Of the many things we wanted to do during our visit to Alaska, seeing glaciers was top of the list. As we were taught in school, glaciers are moving rivers of ice that result as the weight of snow compresses on itself and converts into thick ice that moves slowly along pushed by gravity and its own weight. Despite having seen many pictures of glaciers, nothing prepared us for their sheer size and beauty.
Beloit Glacier (L) and Blackstone Glacier (R) in Prince William Sound's Blackstone Bay
Many visitors see glaciers as part of their vacation cruise from Seattle or Vancouver. However, since we flew to Anchorage for a land based vacation that included lots of time with our local cousins, we opted for a day cruise out of Whittier, about an hour south of downtown Anchorage. Whittier is on the western edge of Prince William Sound which is home to dozens of active glaciers due to the fact that the area gets hundreds of inches of snow each year. Access to Whittier is via a single lane tunnel that was built when the US military used Whittier as an active port. Today, a few hundred year round residents call the town home, but it is an active launch point for day cruises, kayaks trips and other water-based adventures that enjoy the calm waters and scenic views. This is one cruise where you don’t need to worry about getting sea-sick.
Be sure you know the tunnel schedule so you don't miss your Whittier, AK based day cruise
If you are looking for glaciers, the three major commercial day cruises offered are the 26 Glaciers cruise, Prince William Sound Glacier Cruises, and Major Marine cruises. We paid for our own cruise and opted for Major Marine because it offered assigned interior seating and promised to spend significant time with a few glaciers. The boat, Emerald Sea, was smaller and slower than the catamaran used by 26 Glaciers to zip around the Sound in hunt of, you guessed it, 26 glaciers. The cousins had taken the Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise last year and enjoyed it, but it left earlier in the day that the one we selected. Given that inbound access to Whittier is limited to 15 minutes once an hour, so that outbound traffic and the train can also use the tunnel, we decided the later cruise allowed us a little more time to sight see on the way to meet the boat.
Sea Otters in Prince William Sound near Whittier, AK
We were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day. Once we cleared the Whittier docks, the coastline featured mountains and waterfalls and views of more distant glaciers as well as lots of active eagles, otters and kittiwakes. We saw a whale with a baby and a steller sea lion as well. But, the main attractions were Beloit and Blackstone glaciers.
A whale in Blackstone Bay
While several glaciers can be seen at a distance high in the mountains surrounding the Bay, you can tell you are getting close to something a little more significant when the small icebergs start to float by. Since only 15% of the iceberg is above water, even some of these babies are pretty good size.
Small icebergs start floating by as the boat approaches the glaciers
Once you get up close to the glaciers themselves it becomes clear than they are not just overgrown ice cubes. The ice is jagged with deep crevasses and large holes. Sections appear to have an intense blue color due to the ability of the ice to filter out parts of the color spectrum when the sunlight shines deep into it. Dirt and rocks have been scooped up into the glacier during its long journey to the sea and can be seen mixed with the ice.
Blue ice at Beloit Glacier
The ice frequently groans and creaks and periodically small, or large, chunks will fall into the water. We saw a number of smaller cascades but no major calving. It sounds like a thunderclap in the distance just before smaller pieces break off. The sound of a major break must be amazing.
We saw some smaller chunks fall from Blackstone Glacier
Of course, being on a boat, we were looking at the face of the glacier as it ended in the waters of the Bay. The on board naturalist said the ice we saw was at least 10 years old and had traveled miles from the ice field where it was initially formed. In addition to the glaciers, the melting snow fuels a myriad of waterfalls and cascades, all channeling out to the ocean.
Waterfall at Blackstone Glacier
We could have watched all day but unfortunately only got about 20-30 minutes with each of the major glaciers. Although just about everybody on board was outside due to the spectacular weather we were always able to get a great view.
One last look at the glaciers of Blackstone Bay before we go
In the end, the cruise you select probably has less to do with how much you enjoy your day than does the weather and the level of activity you see at the glaciers themselves. We had a beautiful sunny day and spent most of the 5 hour cruise outside enjoying the sights. The only thing that we would have changed was to bring a bag lunch rather than paying up for the lunch provided by the boat. The buffet moved slowly and we felt liked we missed out on some eagles and otters while waiting to eat. We also missed dessert because we were outside with the glaciers when it was served.
Arriving back into Whittier Harbor
We recommend taking a Prince William Sound glacier cruise, even if your trip to Alaska includes time viewing glaciers from a large oceanliner. The smaller boats that explore the Sound can get much closer to the actual face of the glacier than can the larger ships. Looking up at the glacier towering above you underscores just how immense these moving rivers of ice really are.