I admit it. I cheered delightedly along with other passengers lining the decks of Holland America's cruise ship Veendam as, with a thunderous ear-jarring crack, a skyscraper-sized chunk of brilliantly blue ice snapped off the Johns Hopkins Glacier's towering face.
In seconds, the soaring frozen tower that had reminded me of Superman's Fortress of Solitude, complete with a window-like arch lit by a shaft of sunlight, shattered into a slush of ice chunks floating in the bay.
On one hand, I was saddened to see such a magnificent piece of ancient ice vanish; but on the other hand, it was reassuring that the vast glacier appeared pristine, the mountains were covered in snow and I was breathing air that gave a whole new meaning to fresh.
It had been eight years since I'd last done an Alaska cruise, and I was primed to expect that somehow things would have changed – for the worse. Environmentalists keep warning that global warming will mean a baked Alaska. T-shirts in souvenir shops read “Alaska, see it before it melts.” At the same time, the push was on – championed by then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin – for drilling for oil and building roads along the untamed coast.
And then there was the mini-rush to Alaska of cruise tourists lured by fares that have been reaching unprecedented lows. Competition has led to prices as much as 40 per cent lower than last year, and many passengers on the Veendam's seven-day trip northbound from Vancouver to Anchorage opted to stay on for another week because the fare, starting at $470 a person, was as cheap as the cost of a one-way air ticket back to B.C.
But I needn't have worried that our presence might be unwittingly hastening the demise of the very things we had come to admire, says Fay Schaller, an officer with the U.S. National Park Service who boarded the ship in Glacier Bay, south of Anchorage, to make sure our visit complied with environmental protection standards.
On the global-warming front, average temperatures have been increasing by a fraction of a degree each year, leading to more summer melting of snow on mountainsides.
That warming has had devastating consequences for Canada's High Arctic, where summer heat has caused the polar ice cap to retreat at a record rate, according to a report this week.
But the higher temperatures are having a different effect in Alaska, where – because it is warmed by ocean currents –average highs range from about 16 to 25 C in the summer. The heat is bringing more rain and snowfall throughout the year to the state – and that, Schaller explains, means more ice is forming than is melting from the big, sea-level glaciers we are sailing past.
A stringent set of state and federal environmental regulations, and limits set on the number of ships that can visit natural areas on any given day, mean that “we don't see there is any direct environmental impact from tourism,” Schaller says.
By promising to exceed the green standards, Holland America has arranged a long-term deal with the Park Service to have priority to cruise in spectacular Glacier Bay, where only two cruise ships a day are permitted to visit.
The Veendam is fresh from a $40-million renovation that freshened interiors and added a stunning lido deck and new restaurants. But the most important changes are behind the scenes, making the ship dramatically more eco-friendly.
In the bowels of the ship, the engines are burning low-sulphur fuel that costs about three times as much as standard ship diesel.
Before any wastewater is discharged into the ocean, it's filtered, purified in stills and disinfected with ultraviolet light to meet purity standards that are more stringent than most cities have for drinking water.
Even the dry-cleaning machines have gone green, using a detergent made of soy, banana and orange extract. Can it be just coincidence that they serve lots of bananas and oranges at breakfast?
In the cabins, new water-saving taps have been installed that cut overall water use by 30 per cent.
And the crew has added an environmental officer – a former police detective – who has authority even higher than the captain to keep everyone toeing the green line.
They aren't alone: Other ships sailing in Alaska are also greening their carbon and sulphur footprints to meet tightening environmental regulations.
It's a far cry from the days when tourists ran roughshod over Alaska. A historic photo in a guidebook shows the first Alaska cruise ship in 1890 – a coal-burning steamer named the Queen – belching clouds of black soot, chained to a glacier while tourists clambered up the ice face on ladders.
But that was then.
Today, organized tours follow strict limits on where and when passengers are allowed to walk on snowfields and in wilderness areas. The eco-footprints of passengers on a ship are much easier to track than thousands of tourists arriving individually in SUVs – and who would need hotels and restaurants built to accommodate them.
So it's not a case of see the glaciers on a cruise while you can, but seeing them because you can.
And there was so much more to see on my week-long Alaska cruise. The first day of sailing from Vancouver, we were threading between islands along the rugged and unpopulated British Columbia coast.
As I sat on a lounge chair on the promenade deck, I was a snowball throw from fragrant evergreen forests for much of the day. It was a lesson in just how majestic and lush nature can be if kept out of the reach of chainsaws and burger bars.
The Veendam's renovation included the creation of lanai staterooms out of underused space along the promenade deck. Their floor-to-ceiling glass windows were somewhat intimidating at first, until I realized that the passengers passing by on the deck couldn't see in –the glass is mirrored on the outside for privacy while allowing a clear panoramic view from within. I could literally walk out of my room onto the classically teak-planked deck to lounge in a reserved chair in the warmth of a wool blanket.
Afternoons, I'd attend lectures on local history, cooking demonstrations or a wine tasting in the ship's new culinary theatre before taking a plunge in a hot tub in the new rear lido, which also features a splash pool in which lounge chairs are permanent fixtures.
When not viewing mountains and glaciers, we stopped in gold rush outports Skagway, Ketchikan and Haines, which would probably have dried up and blown away long ago if it hadn't been for the tourist boom.
Without a viable replacement for unprofitable gold mining and fishing, and with the fleets of trawlers and crabbers and their catches diminishing, the future is in town tours and shops selling tanzanite jewellery and T-shirts.
“Tourists are the reason we have shifted to conservation from exploitation. Without tourism, we would have no choice but to drill and mine,” explained a wilderness guide at a glacier near Haines, where, while on a shore excursion, I had an opportunity to paddle in a canoe close to the shimmering blue glacier's face.
How could anyone even think of drilling or mining something so magnificent?
I came away realizing that Alaska and B.C.'s wild coast should be on everyone's to-do list – and that's a good thing. The more people see it for themselves, the more likely it is they will stand up and say no to exploiting some of the planet's most pristine land.
And when you know you're being a responsible visitor, you can kick back in your deck chair, breathe the crisp, clean air, and enjoy Mother Nature's spectacular show.
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While cruise lines have received more than a few black eyes (and fines) for air and water pollution in Alaska, they have become eco-aware of late.
All nine major cruise lines that now sail to Alaska claim to meet or exceed the state's strict 2006 regulations, have aggressive onboard recycling programs and higher-than-required standards on wastewater management, use low-sulphur fuel to reduce emissions and are reducing on-board water use. Here are some other initiatives:
Holland America Line and Princess Cruises have equipped their ships with (very large) extension cords so they can turn off generators and use shore power while in port.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line calculates sailing routes and speeds to cut fuel use and allow ships to spend more time in port.
Carnival Cruises' ships process used cooking oils and burn them as alternative fuel.
Celebrity Cruises equips new ships with LED lighting and solar panels that cut the amount of power they generate with diesel fuel by up to 25 per cent. It is also painting ship hulls with silicone paint for a more efficient ride.
Holland America has also started using organic ingredients for dry cleaning and printing, and digital imaging rather than X-rays in its infirmaries. Each ship has a dedicated environmental officer.