June 7, 2016
We pulled out of Elfin Cove amongst a flurry of small sport fishing boats, out to take advantage of the excellent King salmon and halibut fishing on Icy Strait to be had in early June. Last night’s rain blew through and left the skies dry, but a moody gray overcast persisted, cloaking the slopes of the Fairweather Mountains.
The current meets the swell just south of Cape Spencer and can be counted on to make for a wild ride. It is mellower than usual today but sill sends the breakfast dishes sluicing down the countertop and into the sink. Once around the battered lighthouse that marks the point, we officially say goodbye to South East Alaska and the swell settles into nice regular five foot rollers and we are content to watch the striking scenery slowly roll by.
The open waters of the Gulf attract different species of birds, and soon we pass through flocks of Murres and Sooty Shearwaters, the latter visiting from breeding grounds as far away as New Zealand! The Fairweather Mountains grown in height as we move north, and though they are lost in cloud, the glaciers that flow down their flanks show their tails, hinting at the vast icefields that are for now at least hidden from view.
Lituya Bay is infamously known as “the most dangerous bay in the world”, its entrance is a narrow channel which runs at a steep angle over a shallow, boulder-strewn glacial moraine, and the combination of the confined entrance, glacial meltwater outflow and strong ebb and flood tides can stack up against the surf to create some truly horrifying waves. At slack tide however, the entrance is a non-event. Opting for the second option, we decided to wait half an hour outside the mouth before attempting the crossing, and were extremely glad we did! Steller’s Sea Lions sat out on the rocks along the shore, groaning and barking, and great groups of gulls wheeled offshore. Baitfish began to leap on the surface, pursued by unseen predators. All of the sudden, the enormous flukes and nearly the entire rear half of a humpback whale reared out of the surface and came crashing down on the water yards from Ajax, prompting much jubilation on the radio! The show repeated itself a few times before subsiding. The excitement waning, we heading in towards the bar, only for the naturalist, Gregory to spy a trio of Grey Whales feeding in over the shallow bar! Those of us not piloting boats through the last traces of current got an excellent view of whales seldom seen in this area!
Once inside, the second reason for Lituya Bay’s fearsome reputation reveals itself. In 1958 the largest wave ever recorded occurred here, when an enormous landslide fell into the head of the bay, displacing millions of gallons in seconds. The wave destroyed the forests 1700 feet above sea level on the opposite slope and scoured the entirety of the bay hundreds of feet above the water line. The scars are still clearly visible today, and the forests below the line are markedly smaller and younger than those above. We cruised the shorelines, marveling at the phenomenon and taking in views of the three glaciers that meet at the bays head when Captain Rich spotted a fat, glossy male Black Bear ambling languidly along the shoreline. Almost simultaneously, Todd and Judy aboard Anamcara spotted a large Brown Bear on the opposite bank! The fleet, faced with an impossible decision, split in two. Nearly everyone got a chance to see both, however, and we retired satisfied to the anchorage.
In the evening, some of us set out to explore the stony riverbeds below the Lituya Glacier, and all of us sat out to watch the clouds lift on the towering snowclad peaks around us just in time for sunset, which set the snowfields on fire with golden light.
Whales, otters, sea lions, seabirds, bears, glaciers, and the world’s largest wave, all in one day!