For the Birds Radio Program: Birding on an Alaskan Cruise
For his 50th birthday, I gave my husband Russ tickets for a cruise through Alaska’s inside passage. We decided not to go on one of the enormous cruise ships-those Princess or Carnival lines or similar ones. Instead, we opted for what was called a “soft adventure” cruise onboard the MV Wilderness Adventurer, which is owned by Goldbelt, a company entirely owned and partly operated by Native Alaskans. Our ship was tiny compared to the Titanic-sized floating cities we saw in Juneau. It could accommodate 78 passengers, but on our trip there were only 45, because a company that had booked over 30 places cancelled at the last minute. That left several empty tables in the dining room and lots of elbow room on the decks when we were whale-watching.
This kind of cruise doesn’t have entertainment of the Las Vegas sort, and there was no swimming pool. But the only entertainment I wanted was on deck, where I stood for hours watching birds and looking out for whales, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and other creatures. The ship was little enough that when a whale or pod of whales appeared, we could wait and the whales would approach us. There were occasions when we had huge adult humpbacks breaching only 20 or 30 feet from the ship, and one swam right under us! The best whale sighting of all was an adult humpback playing with a Steller’s Sea Lion right next to the ship-the sea lion was leaping out of the water and swimming circles around the whale, who was breaching and staying right with the sea lion. We also had humpbacks surface feeding next to the ship, opening their huge mouths to expose the baleen as they fed on tiny creatures on the surface. And I was thrilled to see Tufted Puffins and the first Homed Puffins I’d ever seen in my life.
When we got into the Endicott Arm, we watched seals on ice go floating by-that’s what we called the harbor seals lolling about on ice floes. A few birds sat on the ice floes, too-mainly the same Herring Gulls we see on Lake Superior ice, but also Bonaparte’s Glaucous-winged, and Mew Gulls. And where glaciers were calving-that is, dropping enormous chunks of ice into the water, giving birth to new icebergs, dozens of Arctic Terns flew daintily through the air, avoiding sudden icefalls while apparently snatching up fish that were stunned by the crashes.
Harbor seals also seemed to gather in their biggest numbers near these calving glaciers. Because our ship was small, we could get closer to the dramatic scenes than big ships could possibly hope to, and because our group was relatively small, there was a lot of really nice group cohesion. On the four days when we went kayaking, everyone could be out as long as they wanted. At one time Russ and I came really close to a couple of Marbled Murrelets, and once we were almost close enough to be splashed when a sea lion captured a big salmon.
Instead of pulling into ports in cities, our ship anchored near lovely wilderness spots and small groups of us took a skiff to shore to explore on foot. That was where I heard Varied Thrushes singing their ethereal songs, along with other western land birds. After this cruise, I don’t know if I have any interest in going in a big cruise ship ever. This was a perfect adventure, and I don’t know how it could ever be matched-we had such great weather, and such wonderful sights, that even the experienced captain spent a lot of time with his video camera. By trip’s end I’d seen 49 species from the boat or on the shore visits. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to afford another cruise. But it sure was a wonderful way to celebrate a half century of life and see some fabulous birds in the bargain.