It is hard to imagine, but when the first European explorers sailed past Glacier Bay in the late 1700s, they missed it. All they saw was a huge wall of ice. Even when John Muir "discovered" the bay a century later, it was barely a fraction of the size it is now over a century later.
Long before "global warming" became a headline, the glaciers of Glacier Bay began a rapid retreat, which has created a 65-mile fjord of spectacular beauty in just more than 200 years. As you enter the bay, you begin to go back in time and watch as the forests near the mouth shrink back until you reach a landscape that was buried under ice until a short time ago; it's only now beginning to sprout vegetation and life. The land itself is literally "rebounding," rising approximately 1 1/2 inches a year as it sheds of the weight of the glaciers.
Make no mistake, Glacier Bay is still dominated by the numerous large glaciers that cascade down from the 15,000-foot-high peaks of the Coast Range, but now the bay itself is one of Alaska's most-coveted visitor destinations.
President Calvin Coolidge created the national monument in 1925, and it became a national park as part of the 1980 ANILCA process. The Connecticut-size park has a only a few short roads in Gustavus near its mouth, and it limits the number of cruise ships and other boats to protect the wildlife and the fragile ecosystem. Even that action has been politically contentious, as the Alaskan Congressional Delegation has promoted more ships and the environmental community has fought for fewer ships. Currently, the National Park Service appears to be charting a course between the two extremes.
The most spectacular summer "residents" of Glacier Bay are the whales, mostly humpbacks and killer whales, which are what most visitors are interested in seeing. But early scientific evidence is indicating that the ships in the narrow fjord are affecting the whale populations, making them less likely to be seen. On some visits, cruise passengers will just have to content themselves with the spectacular glaciers and the sheer mountains rising from the shore.
Of course, sea kayaking inside the bay remains the best way to see the park and increase your chance of a close -- but not too close -- encounter with whales or other wildlife.