Lituya Bay’s Mystery Waves
By Frances Caldwell
Donna Caldwell at 1,720 ft. elevation, height of 1958 giant wave.
La Perous Glacier below.
Lituya Bay, in the Gulf of Alaska, is known throughout the scientific world as the bay of giant waves, and for good reason, because at least four giant waves have been created within the seven-mile-long, two-and- a- half- mile wide bay.
The Tlingit, who once frequented the bay in their canoes, knew it as the home of Kah Litua, the mystical “man of Litua” who showed his displeasure of visitors by shaking the surface, destroying any canoes unlucky enough to be there.
Commercial fishermen regard Lituya as a risky, possible refuge from severe storms that plague the Gulf of Alaska.
The giant waves were not tsunamis, but the result of extraordinary geological occurrences inside the bay itself. The head of the bay is dissected by Fairweather Fault, suspected of many dastardly things, including opening like a giant clam, then slamming shut, creating monsters, unexplainable waves.
The last giant waves occurred in 1958, the result of an eight-plus on the Richter Scale earthquake, its epicenter only forty miles southwest of the bay. Old growth Sitka spruce were ripped off the surrounding mountainsides, to a height, at one point, to an elevation of 1,720 feet!
Aerial of Lituya Bay before 1958 giant waves.
Aerial of Lituya Bay after 1958 giant waves. Credit USGS.
Lituya Bay is located in the wild, remote, western ocean coastal section of Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve, 44 nautical miles west of Cape Spencer.
All four giant waves were unique, because their source was within the confines of the bay. The waves, several hundred feet in height, roared out of the bay towards La Chaussee Spit and the open ocean, stripped the forest and soil to bedrock, leaving behind huge scars on the land.
Coastal Alaska has a history of violent earthquakes, accompanied by giant waves. But giant waves in almost landlocked bays, such as Lituya, are unique.
Lituya Bay is seven and a half miles long and about two miles wide. Surrounded by high mountains on three sides, it was scooped out by an ancient, advancing glacier. The snout of the glacier that once filled Lituya Bay deposited millions of tons of rocks and glacial debris, directly into the ocean, creating La Chausee Spit (French for the chopper) that almost closes the bay. Remains of the glacier’s still fill both arms of the tee-shaped head of the bay. The remaining, narrow, shallow opening, Lituya Bay Bar, is dangerous because tides rush in and out of the deep bay with great velocity. If large ocean swells occur during the ebb tide’s current, the bar breaks heavily.
This bar is responsible for the death of hundreds, including the loss of 80 Tlingit warriors and 10 ocean-going cedar canoes when they misjudged the tides.
The LaPerouse Expedition, credited as the first Europeans to discover the bay in 1786, lost 21 of its sailors on the bar.
Unusual happenings in Lituya Bay may be because the tee-shaped head of the bay lies directly along Fairweather Fault. The above-the-sea portion of this major fault is about 115 miles in length, runs from Palma Bay northward to Nunatak Fiord. Because of heavy overburden of glacier ice and rock slides, the fault is only visible about six of those miles, in the vicinity of Crillon Lake and the head of the bay.
Describing the last giant wave, which occurred July 9, 1958, first, the quake’s epicenter was plotted at 58.6 degrees North and 137 degrees west, roughly the center of Cross Sound, almost directly in line with the above-the-sea portion of Fairweather Fault.
During the 1958 earthquake actual movement along the visible section was determined, by Don J. Miller of the Geological Survey, to have been 21.5 feet horizontally and 31.2 feet vertically.
Miller had spent several years studying Lituya Bay and was considered the expert on its history of giant waves. Fortunately, only two days before the July 9 quake, Juneau pilot Kenneth Loken had flown over the head of Lituya Bay and is two local glaciers with passenger Edward Berdusco. Numerous photographs were taken.
When Loken returned with Don Miller and flew over the scene on July 10, before and after comparisons were possible. They could not land. The surface of the entire bay was still covered with trees and ice. It was determined that as much as 1,300 feet of ice had been sheared off the snout of Lituya Glacier by the slide.
