Saturday, February 26, 2011

Alaska Glacier Cruising and Harbor Seals

Map of Yautat Bay - Turner & Hubbard Glaciers  - Disenchantment Bay
Courtesy NOAA

Hubbard Glacier
Disenchantment Bay 
Hubbard Glacier 
Cruise Ships & 
Harbor Seals

What does Disenchantment Bay, Hubbard Glacier, and Cruise Ships have to do with Harbor Seals?

We are approaching the start of the 2011 Alaska Cruise Season which begins in May and continues through September.  Peak cruising season coincides with the pupping and molting seasons for harbor seals in Alaska.
Harbor seals on ice. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Protecting Harbor Seals

The National Marine Mammal Laboratory, which is part of NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center, conducted a study of the impact of cruise ships sailing in Disenchantment Bay, which is where many harbor seals hang out on ice flows during this time of year. While there have not been any changes yet, additional restrictions may be imposed in the future to protect the seals.

RCI Radiance of the Seas
The study placed several possible regulations on the table that could force cruise ships to make some changes. Ships may be required to stay at least 500 meters (about 540 yards) from the seals and carry trained observers to aid in selecting routes that don't disturb seals. A total exclusion of cruise ships from Disenchantment Bay is also not out of the question. Some Alaskan waters, such as Johns Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay, have already been made off-limits to cruise ships during the summer months to protect seals.

As many as five ships a day sail in Disenchantment Bay for closeup views of Hubbard Glacier calving.  Many ships already follow self-imposed limits to protect the seals.   The impact of cruise ships on seals has been a concern throughout Alaska for some time. In 2009, ships entering Glacier Bay were urged by park officials to stay at least a quarter-mile away from harbor seals. "When disturbed, the seal pups can be separated from their mothers, with potentially fatal consequences," the alert stated. "Disturbances by passing vessels can also stress molting seals and impact their health." 

This year there will be approximately 150 cruise ships from seven cruise lines sailing to Hubbard Glacier.  Hopefully the scientific community, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe members, representatives from the cruise industry, and other government agencies, can find ways to protect the harbor seals, while preserving one of the most impressive aspects of an Alaskan cruise - glacier cruising.

No comments: