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It is envy that has brought me to the bow of the National Geographic Sea Lion at midnight. The expedition ship travels swiftly through Southeast Alaska, and in the dense darkness, the white mountains are beautifully imposing ghosts.
My fleece pajamas and rubber rain boots are hardly providing any substantial warmth but my jealousy of a jet-lagged East Coaster, who sat wide-awake on the deck of the ship late the night before and consequently was the only witness to a humpback whale gliding gracefully by, keeps me incubated. Longing for a similarly private experience, I sit in anticipation. But after 45 minutes, the cold gets the better of me and I return to my cabin, blue-lipped and defeated.
Not that the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest is shy by any means. In fact, it seems that otters, sea lions and bald eagles are as eager to meet us as we them. It’s just that the two black bears courting near the shoreline in Williams Cove on the second day of our trip draw not only my eyes but the rest of the ship's, with tripods and telephoto lenses in tow.
I just want to commune with the wildlife alone. I want my own special experience. I want my own private Alaska.
The Lindblad National Geographic Alaska Expedition embarks in early June and promises “to go where others can’t with the experts that know Alaska best.” Rubber rain boots and a warm jacket are stressed as essentials. I’m confident in my packing until my luggage is randomly selected for a security screening and a crew member raises an eyebrow at my single bag, inquiring, “That’s all you brought?”
The Sea Lion is a smallish ship holding 62 guests in 31 cabins, all with outside facing windows and private facilities. Its size allows the Sea Lion to move agilely among the icebergs on a seven-day trip that begins in Juneau and sets off through Tracy Arm, Inian Island to Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve, and onward, to end in Sitka. The journey enlists kayaks and Zodiac landing craft that take you from ship to shore to explore the depths of the rugged Alaskan wilderness “until it’s just you and the whales, bears, eagles, and remarkable wildlife.” I take the phrase “just you” a little too much to heart, dawdling behind the group on hikes in hopes of that illusive private sighting.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Morning and afternoon rounds of adventure activities are scheduled each day of the trip. Hiking and Zodiac cruising are offered nearly every day, kayaking when the weather permits, as well as a few wildcards like a helicopter ride, available at an additional fee. After breakfast, guests are asked to choose their adventure on sign-up sheets in the lounge. There are also a few on-shore activities throughout the trip: a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier on day one before we set sail, exploration of the small fishing town of Petersburg on day three and a tour of Sitka on our final day. The ship is staffed by serious naturalists who lead the daily excursions. The knowledge of the naturalists aboard the Sea Lion is rivaled only by their enthusiasm. Naturalist Berit Solstad teeters over the edge of our Zodiac cruiser to pull a hefty sea cucumber from a nearby rock. Similarly, naturalist Larry Hobbs picks up week-old bear scat with bare hands, breaks it apart and gives it a good sniff before offering to pass it around to a mostly disgusted group of hikers who politely pass. These same naturalists are the ones who lead evening recaps (after cocktail hour, of course) discussing in depth what we saw that day, as well as answering questions and giving advice on how to take better photos.
Zodiac craft take us right up to the glaciers in Tracy Arm, which is unbelievably blue and radiating a chill not unlike standing in front of an open industrial freezer. The camera-wielding explorers wait in hushed tones for “calving” – hunks of white ice cracking off the glaciers and tumbling thunderously into the water. The glaciers we encounter are active and everybody gets to witness “white thunder.”
The Table is Set
The empty black mussel shells that litter the beach and crunch noisily beneath our rubber boots are the remnants of a hearty breakfast, as many of the animals feed on the exposed sea life at low tide. The naturalists are fond of the saying, “When the tide is low, the table is set.”
Our table is set three times a day with a breakfast buffet, family-style lunch and dinner served in an informal single seating. The galley staff serves up night after night of delectable seafood from the Pacific Northwest, with fresh local salmon one night, herb-crusted halibut the next. When we go through Petersburg, fresh crustacean is picked up and a crab fest is served with red potatoes, coleslaw, beer bread, and seemingly endless piles of Dungeness crab legs, meaty and sweet. Baby-back ribs also crowd the table for those sensitive to shellfish.
Into the Wild
Our early bear sighting in Williams Cove is the first of many wildlife experiences. As we approach the Sawyer Glacier, small icebergs dot the horizon until they surround the Sea Lion. Growlers (small ice bergs that scrape the side of the ship, making growling noises) call me from my cabin and I emerge in time to see a baby harbor seal and mother stretched out in the unseasonably warm sunshine just as their iceberg sails swiftly by. We explore Inian Island by Zodiac and the sunny skies and emerald color of the mirrored water mean sea life, which means food for so many of southeast Alaska’s creatures. We are not disappointed with stellar sea lions basking and multiple otters swimming right along the boat. One grooms himself, primly stroking his whisker, while a mother with a pup on her belly floats by casually. We spot sea lions less than 10 feet away slapping salmon on the surface of the water to stun the silvery fish before quickly devouring them whole, while juvenile bald eagles dart in for scraps. With so many sea lions peeking their heads above water while eagles soar up and out into the trees, my eyes scan the horizon, unable to decide which majestic sight to feast upon.
And yet for all the sighting and surveying, I’m still without that private exchange with the Pacific Northwest. On the last day of activities, while a majority of guests go out for one last round, I opt to nurse the cold I caught the night I sat on the deck waiting for a whale and spend the afternoon packing my one piece of luggage. And that’s when it happens. Another guests rushes past me to fetch a camera, while calling over his shoulder, “There’s a whale!” And indeed a young whale is unusually close to shore, breeching and spouting. I turn on my heels to sprint back to my cabin for a camera but stop. By the time I get to my cabin, frantically search for my camera and return, it may be too late. Then I realize that the prime real estate that is the bow is most likely empty. While the kayakers and Zodiac cruisers scramble over each other, shutters clicking, I bask in the solitary silence on the bow, like it’s just me and the whale.