The fast moving skiff approaching our cruise ship carried just two people — one at the helm of the small boat and the other waving with both arms like a wild woman.
If it hadn’t been for the buoyant “hellooooo” she shouted and the smile as big as a life preserver, I might have thought there was some danger at hand.
Instead, this was just Jenny Eberlein, a National Park Service ranger showing up for another day of work at Glacier Bay National Park.
Glacier Bay and its 607,000 acres of water, the largest body of water managed by the NPS, is unique in its ranger interaction with visitors to the park. Each year about 450,000 people enter Glacier Bay. The majority of them remain on water, rarely touching dry land or experiencing the typical visitor center many of us have come to expect from a national park.
Therefore, park service interpretive rangers, like Jenny Eberlein, must go to the boats. Eberlein and her colleagues typically work a 10-hour four-day week and spend three of those days on water. At least three rangers spend the day on big cruise ships, boarding as early as 6 a.m. Smaller cruise ships, like the Safari Endeavor that Eberlein was boarding this day, require just one ranger. Once every two or three weeks, she will overnight on a cruise ship.
“Being on the large vessels allows us to witness a large crowd go silent as they experience the grandeur of this landscape and these glaciers, most for the first time,” said Eberlein.
“It’s pretty awesome, but being on a small ship allows us a greater opportunity to talk one-on-one with guests, answer their specific questions and hear their stories about what this place means to them. That’s pretty awesome, too.”
While on board, the rangers provide commentary via the ship’s PA, including watching for marine wildlife. They also do a formal presentation in the theater, offer a junior ranger program, and set up an information booth during their stay on board.
All of this interaction with guests on board cruise ships is not by accident. Any vessel entering Glacier Bay waters must receive a permit from the NPS. Each of those vessels carrying passengers is required to offer an educational program with specific components. It’s simply easier for cruise lines to have park rangers provide those programs. As it turns out, that’s exactly what the passengers seem to want.
“It’s a cherished experience among most cruise travelers,” said Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation at Glacier Bay. “What we have here is what brings most people to southeast Alaska.”
Only few shall pass
The first cruise ship entered Glacier Bay in 1883. By 1925, long before Alaska became a state, the region was declared a national monument, and in 1980, Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating this unique national park.
However, it soon became obvious that the public’s fascination with Glacier Bay would take its toll on these majestic natural resources. In 1979, the first quotas limited the number of vessels in park waters.
An official Vessel Quota Management Plan based on environmental impact studies was activated in 1996.
“Glacier Bay is a profound outdoor laboratory,” said VandenBerg. “It’s our goal to minimize impact while providing access. We don’t want this to become a recreation area.”
The current guidelines allow no more than two cruise ships per day between May and September. A cruise ship is defined as any motor vessel of at least 100 gross tons. These are the big ships that carry, on average, about 1,800 people into Glacier Bay at a time.
Princess Cruises and Holland America Line were bringing passengers into Glacier Bay before any quotas were established and therefore hold the majority of Glacier Bay’s vessel use days. Norwegian, Crystal and Carnival also have contracts through 2019. Vessel use contracts are awarded every ten years.
In addition to the big ships, three small cruise ships are allowed in each day. Under the category of “tour boat,” this includes companies like Un-cruise, Lindblad, Alaska Dream Cruises and American Cruise Lines.
This totals about 225 ships per year. Six charter vessels and 25 private vessels are also allowed in the park each day.
While they are in Glacier Bay’s waters, the NPS requires that each ship spends at least four hours in the Upper West Arm area and at least one hour at the face of the Margerie and/or Johns Hopkins glaciers. During this time, the cruise lines shut down shipboard activities, such as the casino, theater programs or art auctions. The park and its resources become the focus of the day.
Cruise lines pay about $1.50 per passenger or $5 million annually to enter Glacier Bay, in addition to a franchise fee. These fees pay the salaries for the additional seasonal employees needed to staff the cruise ship traffic.
This management model has become so successful and so well embraced by both cruise lines and the National Park Service that a delegation of community and government leaders, including park managers, from Norway spent 10 days in southeast Alaska this summer to learn more about the program.
Celebrating tribal culture
Long before cruise ships came to Glacier Bay, the people of the Huna Tlingit clans called this area home and still live in small fishing villages and camps along the bay’s shore. This summer, the Huna have worked with the NPS to build a traditional tribal house on Bartlett Cove, a few hundred yards east of the park’s visitor center. The house will serve as an interpretive center that explains the Tlingit culture to visitors and a place where Tlingit members can gather for tribal activities throughout the year. The Huna Tribal House opens on Aug. 25 in celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. The ceremony will be streamed live on the Glacier Bay website: nps.gov/glba.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a freelance writer based in Parkville, Mo. http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/travel/headlines/20160818-this-alaska-park-is-setting-conservation-standards-with-cruise-ship-quotas.ece