Yesterday I attended third annual meeting on Wilderness Best Management Practices for Alaska’s Tracy Arm – Fords Terror Wilderness with a collection of small tour operators such as ourselves, the Forest Service and representatives from the large cruise lines, Princess and Holland America. New this year to the meeting were representatives from Friends of the Earth and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. While the meeting was generally positive, I was again left feeling small.

The meeting was held in the Port Offices in Seattle with the purpose of  continuing the dialogue about the Best Management Practices in Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm for big and small operators. We  focused primarily on:

  • Preserving the Quiet
  • Maintaining Clean Air
  • Protecting Wildlife
  • Preserving Solitude
  • Communications – Outside

We also got to listen to a talk from a NOAA marine biologist studying the decline of the seal population in Yakatat. The seal research is another subject that I won’t get into today.

For us complying with the voluntary Wilderness Best Management Practices are fairly simple. We have a small operation. Our impact is small. We practice leaving only footsteps and taking only pictures. We have not had to change any of our procedures as a result of the agreed upon WBMP.  The David B travels at a maximum 6.5 knots and the boat’s wake is almost a ripple. At 65-feet we don’t need a public address system so we talk with our passengers using our indoor voices. During the day when the David B is underway our batteries are chargin, so that at night when the engine is off…it’s silent. Our slow turning Washington-Estep engine burns clean and we use about 2.5 – 3 gallons of fuel an hour or about 25 – 30  gallons a day, compared to a single cruise ship that burns  somewhere around 150 tons (yes tons) of fuel a day. We also do what ever we can to make sure that our impact on wildlife as minimal as possible. We observe bears, whales and seals at a proper distance and we zig and zag carefully to avoid flushing mother and pup seals hauled out on ice.

From my perspective it is pretty obvious that a cruise ship does not fit within the scope of the wilderness experience that we are trying to provide to you, our passenger. You come to us  to experience solitude, quiet and clean air. When we cross paths with a cruise ship in Endicott Arm or Tracy Arm we are apologetic to you, who was hoping to get away from these behemoths. I wish we could offer you a cruise ship-free experience but we just have to shrug our shoulders and explain to you, “that there are a lot of people who can’t travel on boats like ours to visit the wilderness.  Those people on the cruise ships would also like to see tidewater glaciers and many of them wish they were on a boat like the David B. It’s their right to visit the wilderness and they will be gone soon.” Then I will warn you that we might get a pleasant and gentle wake from the passing ship in a few minutes. That’s what sharing, or maybe more accurately what the Tragedy of the Commons is all about.

In all honesty, I don’t want to share this small amount the the vast Alaskan wilderness with the industrialized cruise lines. They have already filled up Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm and now they want Endicott Arm too. Like many other small tour operators and independent travelers,  I really just want a space where we can go without having to run into a large cruise ship and all the humanity and noise that goes along with those big boats.

The reason that many of us use Endicott Arm is that it has more places to anchor overnight and more places to take people ashore to learn first hand about wildflowers or the effects of glaciers on the land. Some of us use Tracy Arm and many of us use both. We had hoped that when we first met three years ago we could set a limit to the number of cruise ships entering Endicott Arm. If we could do that it would to help preserve the solitude, and our livelihoods. What we agreed to was:

All operators recognize the importance of an authentic Alaskan experience of wilderness and agree to help preserve solitude through the following measures:

  • SCHEDULES: Operators of vessels with more than 250 passengers agree to avoid scheduling visits to Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness in a way that, due to vessel traffic, necessitates use of Endicott Arm. Each season, a small number of cruise ships may schedule visits to Endicott Arm due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts in Tracy Arm. Dates will be provided in the spring.

  • ENDICOTT ARM: While vessels with more than 250 passengers agree to avoid scheduling operations in Endicott Arm, it is recognized that some visits to Endicott Arm may occur when ice, tidal conditions, vessel traffic, fog, or other vessel and passenger safety concerns limit operations elsewhere. In the event that vessels with more than 250 passengers transit Endicott Arm, operators will do their utmost to minimize the impact of wakes on paddlers, smaller boats, and wildlife, including bears, nesting birds, and hauled-out seals.

So, how did that work out last season? Well in 2009 there were 4 scheduled cruise ship visits in Endicott Arm and 193 trips scheduled for Tracy Arm. Of those 193 scheduled for Tracy Arm, 48 changed course and went into Endicott. Why? The captains and pilots need to make their decisions on entering either Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm based on the conditions at the Tracy Arm Bar – this is not the kind of bar that serves alcohol, but the submerged kind of bar that is dangerous to ships. Their main concerns in their decision making is for the safety of their ships, passengers and crew. What guides their decision to change their itinerary from Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm is the weather, the ice on the bar, and their rigorous schedules. They can’t wait around for Mother Nature to clear a safe ice-free path over Tracy Arm Bar, so they enter into Endicott Arm and visit Dawes Glacier instead.

With all of these factors, plus the over-crowding of cruise ships in Tracy Arm we will be seeing more and more cruise ships in Endicott Arm. I wish it were different, but that’s just the way it is. They have a lot more money than I do, so their votes count a lot.

While I hate to see a cruise ship in the wilderness, I do give kudos to them for meeting with us and for trying mitigate the loss of solitude in the wilderness. They have very politely come up with ways to be quieter, such as self-guided narrations that their passengers can follow along with on television screens.  There are now zones set up where they can make their narration announcements with the least impact on independent travelers and small tour operators. They have also agreed not to make announcements in the early morning hours to help protect the solidtude of the wilderness and prevent disturbing wildlife.

Another area of concern in the Tracy Arm – Fords Terror Wilderness with the increased cruise ship traffic has been the amount of smoke from the ships’ stacks and how long it linger in the fjords. Often there is not much air movement and the sight of cruise ship emissions can stay in the fjord for an hour or longer. Again, to help mitigate this problem the folks from Princess and Holland America who attended the meeting said that they had stopped using their incinerators in Tracy and Endicott Arms and that are using the cleanest fuels possible. It doesn’t eliminate the problem, but a least it’s a step.

We all recognize that maneuvering in the ice is tricky and sometimes there is nothing you can do about your emissions when you are throltling up and down to avoid ice and to keep your ship safe. Those are not the emissions that I’m worried about. for me it’s simply about the industrial scale of the cruise ship emissions. On a daily basis the fleet of boats in the Southeast Alaska Wilderness Tours Association does not come close to the amount of emissions that a single cruise ship leaves behind. Remember they operate in tons of fuel. When us small operators get together and talk about fuel consumption it’s in gallons.

So while I’m feeling like it’s a losing (most likely a lost) battle to keep the large cruise ships from visiting Endicott Arm, I’m happy to be small part of the process to make their inevitable visits as tolerable as possible. Thanks to Shannon, Bill and John who really spoke their true feelings.

For more information on this topic here are a few links.





Note that the wilderness watcher newsletter comes up in the HTML version and that the pdf if easier to read.