September 6, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 36

Inflatable skiff occupants escape glacier calving, shooters

Occupants of an inflatable skiff escaped serious injury or more likely, death, by just minutes on Sunday morning.

While on a morning excursion to LeConte Glacier, a customer with Whale Song Cruises said they thought they saw a pod of killer whales at the face of the glacier. The whales it turned out were passengers aboard an inflatable skiff navigating within a few yards of the glacier face explained skipper Ron Loesch.

After nearly 20 minutes with only a couple of minor calving incidents, Loesch said a continuous calving event near the north edge of the face gave way to 100-foot tall pillars of ice dropping into the bay, followed by a large, “shooter,” popping to the surface seconds later.

“If the calving ice didn’t hit the vessel, the shooter certainly would have,” Loesch said. In either case, waves generated by both the calving and shooter activity would have capsized the inflatable, which had already motored away from the face and out of the bay.

“Earlier this summer, we observed a charter vessel from Prince of Wales Island make a high-speed pass within a few yards of the face, with passengers on board,” Loesch added.

“Some boat operators clearly don’t appreciate the dangerous situations they are placing themselves in by navigating so close to the glacier face,” Loesch noted.

LeConte Glacier calving can be static for a half-hour or more, and, with no notice, hundreds of tons of ice can fall into the water at any point along the face. Furthermore, house-sized pieces of ice can shoot up from under the waterline, again, with no warning.

“Other skippers have related stories of kayakers paddling right up to the face of LeConte Glacier,” Loesch added.

“With this casual disregard for safety and the unpredictable calving at LeConte, it’s only a matter of time until someone gets hurt or killed at the glacier,” Loesch said.

Charter vessels generally stay a third to a quarter of a mile from the face of the glacier. Some stay farther away, depending upon the size of the vessel.

Retired PHS geology instructor Paul Bowen, after hearing of the incident, noted that people are used to visiting glaciers with built up moraines that support the ice at the face of the glacier. LeConte’s face has no such support. Both the ice falling from above the waterline and ice shooting to the surface from below, are dangerous.

Reader Comments