Northwestern Fjord

August 6, 2021

[Note from the present. It's April 3, 2022, and we’re in Petersburg. It’s 40 degrees and raining. I think it’s been 40 degrees and raining every day except one for the last two weeks. There is fresh snow on the mountainsides down to about 500 feet above the water. This is why more people don’t live in Southeast Alaska year-round.

We had to postpone our search for the Star of Bengal from last week to May 4th. It wasn’t the rain or the cold at Coronation Island, it was the 25- to 30-knot winds and 16-foot swells forecast for five of the seven days. In tight, rocky water, that’s over the line from uncomfortable to risky. I got up in the middle of the night that Tuesday for one last hopeful look at the forecast and had to make the call. Shawn had already flown from Virginia to Seattle and would have been on a plane to Wrangell the next morning.

For forecasting, I use a weather app called Windy, which predicts the weather using up to six different models nine days out. The NOAA forecast I’ve relied on until recently is excellent, but it uses only one model (some models work better in some places than others), it only goes five days out, and doesn’t give as much detail, like swell period (the shorter the period the more unpleasant the motion) or water temperature (important to divers and fisherpeople). Windy also gives you a forecast for any spot you choose, whereas the NOAA data is by zone. Windy requires some study, though. It’s not grab-and-go data.
Our reason for going in March was to beat the plankton bloom. Water visibility in Sitka last week was over 50 feet, or at least that’s how far down I could clearly see our anchor on its way up. Even if the bloom has started in May, it is unlikely to get very far in the first week. Our underwater drones and divers should still be able to see the wreck.
In the meantime, we’re continuing our preparations and research. Shawn, Jenya, and Tessa keep tilling the archives and turning up more detail on the lives and deaths of the laborers locked in the hold of that ship. A lot of this we’ll share in our May 13th live broadcast from the boat, along with what we find at the island. If anything. Now, back to the past....]

This is 8 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.

Crater Bay – out to Harris Bay – up NW Fjord – Ogive and Anchor Glaciers – NW Glacier – Striation Island – SW inlet – SW Glacier – Reconstituted Glacier

Dilles, Angeli, and Molnia, photographing the GPS for redundancy. (Photo: Author)

Crater Bay Moon Jellies

In the morning, while the others finished breakfast inside and planned the photo sequence for the day, I went out on deck with a cup of coffee to look around. Bella came with me. “There might be otters,” she was probably thinking. It was overcast and cool but not cold and there wasn’t a breeze. I looked down into the water. The boat was floating on a cloud of translucent jellyfish.

These were old friends, moon jellies. There were thousands of them here in a crescent-shaped bloom around the boat. Each was an inverted shallow bowl of whiteish jelly with four horseshoe shapes (their reproductive organs) around the center, the open ends of the horseshoes facing inward − these horseshoes happened to be pale red but I’ve seen other colors − with a fringe of usually 16 short tentacles. Most of these jellies were 4 to 14 inches across, some smaller, a few larger. They were all slowly pulsing, as always, gently pushing their way through the water at a rhythm just under that of my heartbeat. Watching them slowed me down, counteracting the coffee. As always, they were incredibly calming, which is probably why I’m so fond of them.

The basic biology of moon jellies is well-known. They eat mostly zooplankton. Their sting is mild to larger creatures, like us. In their adult stage, which I’m looking at here, called the medusa stage, there are two genders, with the male squirting sperm at the female, who catches it in her arms and fertilizes her eggs. The eggs fall to the sea floor where they attach to something and grow into polyps – little blobs anchored to the bottom that look like upside down adults – which then mature and bud off in a series of ephyrae (an almost transparent disk with eight forked arms), one after another, which mature into medusas of one gender or the other, and the cycle starts again.

Patsy and I have run across a dozen or so blooms in the last two years, always in very protected coves. Our first encounter was in an unnamed cove, off Kell Bay, Kuiu Island. In another cove in Port Malmsbury I once swerved the Endeavour to avoid an uncharted sandbar, which turned out to be a bank of several thousand moon jellies, their tops bobbling on the surface.

What we don’t know, apparently, is why they congregate and how – if at all – they communicate. Some researchers suggest they are passively driven together by currents, but I don’t think so. These fellows can move up to two inches a second, when they want to, which suggests intent in forming these clouds. Also, if the blooms were purely current-driven, we would see debris mixed in with the moon jellies, and I never have. Maybe it isn’t that they gathered here but that they were all launched together at the same time by clustered polyps at these spots and they just haven’t dispersed, but the different sizes suggest different ages, and this would imply that the older jellies had to make the effort to stick around, which gets back to intent. Was it food that brought them here? Reproduction? When we’re anchored like we were here in Crater Bay, are they really massing around the boat or is that my imagination? How could we map the movements of individual wild moon jellies in a cloud, in three axes, relative to the current? Would the data show patterns? Coordination? If it shows coordination, how are they coordinating without eyes? By chemical trails? Water pressure? Electrical pulses?

