July 12, 2015

Cruising in Prince William Sound

Getting out on the water is a great way to spend a day in Alaska, so Tim and I made a reservation for a glacier and wildlife tour in Prince William Sound.  Several companies in Valdez offer similar tours to different glaciers, but we selected the Columbia Glacier tour with Stan Stephens Cruises.

It was an easy choice for us since we had a two-for-one coupon for this particular cruise.  I’ve written before about the Alaska TourSaver book and the money it has saved us.  This time it was $125.  I have no doubt that all of the companies and tours are great.  Perhaps the longer ones are even better.  Our cruise ended up being the best choice for us, however, and not only because of the savings.

Thursday morning started out foggy and cloudy, but with a promise of clearing by early afternoon.  We boarded the catamaran Valdez Spirit for our 11:00 am sailing and were pleased when we saw that the boat was not full.  There were lots of places to sit, as well as lots of room along the railings.  There was no need to peer over someone’s head to try and take that perfect photograph.

Fog over the Mountains As We Sailed Out of the Valdez Harbor

The Valdez Spirit - It Was Nice and Sunny When We Returned to the Harbor

It takes a while to get from Valdez to the Columbia Glacier, so the captain found other things to hold our interest.  We cruised near several waterfalls as we made our way toward Valdez Narrows and more open water.  We found Prince William Sound crowded with almost 200 commercial fishing boats, and we learned a little more about the way in which these boats catch salmon.

Out for a Day of Fishing

Hoping for a Good Catch

The process used in Prince William Sound is called purse seining.  This involves two boats that surround the salmon with a net supported by floats.  Once the fish have been encircled, the net is drawn or “pursed” so it is closed from the bottom.  A power block on the fishing boat is then used to haul in the net.  Not until the net is pulled out of the water do the fishermen know how many, if any, fish have been caught.  We sat and watched two different boats haul in their nets, and both seemed to be full of salmon.  A good catch.

Two Boats Are Necessary for Purse Seining

Beginning to Haul in the Net

Yes, That Was a Good One

A Successful Haul on Another Boat

We also learned the role of tender boats that enable fishing boats to stay out on the water even after their boats are full of fish.  Tenders buy the fish, load the fish onto the tender boat and transport the fish to the nearest fish processing plant.  The fishing boat can then continue to catch more fish.  It’s a very efficient system.  I thought the whole process was fascinating, and I’m glad that commercial fishing was covered on the tour.  It’s such an important aspect of life in Alaska.

Tender Boats Allow the Fishing Boats to Stay Out Longer

Before too long, we reached Columbia Sound where we began to see ice in the water ahead.  The skies were starting to clear up, just in time for our arrival at Columbia Glacier.  Columbia Glacier is the second largest tidewater glacier in North America and the largest in Prince William Sound.  As we made our way into the bay past several icy blue ice bergs, we saw what looked like a large glacier in the distance.  The captain informed us, however, that the best was yet to come.  This was only the west branch of the larger glacier. 

Ice Bergs Came in All Shapes and Sizes

As we rounded a corner, the most massive glacier I’ve ever seen came into view.  Columbia Glacier is a sight to behold.  This glacier is huge.  I literally had to turn my head around to grasp the breadth of the glacier – it was that long.  And blue.  Another gorgeous tidewater glacier.  I don’t think I will ever tire of gazing at them.
The Face of Columbia Glacier Is Longer than You Can See in this Photo

What a Glorious Sight

Columbia Glacier is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world and one of the few tidewater glaciers that did not begin its retreat until recently.  Since 1980, however, the glacier has been in a “catastrophic” retreat and has moved back 13 miles.  It is now comprised of three separate glaciers, and soon the two smaller  branches will get their own names.

The captain was able to maneuver the boat to within one-quarter mile of the face of the glacier, closer than I can ever remember getting to any tidewater glacier.  We sat there for quite some time and just stared.  Alas, there wasn’t much calving, but it was still an awesome experience.

So Close, We Could Almost Touch It

A Wall of Ice

Blue Reflections

Dress Warmly for a Stop at a Glacier

The West Branch Is on the Left

Time to Leave

Over the course of the day we also saw a lot of marine wildlife, and the captain did his best to seek out the mammals of Prince William Sound.  We saw a few humpback whales, but no orcas, and not a single one decided to breach in front of us.  A mother whale and her calf were really cute, however, and they stayed with us for a few minutes. 

Of course, my favorite critter was the sea otter, and we saw more on this cruise than in the past.  We were close enough to see quite a few of them resting on some ice bergs and then dive into the water.  They just floated and stared back at us.  Too cute!  A group of stellar sea lions and several Dall’s porpoises rounded out our sightings.

Sea Otters On the Ice

What Are You Looking At?

I Know that I'm Cute

Although this was not our first glacier cruise, it was still just as exciting, and it offered a few different twists than the one we took in Glacier Bay.  Although there was no National Park Service ranger on board here, we were impressed with the captain’s commentary.  He was extremely knowledgeable and provided very good explanations of what we were seeing.

After docking in Valdez, Tim and I returned to our “home” on Robe Lake.  Although our “prime” site was taken, that was ok.  We pulled in nearby and spent one last night at the lake before heading north the next morning.


  1. I just love the blue glacier ice and those gorgeous blue icebergs. I don't tire of looking at photos. So glad you included several. I've never seen the otters out fo the water. I loved that group shot of the otters...so very cute!

    1. It was so hard selecting photos for this post. I must have taken hundreds of glacier shots, and I loved all of them. This was the closest I've ever gotten to sea otters on a boat, and they were so fun to watch. I had never seen them out the water either, so the cruise was worth it to me just to see them that way.

  2. Tidewater glaciers are my favorite of all the glaciers. I don't know why ... it's always been that way. Thanks for helping me to scratch the "ice itch" ... I especially like those photos with all the brash ice in the water. I am having ice withdrawals since I have no polar trips booked this year, and I have had to put the Antarctica recap blog posts on hold while I deal with all the material our motorhoming trip is generating ;-)

    1. I agree with you about tidewater glaciers. They are also my favorite. I'm glad I could help you scratch your "ice itch." There should be a few more glaciers to come.

  3. I love glaciers. I love otters. Otters and glaciers - Score! Beautiful images. thanks for reminding me of what I missed this trip.

    1. Thinking about what you missed is the best motivation to come back again. I think it's always good to leave a few thinks on the table to make us want to return to a place. Alaska is so big that it would take a lifetime to see everything. It's tough to choose what to see, but I think all of our choices have been good ones.


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