Bracing ourselves from the chill, new friends bundled up in jackets, hats, and gloves to experience the thrill of sailing through fjords in Alaska surrounded by steep, glacially-carved rock walls on either side of the ship punctuated with rushing waterfalls from thousands of feet above.

Ice chunks started to float past the ship signaling we were close to the South Sawyer Glacier. We lowered our Zodiacs from above our vessel and we broke up into small groups to get our closest viewing of a glacier yet. The small boats navigated the ice chunks with ease, quietly moving through the water. Black and grey figures bobbed up and below the water, teasing us with their presence. We finally got a solid glimpse—harbor porpoise. A rare treat! We had harbor porpoise swimming through the chunks of glacial ice!

Continuing on, the wildlife sightings unfolded. At first, we saw a few dark dots on ice in the distance. Then we realized there were many more in every direction. The numbers started with just a handful, then seemed to multiply exponentially. Hundreds of harbor seals were hauled out on small and large pieces of ice on both sides of the arm. Their color patterns varied greatly, some appearing greyer with black blotches, some black with colored rings, and some with a simple silver coat. We navigated our small boats carefully, lowering our voices to a whisper, taking photographs without making too many motions, basking in the unique opportunity to see resting seals on glacial ice. At times, the only sound we could hear was the glacier cracking and rumbling in the distance along with a steady rhythm of popping ice below us.

After a warming bowl of clam chowder for lunch, many of us took part in an opportunity of a lifetime: the polar plunge. Yes, we decided to get in the water around the ice. We donned swimming gear and life jackets, and, one at a time, brave souls took the ultimate leap, jumping off the Zodiacs to swim in icy, Alaskan waters. Screams and laughter followed, but no regrets. All swimmers back out of the water, covered in towels and smiles, the trip seemed complete…but then, out of the flat, glassy waters rose a 40-foot humpback whale out of our plunge site. How long had it been there? Was it watching as we dipped in the frigid water? The large marine mammal seemed to show us that no matter what you have encountered on your expeditions, there are always more unpredictable surprises to see when you’re on a journey in Alaska.

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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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