Alaska tour boat runs aground while trying to get closer to bears


An Alaska tour catamaran ran aground on a rock in Glacier Bay as its pilot was maneuvering to give passengers a closer look at brown bears on shore.

On Aug. 19, 2012, while taking visitors on a day-long excursion around Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the captain of Baranof Wind maneuvered along Tarr Inlet north of Russell Island to see the bears romp. When he realized he was in shallow water and began to reverse, he hit a rock. The impact damaged the propeller, as well as the prop shaft and reduction gear, said John Dunlap, a vice president with Allen Marine Tours, operator of Baranof Wind.

One of the 72 passengers on board sustained a minor injury. Fortunately, Volendam, a Holland America cruise ship, was nearby and responded to the emergency call. Volendam removed most of the passengers via tenders to the cruise liner. Two passengers, including the one who was injured, were transferred to a National Park Service vessel and taken to a local hospital.

The accident occurred in a well-traveled section of the bay that operators are typically quite familiar with, noted U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Ryan Erickson.

“It could have been the ebb and flow of the tide that moved him over just enough to get that rock,” Erickson said. “It doesn’t happen very often, especially with these little pocket cruisers that are doing this game every day all summer long.”

Dunlap speculates that inaccurate charts contributed to the incident and isostatic rebound, a geologic occurrence in which the sea floor rises gradually over time, may have played a part.

“In a lot of these areas, the closer you get to the glaciers the worse the chart information is and you can’t assume what you’re seeing on your chart is an accurate reflection of what’s going on under the water,” he said.

Even so, Dunlap noted that the passengers had already spotted bears several times that day, and the captain took some risks in pursuing another encounter. Allen Marine plans to review its operating procedures with its captains rather than make any major changes.

“The procedures we have in place are extensive and should have kept that incident from occurring,” he said. “It’s a matter of doubling down with the captains that operate our boats to make sure they’re aware of and following those procedures.”

The damaged vessel was towed to Allen Marine’s shipyard in Sitka. The vessel remained out of service for the rest of the tourist season, waiting on the propeller to return from being repaired. Another Allen Marine catamaran was substituted for the remainder of the season. Dunlap expects Baranof Wind to return to duty in May 2013.

The crew of Volendam graciously entertained the passengers from Baranof Wind for the day, and disembarked them back at Glacier Bay Lodge when their eight-hour excursion was due to end.

“By all accounts the customers taken on the Volendam had a fabulous day,” Dunlap said. “For a lot of them it turned into an unexpected but not unpleasant adventure.”

By Professional Mariner Staff