Hubbard Glacier — Not To Be Missed

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We were privileged to see Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in North America, on our first cruise to Alaska. Since not all cruise itineraries include Hubbard, pick your cruise carefully if you want to see it. And this summer may be your last chance. More on that later.

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Photos courtesy of Carol Watts

One of the cruise ships that venture up to Hubbard Glacier is Holland America’s Oosterdam.

Hubbard Glacier is an advancing tidewater glacier, just one of several in Alaska. Its sheer size boggles the mind. Its source is Mt. Logan in the Yukon Territory, the highest mountain in Canada. From there it travels 76 miles to Disenchantment Bay. The snout or face of the glacier is 7.5 miles wide, and over 400 feet from water level to the top. That’s as tall as a 40-story building. Beneath the water level there extends another 300 feet of ice. That makes Hubbard Glacier a total of 1,350 square miles of ice.

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Photos courtesy of Carol Watts

A harbor seal on an ice floe is one of the sights travelers to the Hubbard Glacier might enjoy from the deck of their cruise ship.

The blue color of the face indicates that it is an actively calving glacier. Calving — or the breaking off of icebergs the size of a 10-story building — is called “white thunder” by the native Tlingit people. It’s hard to comprehend the size of Hubbard, since cruise ships must stay a few miles away for safety reasons.

By the way, it takes 400 years for the ice at the source of the glacier to reach the water. That means the ice you may see calving off its face is 400 years old.

Nicknamed the “galloping glacier,” Hubbard is advancing at a rate of approximately 7 feet per day. But in the past it has been known to advance as much as 100 feet per day. Even at the slower rate of travel, Hubbard may close off the entrance to Russell Fjord from Disenchantment Bay soon, turning the fjord into a glacial lake. It did so in August 2002 and before that in May 1986. When the ice dam finally gave way in August 1986, 1.3 cubic miles of water rushed through the gap into the bay. This second largest glacial lake outburst flood in history was the equivalent flow of 35 Niagara Falls. Needless to say, no cruise ship could withstand that force of water.

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Photos courtesy of Carol Watts

Flying over Hubbard Glacier you might see the great ice mass closing off Russell Fjord from Disenchantment Bay.

But there is another threat to viewing Hubbard Glacier — the effect cruise ships have on the seal population in the bay. Scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, a part of NOAA, are seeking to severely restrict or even ban cruise ships from visiting Hubbard Glacier. They theorize that cruise ships “flush” seals from the icebergs in the bay. Pups born in late spring are nursing from May through August. If a seal pup is scared from its mother and dives into the cold water, it will not be able to store up enough fat to survive the coming winter. Calories are burned evading cruise ships, as opposed to calories being stored as fat in the baby seals. (Cruise ships are not allowed to approach seals on icebergs closer than 500 feet.) Since seals are an important source of food for the native subsistence hunters of Yakutat, population 833, the death of this year’s pups over the winter would limit their food resources next year.

As of Jan. 24, 2011, officials at NOAA have not drafted recommendations to close the bay to cruise ships, but they stress that it is a “high priority.” So between the government involvement and the advancing face of Hubbard Glacier, this summer may be the last chance to see this magnificent sight.

Hubbard Glacier is one stop on the 14-day Holland America cruise itinerary that sails round trip from Seattle. In addition to the usual Inside Passage ports of call of Ketchikan and Juneau, this itinerary has some unique ports of call not available on any other cruise. Anchorage, Kodiak and Homer are visited in addition to Sitka and Victoria, B.C.

Cruise Port Travel has blocked space on the June 10 through June 24, 2011 sailing. This group space means a reduction in cabin price of up to $360 per person off the regular ocean view cabin rate. In addition, there are amenities of $100 per cabin on-board credit and a specialty restaurant dining experience. We had our first meal in Holland’s Pinnacle Grill in October, and it truly is a culinary experience not to be missed.

The booking deadline for this group discount is Feb. 10. So don’t put off contacting us for prices. And don’t put off a chance to visit Hubbard Glacier, since this year might be your last chance.

Cruise Port Travel is located at 900 W. Driftwood Dr. in Payson. Visit us on the Web at www.travelpayson, or on Facebook, search Cruise Port Travel, and review all the Alaska pictures I post daily.

Recent Rim Review articles about Alaska and this cruise in particular can be found in the “blog spot” of our Web site.

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