"I saw a gigantic wall of water, 1800 feet high, erupt against the west mountain. I saw it backlash against the southern shore, sweeping away the timber to a height of more than 500 feet....As we were swept along by the wave, over what had recently been dry land and a timber-covered shore, I was sure that the end of the world had come..."
-- Commercial fisherman Howard Ulrich, describing his experiences in Lituya Bay
Lituya Bay is a glaciated, fjord in northern Southeast Alaska, and also has the distinction of having been struck by the world's largest recorded wave. The bay is located on the Gulf of Alaska about 200 miles Northwest of Sitka and 100 miles Southeast of Yakutat. Surrounded by the 10-15 thousand-foot peaks of the Fairweather Range, the eastern end of Lituya Bay is adjoined by two tidewater glaciers. While the central part of Lituya Bay is relatively deep, the entrance consists of a shallow gravel bar.
On July 10, 1958, a major earthquake (along Southeast Alaska's Fairweather Fault) caused an enormous cascade of rocks to fall from a mountainside at the southeast corner of the fjord. So large was this landslide that it triggered a gigantic splash-wave which reached an elevation of over 1,700 feet upon hitting the opposite side of the bay. This enormous tsunami (while no longer 1,700 feet) continued to move outward toward the entrance of Lituya Bay, carrying with it masses of timber and glacial ice.
At the time, three salmon troll boats were anchored there. One of these fishing boats (the Sunmore) was never seen again; while another (the Edrie) was picked up by the wave, but survived the incident and was eventually able to navigate out of the bay intact. The Badger was also lifted by the wave, and was carried clear of Lituya Bay (completely over top of the gravel bar at the bay's entrance) and about two miles out to sea. After being deposited stern-first in the Gulf of Alaska, it was struck by a large Sitka Spruce tree and began to sink. Fortunately, skipper Bill Swanson and his wife Vivian escaped in their life-raft and were eventually rescued.
While this was the largest splash-wave in Lituya Bay, it was not the first. Geologist Don Miller speculated that such landslides/waves had occurred as frequently as once every 25 years. The Tlingit
natives, a tribe
located in Southeast Alaska
, have legends describing similar tsunami
s as occurring in the past.