I understand that a single moon jelly is not very bright. But neither is a single transistor. What if collectively this mass of moon jellies does communicate and forms a single calculating entity, or even a consciousness? How would we know? How can we find out?

I made a note to look for a jelly scientist for a future expedition.

Up Harris Bay

Heading out and up into Harris Bay, the clouds were low again and we had trouble finding the old photo locations, especially the locations that were out on the water. We would go a half mile one way, take a picture and record the coordinates at one position, then realize the next location was three-quarters of a mile back, go there, and then have to move ahead east, then back west… Meanwhile, the photos from the binder were all over the pilothouse and getting shuffled out of whatever order Kim had them in. This went on for a couple of hours. It was a little crazy-making. Whoever updates these photos in 20 years or so will have our GPS coordinates and be able to apply linear programming to solve for the most efficient route. It’s the classic travelling salesman problem: find the shortest route that passes through a set of cities.

Just past the moraine at the Northwestern Lagoon, to the east on the Harris Peninsula, was one glacier that had shrunk but was still majestic. We couldn’t find a name for this glacier in any of our materials, so we dubbed it “Patsy Glacier” in honor of my wife. It’s at N 59.765 x W -149.878. That’s hers. That’s my wife’s glacier.

Northwestern Fjord

The skies began to clear as we got closer to the top of the fjord. From various points around Striation Island, a steep rocky prominence in the middle of the fjord, we could see the grand Northwestern Glacier at the top (named by Grant in 1909 for his university), steep Anchor and Ogive glaciers almost side by side, and then Southwestern and Reconstituted Glaciers down at the end of Southwestern Fjord, to the west.

We spent the afternoon making landings for terrestrial shots, climbing up Striation Island (Bruce, again, went up the rock like he lived there), and climbing around the broken rock at the foot of Anchor and Ogive. At the foot of Northwestern, we could see water pouring out of openings halfway down from the top, having found a path through the ice without freezing. Sometimes rocks get caught inside these moulins (French again, for “mills”) and get made almost perfectly spherical – stone cannon balls – before being ejected.

We were drifting, engine off, in front of Northwestern when a piece of the glacier calved. The small wave finally reached us, a ridiculously long time after the splash. I am always surprised by how off my sense of distance is up here. When I make my guess about the distance to a rock wall or the face of a glacier, then check it with the ship’s radar, I have usually underestimated by half or more. Doubling my guesses hasn’t helped.

We went west to the end of Southwestern Fjord to find an anchorage. There was a guide boat – a white fiberglass monohull, which are rare up here – already anchored to one side, with a red tent pitched on the beach. Was the captain sleeping on shore (with the bears) to give his clients privacy? Or were the clients on shore, facing the bears on their own? We dropped anchor on the other side, right under Reconstituted Glacier. It didn’t reach to the waterline, so we felt reasonably safe.

Chris took Bruce, Shawn, and Bella in the Scout to explore the rubble and take photos at the base of the glacier. I helped Patsy with dinner. Chris was getting good at driving the Scout and was taking in more of the shore parties. It was a big help.


We were all on the aft deck, in the middle of our hamburgers and sausages, talking about expedition things, when an avalanche let go with a roar from the top of Reconstituted Glacier. The chunks of ice and snow bounced off one ledge than another as it spilled down toward us. With each bounce it broke up more and more, and by the time it hit the bottom near us it was mostly rocks and powder. It stopped just about where the shore party had been an hour before.

After a moment of silence we went back to our conversation.

Old Ice

That night, Patsy noticed that our refrigerator had quit getting cold. I found a small hole in the condenser plate that had let the refrigerant leak out. It was still hissing so I patched it with a bit of epoxy putty (a product called Splash Zone, wonderful stuff: olive drab and gooey when kneaded, it sticks to anything, wet or dry, above the waterline or under, and it hardens quickly. It’s like three-dimensional duct tape.) I tested the patch with liquid soap. No bubbles. But enough of the coolant was gone that the compressor couldn’t reach pressure, and I didn’t have more coolant on board. The solution was obvious: we fished chunks of glacier out of the water with our dip net and packed them in the crisper bin and filled our coolers with more.

- William Urschel