Aialik Glacier

August 5, 2021

[Note from the present. It's March 21, 2022, and Patsy and I are on the Endeavour, heading east in Frederick Sound on our way to Wrangell. The skies are dark, the water is rough, and the rain and snow comes and goes.

We wrapped up our Bubble Feeders of Sitka Sound expedition on Sunday, March 19th, a day early. Our mission with Andy Szabo, Executive Director of the Alaska Whale Foundation, and his associate, Lars Bejder, a professor at the University of Hawaii Marine Mammal Research Program, and Fabien Vivier, one of Lars’s graduate students and a drone pilot, had been to attach devices with cameras and accelerometers and tracking radios to humpbacks just back from Hawaii, returning to Sitka Sound to feed on the spring herring. These devices attach with suction cups and don’t harm the whales. Another part of the mission was to fly a drone overhead with precise altimeter and a flat lens to measure the body mass of the returning whales.

But March is a cruel month in Alaska. It tantalizes you with hints of spring and then slams you with the last punches of winter. On our way into Sitka at the start of the week we were nearly blinded by thick wet snow that clung to our windshields. Then it rained and rained some more. And the wind blew, and the swells picked up. There were plenty of whales, but they weren’t bubble-feeding and so we didn’t tag them. We had several problems with the drone: it had trouble calibrating its guidance system on our steel deck (other drones haven’t had this problem), so the researchers had to launch and retrieve it from a small non-ferrous boat, a tricky operation. Even then, when the wind was up more than about 12 knots, the image through the chop was too broken for accurate measurements. And then the whales perversely decided to congregate under the flight path into Sitka Airport, where our drone wasn’t allowed to fly. With so many thousands of squares miles of inshore waters up here with unrestricted airspace, this was frustrating. It’s like … they knew.

But the researchers did get some aerial shots. The whales seem a bit skinnier than in past years, they told us, probably an effect of the changes in the ocean from global warming, but the chain of causes needs to be confirmed.

They also photographed the flukes of a dozen whales and uploaded the images – patterns on whale’s tails are like fingerprints – to an online database called, which tracks humpbacks in Hawaii, Alaska, and elsewhere. As of yesterday, the site was tracking 75,612 individual whales. Anyone can submit a photo of a whale’s tail. The Happy Whale system makes the identification, tells you where “your” whale has been spotted before, and can send you emails when someone else spots it in the future.

We also had the chance to test and calibrate the cameras by sending them down in one of the Endeavour’s crab traps, shooting a sort of crude test pattern at the opposite end of the wire box. Joe Stevens and George Everdon of Offspring Films, Ltd, a production company specializing in nature films, were on board for this.

The video results were good, and the cameras will be used in June, when Andy and Lars try tagging again, probably out of their Warm Springs field station on the east side of Baranof Island. Patsy and I would like to be there, but we’ll have the Endeavour hundreds of miles to the north, on our way to the Bering Sea.

Climate data can be abstract, but humpbacked whales are not. The work these men are doing to tell the rest of us what is happening to the humpbacks is important. It’s ammunition in the fight against global warming. We recorded a video interview with Andy and Lars about their work, which we’ll post on the Alaska Endeavour website in the next few weeks. The Alaska Whale Foundation deserves our support.

Now, back to the past....]

This is 6 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.

Slate Island - Squab Island, Aialik Glacier, Pedersen Lagoon, Pedersen Glacier – Down Aialik Bay – Behind Granite Island – Crater Bay

At Aialik Glacier, Patsy and Bella waiting for us on the Endeavour’s swim step. (Photo: Shawn Dilles)

Leaving Slate Island

In the morning I went into the engine room to turn on a generator. I had intentionally left the desalinator – a three-stage high-pressure pump that forces salt water across a permeable membrane, flushes the brine overboard, and then pipes the fresh water into the tank – in the “on” position, and it started up with the generator. I opened the small watertight door into the lazarette to check the sight gauge on the water tank. It was almost full. With six of us on board and a load of laundry yesterday, we were still making more fresh water than we were using. I turned the desalinator off. While I was down there, I started up the main engine.

Squab Island

It was a very short run north – not even two miles – up Aialik Bay to the south end of Squab Island. The day was bright and cloudless. Squab Island is a small island, 350 yards long and 100 yards wide and roughly 125 feet high, a steep little rock knob just under a mile from the giant face of Aialik Glacier. About 150 years ago it was inside the glacier. We anchored, got in the Scout, and headed to the north end of the island, then climbed to the top of the rock. Bruce was up like a goat. The rest of us followed. Birds flew and screamed all around us, all gulls and a few cormorants. We were trespassing, and they let us know it. I was glad I had left Bella behind. We found a few squabs – baby gulls – hidden in the grass. There were no raptors anywhere: no eagles, no hawks, no ospreys.

