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prince william sound

Whittier, one of the port towns on the Alaska Marine Highway, is approached through a long narrow two and a half mile tunnel that was blasted out of the rocky mountain in a matter of months as part of America’s preparations for World War II. However, it has only recently been open to private traffic and vehicles can only pass through the tunnel in one direction at a time. Cars queue up to make the journey on the hour from Whittier and on the half hour in the opposite direction.

Cycles are prohibited from entering the tunnel but the bored attendants collecting the toll are clearly intrigued and impressed by the idea of my journey. They direct me to sit prominently on a convenient rock next to the ‘restrooms’ while they solicit a lift for me with someone in a pick-up truck, the preferred vehicle of the majority in Alaska.

Before long I have a ride with a couple who have won a dinner on a cruise ship that will tour twenty-six glaciers on the Prince William Sound during the meal. They drop me at a fish and chip restaurant on the Whittier wharf and I indulge in fried halibut and chips while waiting for the 2.45 ferry. There are not many passengers travelling on the ferry and we are quickly loaded when the time comes.

The Aurora chugs effieciently out of Whittier as Jim, a US Fish and Wildlife Services officer, introduces himself and lists some of the marine animals we might expect to see in the waters of the Sound on the five hour trip to Valdez; humpback whales, minke and orca, seals, sea lions, a range of porpoises, sea otters. We head down the narrow Passage Canal and then enter broader waters and it is true – wildlife abounds.

Seals bob gently up and down, peeping shyly above the surface. A pod of unflamboyant porpoises appears as a briefly visible series of intermittent curved lines. A humpback whale also doesn’t give much away – a dark line above the surface, a gentle exhalation. Sea lions huff and puff more noisily like portly men unaccustomed to exercise, while sea otters loll indolently on their backs, grinning amiably as they watch the world go by.

Most things are happening underneath, unseen. The whale flips a tail fluke and slides under, into the depths. The calm surface is inscrutable and the scale of the invisible underwater realm hard to grasp. We pass a distant glacier and a mass of delicate blue ice floes float by, intricately carved by wind, water and sun.

A massive oil tanker sits on the horizon. Talk turns to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, probably still the worst environmental catastrophe to ever occur at sea, and I ask Jim whether he was involved in the clean up attempts after the disaster. He falls silent for a moment. “No,” he says, “I couldn’t face it.” He pauses again. “I could have tore my heart out,” he adds.

Later he tells me, grieving still, that his children will never see the Sound as he saw it. The herring, among other species, haven’t recovered, twenty years on, and they are the base of the food chain. Dig on the beaches and you will still find oil there – almost 11 million gallons of oil were spilt and only 3 million gallons removed.

Islands on Prince William Sound.

Islands on Prince William Sound.

Floating ice floes.

Floating ice floes.

Blue ice.

Holy blue ice.

Sea lions on a marker buoy.

Sea lions on a marker buoy.

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