We’ve returned to Gustavus for the summer season, and already this remarkable area is demonstrating its summer abundance. Gustavus is a small community on a broad glacial outwash fan fronting Icy Strait, at the mouth of Glacier Bay. This region is a confluence of powerful tidal, wind-driven, and oceanic currents, spiced with a generous outpouring of mineral sediments and other nutrients from the glaciers of Glacier Bay. The result is a swirling broth of ocean that feeds billions of living things, from zooplankton to Chinook salmon. Each spring and summer, Icy Strait and Glacier Bay are a gathering place for dozens of humpback whales.
Glacier Bay National Park can be a good place to watch whales, but it is not a whale-watching destination. Within the Park, the rules for the way we behave around whales are considerably more restrictive than they are in other parts of Southeast Alaska. Before they are issued a permit to enter the Park, boaters are briefed on these special rules of Glacier Bay. For example, nowhere in Southeast Alaska can you approach a whale within 100 yards—but if you are boating in Glacier Bay, you must stay at least a quarter of a mile away. The goal is to minimize the impacts of boat traffic on whales in this very important feeding area.
One key element of whale protection in Glacier Bay National Park is the establishment of “Whale Waters”—special seasonal sub-regions within the Park that are considered especially sensitive to boat traffic. In Whale Waters, not only must boaters stay a quarter mile from whales, but they must restrict their boat speed to 13 knots or less, and maintain a steady course in mid-channel.
Whale Waters restrictions usually start in mid-May. This year, however, with several whales already in the area, Whale Waters have started early.
It’s a good sign. Welcome back, whales.