Ice conditions make this an ideal time for glacier-viewing excursions. // © 2012 Christopher Batin
Many first-time clients enjoy day trips to Alaska’s Prince William Sound glaciers in part because they are easily accessible via the seaports of Valdez or Whittier. Those who return a second time, however, know that the real draw is that few road-accessible tours offer the raw excitement of watching tons of ice tear away from a 500-foot ice face or the thrill of seeing an ice shard the size of a house belly flop into the ocean. The experience comprises more than just watching the ice alone, however. Seals bask lazily on ice floes, vibrant colors of wildflowers recolonize barren rock and the azure-blue ice found at a glacier terminus inspires and excites.
Each glacier has its own ecosystem and personality, which makes it impossible to rank one over the other. Here are my top glacier day tours in Prince William Sound.
Columbia is the largest tidewater glacier in Prince William Sound and, when last measured in 1995, it was 35 miles long and covered an area of 384 square miles. While other glaciers crack and creak, Columbia booms and explodes when calving. According to glaciologists, some of the ice shards that calve off weigh millions of tons.
From 2006 to 2010, Columbia Bay was mostly ice-choked due to heavy calving, and cruise ships and day charters were restricted from viewing the glacier — keeping them an average of 10 to 12 miles away from the glacier’s face. But glaciologists are saying that recent glacier activity has created a sightseeing event that tour operators are hoping will continue for at least another year or two.
“Last year, we were able to cruise within one mile of the face of Columbia Glacier,” said Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Cruises. “The face of the glacier is five miles wide, so there is always some degree of calving going on. Even if ice chokes the bay, we have been able to get from one to six miles away from the face. This means that, even on a bad day, our passengers get six miles closer than anyone has gotten in the last five years. When we get this close, passengers are now surrounded by 270 degrees of ice means instead of seeing the glacier from a distance. Ice conditions are unpredictable, of course, but we’re hoping for it to continue.”
The sight of this amazing ice-age drama — enhanced by the surround-sound effect of cracking ice echoing off the nearby mountains — creates the kind of experience that is unmatched in Alaska glacier cruises. However, advise your clients to go now because these events can change and not reappear for years, if at all.
On the nine-hour Meares Glacier cruise, passengers can view Columbia Glacier from the entrance to Columbia Bay, as well as journey within a quarter-mile of the face of Meares Glacier. While not as massive as Columbia, Meares is nevertheless awe-inspiring.
The Meares cruise encompasses both the inner coves and the whale-laden outer waters of Prince William Sound. The glacier has a much smaller face, so it often takes longer for passengers to see ice-calving activity, however the face of the glacier is impressive in its own right due to the closeness of the approach.
On both excursions, the Stan Stephens’ vessels are among the safest and most comfortable that I have experienced — with enclosed, heated decks and ample open deck space for photography and glacier viewing. Lunch is served on both cruises. The captains are resident Alaskans and have decades of experience.
I have taken these tours at least a dozen times over the years, and have delighted in observing sea lions, sea otters, orcas, humpbacks, seals and a variety of birds. There is also a chance to see commercial fishing vessels hauling in their catch during salmon season.
The 26 Glacier Cruise
No matter how great the tour, if your clients get queasy, their entire trip will be ruined. Phillips Cruises has solved this problem with the Klondike Express, the Cadillac of glacier-viewing ships. The company even offers a money-back guarantee if any passenger gets seasick. I’ve experienced the cruise firsthand several times and this catamaran tames the waves to mere bumps. The smooth ride is also great for senior passengers who find that rough seas can exacerbate joint or back problems.
Unlike the up-close-and-personal experience of Columbia, most of the glaciers on the 26 Glacier tour are tidewater, alpine and piedmont, and are viewed from both far and near. During open-water travel between glaciers, a tasty lunch of chicken or Alaska cod, slaw and chips is served at tables in a heated, protected area out of the wind. The narration during the tour is among the best that I’ve heard on a cruise and is both informative and entertaining, covering everything from local culture to geologic history. An onboard Chugach National Forest ranger provides natural history insights of Esther Passage and, my favorite, Surprise Glacier, located in College Fjord.