The 1958 quake has been documented as being one of the greatest earthquakes, registering 8 plus on the Richter Scale at the University of Southern California. In Seattle, the quake was so strong it knocked the needle off the seismograph, according the United State Geological Survey.
The force of the quake dislodged a huge rockslide from several thousand feet elevation on the steep flanks of the Fairweather Range at the head of Lituya Bay. The slide was estimated to have been 2,399 feet wide and 3000 feet in length, containing forty million cubic yards and weighing ninety million tons. It landed in 80 fathoms of water!
Six people were on board three boats inside the bay. One boat and four people survived. One boat containing two persons was tossed like a wood chip over La Chaussees Spit. The third vessel tried to escape and disappeared in the boiling hell on the bar.
Backing up in time, the previous giant waves occurred in October, 1936 when a series of giant waves, witnessed by four men, two on board the fishing vessel MINE, anchored near Cenotaph Island, in the center of the bay. James Huscroft, considered the hermit of Lituya Bay, and a guest were in a cabin on Cenotaph Island. Huscroft was awake, frying hotcakes, when he heard a sound, “like the roar of thousands of airplanes.” He ran for high ground. This giant waves roared out of the head of the bay at dawn, and caused a series of waves nearly as high as the 1958 waves. Huscroft’s oven was filled half full of water, but the cabin escaped damage.
Tom Smith came in the bay on his boat, the Yakobi the following day, and. After being told what happened, cruised through debris and ice to the head of the bay, but found no evidence of a slide, or anything else that could have caused the giant waves. The source of the waves remains a mystery. Witnesses reported no earthquake.
Regressing again, an Indian village on La Chaussee Spit was totally demolished by a giant wave that occurred about 1853-54. One woman, picking berries on a hill, and most of the men, who happened to be at sea hunting, survived. The hunters picked up the woman and fled westward, convinced that “Kah Litua” the Man of Litua, had sent a message.
The cause of this wave, or waves, remains a mystery.
In 1899, another giant earthquake struck the Yakutat area and lasted for days. Giant waves occurred at the head of the bay and also struck Lituya, but there were no witnesses: only the familiar swatch of freshly destroyed forest.
Tree ring data indicates wave heights reached 395 feet, and water penetrated inland near Fish Lake to a distance of 2,500 feet.
With a backdrop of the Fairweather Range, flanked by Mount Fairweather, elevation 15,300 feet, Lituya has frequently been described as the “most beautiful bay in the world.” Rich in history, the sea otter trade, gold mining and commercial fishing, it has earned quite a reputation.
Author’s 23-ft. Bayliner, off La Perouse Glacier, credit Dale Petersen.
After I retired from big, diesel-powered, seaworthy boats and commercial fishing, in 2001 I wrangled a magazine assignment to revisit Lituya Bay. For safety’s sake, we took two boats. Accompanied by my friend Dale Petersen, in his 21-foot Bayliner Trophy, we trailered our boats to Prince Rupert. . I had a 23-foot Bayliner Trophy.
The article, “Extreme Trailerboating,” appeared in the December 2002 issue of “Go Boating Magazine.”
QUESTION: Will it happen again?
Probably. Another huge chunk of mountainside hangs alongside the one that fell in 1958. If it drops during another earthquake, the impact will be directed out the center of the bay, as opposed to the ’58 slide’s main impact, where much of its force was expelled against the snout of the glacier and the spur ridge, where it reached 1,720 feet.
If you decide to visit: There are no visitor’s facilities, or transportation, except for air charters to Lituya Bay. The park service discourages visitors, for obvious reasons. Huge brown bears are a threat to hikers and campers. Rain can be expected.
Autographed copies of my book, “Land of the Ocean Mists,” that describes the history of Lituya Bay and surroundings, with many photos, are available for $27.95 by calling 360-457-3009 or e-mail, email@example.com
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