Tracy Arm, Southeast Alaska

Jul 07, 2018 - National Geographic Sea Lion


The guests aboard National Geographic Sea Lion spent this overcast day on Tracy Arm, one of the most spectacular places on earth. We stared up at the 2,000 foot-high granite cliffs soaring out of the turquoise-colored fjord. There were a dozen or so hanging valleys, with a tall waterfall flowing from each one. We saw several cliffs that had horizontal glacial striations carved by the glacier that formed Tracy Arm during the last ice age. There was abundant bird life, with glaucous winged gulls, mew gulls, arctic terns, and an occasional bald eagle.

However, what made this fjord so special were the huge blue icebergs. They came in every shape and size, from small ones up to giant bergs the size of a ship. We were amazed to think that 90% of the icebergs are below the water!

We had a special treat in that we went on Zodiac boat rides to the face of the South Sawyer Glacier. On the way there, we saw dozens of harbor seals in the water and on the icebergs. The seals were here because they were nursing their pups earlier this summer. We could hear the cat-like call of the seals.

The tidewater glacier rewarded us with several calvings, when ice fell into the water. We saw huge pieces of ice fall off the glacier face into the water with a splash. The thunder-like bang often arrived after the calving because of the speed of sound lagging behind. Some of the larger ones even created small tsunamis! After each calving, kittiwake and mew gulls flew around the area trying to catch fish stunned by the event. It was amazing to see this so close.

The guests learned that the Sawyer and South Sawyer Glaciers have retreated over one mile during the last 25 years. We saw decades-old photos of the glaciers that showed this retreat, as well as the dramatic thinning of the glaciers. The comparison of photos to the present-day scenery brought home the idea of shrinking glaciers around the world due to climate change.

After viewing Sawyer Glacier and cruising back out to the entrance of Tracy Arm, we had a polar plunge near the last big blue iceberg. Several intrepid guests and staff jumped off a Zodiac into the cold water and swam to another boat that had helpful staff and towels. Meanwhile the rest of the guests cheered them on from the bow of the ship. What a great bonding event at the end of such an amazing week of wonderful wildlife, whales, and waterfalls.

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About the Author

Joe Holliday

Naturalist

Joe Holliday has been a nature fanatic all of his life.  He was raised near the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, where he enjoyed nature while camping with family and the Boy Scouts.  He earned a B.S. in biology at Hamilton College, an M.S. in geology at Oregon State University, and his final degree in education administration from California State University.  For twenty years, Joe has been a geology and oceanography professor at El Camino College in Torrance, California.  He has been the director of the honors program there for several years as well.  However, the best part of this job is leading week-long geology trips to the mountains and national parks of southwest United States.

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