The view was awesome in every direction. To the northwest was the mile-wide blue ice face of Aialik Glacier, more than three hundred feet tall, its foot in the bay. Turning around clockwise, I could see Skee Glacier to the north, then Lechner Glacier to the east, then milk-blue Aialik Bay leading 20 miles down to the open ocean to the south, and then Pedersen Glacier to the southwest. The Endeavour looked like a toy boat anchored way down there at the foot of the island. The birds kept up their screaming.

This was the easiest of the old photo spots to locate. Grant and Higgins had been here in 1909. Bruce had been here. He said there used to be a solar-powered camera up here, watching the face of Aialik, but it was gone. He and Kim took new pictures and, even though the location was easy to describe verbally as “the highest spot on Squab Island,” recorded the latitude and longitude.

Every once in a while we heard a deep double boom from the glacier. The Tlingit word for the sound is “sum-dum,” as onomatopoetic as it gets. Sometimes the crack was inside the glacier and we could see nothing move. Other times we could see two- or ten-ton slabs of ice calve off from the face and fall into the water. One big piece hit the water, sending a wave our way. We watched it come toward us. It passed over a sandbar, looking like surf headed our way, then it got smaller and disappeared. The ripple didn’t even make it to the Endeavour. The water at the base was too shallow. Had it been deep all the way, the Endeavour would have rocked.

Back in the Scout we headed still further north to the middle of the bay to find the spot of another old shot of Aialik. The bay was filled with ice here, most of it small, but it made a loud rasping noise against the aluminum hull. There were some flat solid pieces, with harbor seals lounging on them, keeping a cautious eye on us. The closer we got to Aialik Glacier the larger the pieces got with more seals on them. Looking around, we counted 120 seals up sunning on the ice. That’s not counting the little faces bobbing around between chunks.

Bruce and Shawn explained that there are different terms for different sizes of floating ice. The small chunks from pea-sized to two feet long are called brash ice. Growler ice is the next size up, to about 15 feet long and two feet high (above the water) and with enough mass to do damage if you hit them at cruising speed. Bergy bits are up to 45 feet long and 12 feet high, the size of a large car or small truck, like those holding seals here. Small icebergs are up to 200 feet long and 50 feet high. Then there are proper icebergs, which can be up to a mile long but are rarely more than 50 feet high. All very scientific.

Pedersen Lagoon

Back on the Endeavour we headed south and went back to the mouth of the Pedersen Lagoon. It was lower tide now than yesterday and we could see the sand bar that had blocked us. It extended straight out of the mouth like a giant tongue, 250 yards from the entrance, leaving only a narrow stream on the north side, maybe four or five feet deep and, right now, running fast. None of this detail was on the chart.


Up here in Alaska, I mentally calibrate the nautical charts this way:

Near significant towns, where there is a lot of boat traffic, the NOAA charts are phenomenally accurate and complete, just like the charts we take for granted down south. Every rock or reef you need to worry about is marked and the depths are reliable. The north end of Resurrection Bay, around Seward, where we just came from, is like that.

Outside these tiny areas the NOAA charts look just as accurate, but that’s the danger. Visible objects are usually charted accurately, but not always. Last year, at the upper end of Seymour Canal, on the east side of Admiralty Island, not far from Juneau, our charts showed us motoring through the middle of a wooded island. Underwater obstructions are often not shown at all – especially off the routes taken by fishing boats. There is a rock in the entrance to Vixen Inlet, between Wrangell and Ketchikan that dries at low tide, where the charts show 59 feet of water. The depth at the upper end of any fjord or bay that has a stream coming in can be off 80 feet − in either direction. The clue that you’re in unreliable data is that the number of soundings decreases. When I’m operating in these waters, I flip back and forth between the NOAA charts and the commercially made “fishing” charts. The fishing charts with their denser bathymetric lines often show the bottom better, but they don’t show rocks. I flip, look, and flip back.

Still further out, the NOAA charts just stop showing depths. On my nav screen these areas show as gray water with hashmarks, like all along the coast east of Kayak Island, and on the coast south of Yakutat. Visible islands and rocks are marked, but they’re theory, not fact.

And then, further out, there are the blank spaces. The chart shows nothing at all, just solid pale blue where there might be water. The shoreline is always wrong. Out there, the best you can do is look at an aerial photograph or a satellite image. They show the major above-water obstructions, and sometimes show where the channel is. Or was.

The NOAA charts are this way because there is so little traffic in these places it’s not worth sending out a survey ship, or the water is too shallow for a survey ship. I’ve heard but haven’t confirmed that Vancouver’s soundings were still being used in these places until a few decades ago. One thing is obvious when you’re out here on the water: the charts could be radically improved using satellite imagery, and they haven’t been.

For places like this, at the top of every fjord and through most of the shallows on the Lost Coast of Alaska from Cordova south through Orca Inlet and east across the Copper River Delta and down through Icy Bay to Yakutat, the best charts are hand-drawn by other captains who were there at a recent low tide.

- William Urschel