Guest column by Roderick Eime, editor of Adventure Cruise Guide, who encounters whales, sea lions, otters and giant slugs in the quiet backwaters of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Vessel: National Geographic Sea Bird. 62 pax. 12 knots (max) 46.3m Built: 1981
It was Lars Eric Lindblad who could claim to have opened up commercial expedition cruising back in the ’60s with his groundbreaking (or perhaps, ‘ice’ breaking) trips to Antarctica. While Lindblad Expeditions may be a different company nowadays, the spirit of Lars Eric lives on with a fleet of 17 vessels, including locally chartered ships, offering a vast array of enriching expeditions in every ecological hotspot on the planet.
Here in SE Alaska, Lindblad is one of just a handful of small ship cruise lines with comprehensive, immersive itineraries in this region typified by towering, snow-capped mountains, enormous icefields with their glacial offspring and a menagerie of fascinating wildlife ranging from grizzly bears and humpback whales to giant slugs and jellyfish.
National Geographic Sea Bird is the perfect size vessel for accessing these secluded coves and bays that the big ships might only glimpse from afar. We nuzzle into hidden backwaters like Elfin Cove, Petersburg and Bartlett Cove where we disembark and stroll around like locals. Likewise with our busy activity schedule which includes a choice of hikes in varying length, kayaking on the mirror-like water or Zodiac cruises to explore wildlife and scenic splendors. One night we anchored off Point Adolphus and those who chose to go to bed were kept awake by humpback whales blowing just metres from the ship. I watched for an hour or more as a baby humpback cavorted with young sea lions, intermittently spy-hopping, fluke-waving and breaching just outside my cabin window.
While weather here can be bleak and wet, we were blessed with consecutive days of bright sun and clear skies, making our shore excursions warm work indeed. Snow-frosted mountain ranges trailed off to infinity while it was a cinch to spot mountain goats high up on ledges and the occasional bear foraging along the shore, biding time before the much anticipated salmon run.
Apart from the at times overwhelming glaciers and fjords, we are visited by Bertha Franulovich, a native Tlingit elder who spends a full day aboard helping us fathom the complex family and tribal structures as well as the powerful connection her forebears held with this land.
As with all good adventure vessels, Sea Bird carries a contingent of seasoned and knowledgeable experts to enhance guest experience and understanding of the natural and human history we encounter. From humble molluscs through to the giant cetaceans, interpretive lectures and discussions are conducted, often in the field. No stone is left unturned as we examine moss, lichen, delicate orchids, giant cypress and birch, even bear poo.
Expedition leader, Larry Prussin, himself a former park ranger, leads a team that is as good as any other I have encountered. It’s all well-and-good to assemble PhDs and multi-disciplined academics, but if they can’t communicate with regular folks like me, then all is wasted. Prussin’s ‘rangers’ are personable and authoritative without being intimidating and receive a unanimous rousing cheer on our last evening.
While I am the only Australian aboard, the crew and fellow passengers make me feel welcome and comfortable and I am flattered with constant requests to join various tables for dinner. Two families with children under 10 clearly enjoy the quality time together in an environment far removed from the dulling effects of iPhones and computer games. Meals are restaurant quality using plenty of locally-sourced produce with highlights of salmon, halibut, crab and shellfish, all complemented by excellent regional wines.
The itinerary, Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness, is a 7-night expedition style cruise conducted continuously by Sea Bird and her twin, Sea Lion, from May through August between Juneau and Sitka in the waters of the famous Inside Passage. For details, see www.expeditions.com and for bookings, visit www.wildearth-travel.com. The writer is grateful for support from Air New Zealand [www.airnewzealand.com] that made this report possible.