Slammed by Icebergs

Location: Le Conte Bay, southeast Alaska

Comments: Today, we certainly saw the biggest and greatest number of ‘bergs that I have EVER seen in Alaska. Le Conte Bay is a spectacular place (why do I keep using that word in describing Alaska?) and the glacier has now retreated more than 10 miles up the inlet from the terminal morraine. In fact, we are way off the charts in Le Conte Bay and by the time we get to the head end, the GPS plotter shows us on dry land in the middle of the glacier!

This is our 9th season of offering scuba diving charters in Alaska and we’ve observed at least a mile of retreat of this particular glacier over that time. The inlet itself was scoured out by the glacier and is an astonishing 600 feet deep in places right along the shoreline. The tremendous force of the tidewater glacier cut right through the rock. At the furthest point of advance of the glacier, there is a huge pile of dirt, debris and rocks that actually breaks the surface – this is the terminal morraine and is easily imagined by thinking of a bulldozer pushing all that stuff in front of it while carving out the inlet and then leaving a big pile as the dozer reverses away.

My job is to carefully “thread the needle” through the one very narrow section of the morraine that is submerged enough to be navigable. At low tide, I have less than 12 feet under the keel of the Nautilus and there are no buoys, markers or transits to guide us. It can be tricky and entering the fjord this morning was tougher than ever as there were a huge number of icebergs grounded out on the morraine. I’m guessing that a big ‘berg can easily draw 75 feet or more of water and they ground out and pile up against each other on the uphill side of the bar.

The good news is that the icebergs don’t seem to pile up in the 200 feet wide opening in the bar. The bad news is that today – for  the first time ever – the grounded bergs obstructed the opening! I did some careful maneuvering with sharp 90° turns with 3 knots of current running and managed to squeek my way in. It was very tight and I had to use a lot of power but we made it in. The sheer volume of ice inside the fjord was awesome and we got some magnificent images of a huge ‘berg towering above the Nautilus Explorer with solid ice packed appearing to be packed all around us.

It was a long, slow, patient transit to make it far enough up the inlet to see the actual glacier (often slowed down to 1/2 a knot of groundspeed) but we made it around the last corner and our guests had a fantastic time and a very unique experience. Everything went well until we got back to the terminal morraine on our way out – unfortunately the bar was now plugged solid with icebergs. Uh oh. No way I wanted to spend the night in the ice and no telling if the situation was going to get worse. So I scouted out both sides of the opening and decided that I should be able to squeeze along the side of one big iceberg with a couple of feet to spare. Talk about a squeeker. Managed to do that but in the process, my “opening” disappeared. Cr*p!

I think this is what is called “going from bad to worse” and I had to make a quick decision on the fly. So I gunned the engines, make a hard right hand turn with the help of the bow thruster, gently put the bulbous bow of the Nautilus against a berg 1/2 the size of the ship and started pushing hard. I moved that ‘berg downstream 200 feet, gunned it in reverse, made a hard left turn and squeezed out of there without a lot of room to spare. It was definitely an interesting experience and one that I hope not to have to repeat!! The big question in my mind is why are we getting so much more ice than normal and why are the icebergs so enormous this year? I am scared at what the answer might be.

–Captain Mike


Weather: Rain in the morning and then partially clearing. 10 knots of annoying wind while working in the ice. Temperatures in the mid 50’s.

Water: Water temperature 39°F around the icebergs. Visibility not very good!

By Nautilus Staff

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