American Safari Cruises -- Alaskan Adventure (Part 2)

| September 12, 2008

This small adventure cruise line offers close-up views of Alaska without sacrificing comfort.

American Safari Details By 7 p.m., we were boarding the Safari Explorer. It has three public decks; the ship is 145 feet long, 36 feet wide and holds 36 passengers. At a maximum speed of 10 knots it does not cover much distance quickly, but still reaches the best sights in Alaska's Inside Passage.

The entire crew of 16 met us on the dock. The chief engineer escorted us to our stateroom. The ship is U.S.-registered with an all-U.S.-crew, all of them exuberantly friendly and capable. Many of them fill multiple jobs as room stewards and waitresses, or first officers and engineers. But there is no skimping on the culinary staff, which has four people, including a head chef, a pastry chef, an assistant chef and sommelier/bartender.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Entire Staff Welcomes us Onboard   Hot Tub in Glacier Bay   Deck Three Aft

Each night we had a choice of two entrees. The starters and desserts were limited to one course but different each night and all delicious. If you want an alternative, they are more than ready to accommodate. The vegetarians were happy.

The staterooms are small but well appointed with an iPod player, flat-panel TV and DVD player for the hundreds of recently released movies available in the library. Cabins come in a variety of floor plans with one queen bed or two twins, to suites with a smnall balcony, king-size bed and a sleeper sofa. Our bed was deep and plush with plenty of pillows and an afghan for naps in the cool Arctic afternoons. The sink is in the bedroom, while the bathroom only has a shower and toilet -- and heated floor tiles and towel racks.

*** See the entire American Safari in Alaska Photo Gallery here    

American Safari has an all-inclusive pricing policy that covers shore excursions and beverages. The wine included with dinner is very high quality -- I recall a regular cruise line charging $105 a bottle for one variety they served us. The fact that all shore excursions are included is a real cost advantage, but with such a small ship the entire voyage feels like one long shore excursion anyway.

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Park Ranger give talk in Living Room   Honey Spiced Bacon   American Safari ExplorerDining Room

This is the first ship I ever left without getting a final bill for my onboard account. Only tips are not included, and they are truly voluntary. The suggested amount is five to ten percent of the cruise cost, which comes out to $30 - $80 per person per day. That is high compared to most cruise lines, so we suspect most people tipped on the low end.

Our Cruise -- Day by Day Daytimes on Safari Explorer were spent cruising leisurely through Alaska's Inside Passage. American Safari is privileged to be one of the few lines permitted to stay overnight in Glacier Bay. Permits to enter Glacier Bay are so limited these days that many ships cannot go there, but must visit alternative glaciers in Icy Point or Tracy Arm.

The large cruise ships that visit Glacier Bay must be out of the park before sundown. This means most ships steam into a position to watch a glacier by about 11:30 a.m. They have a few hours to watch, hoping for some good calving action, and then they have to leave to make their next stop.

*** See the entire American Safari in Alaska Photo Gallery here    

On American Safari we saw all of Glacier Bay, beginning with the glaciers most cruise ships visit, and then the ones in smaller bays that are more active this year. We saw four glaciers during this cruise with plenty of calving, slides and even shooters. The pictures and videos we captured are amazing. I had been to Glacier Bay on six cruises in 1993 on a large cruise ship, and I never saw anything like the glacier action we saw this year. But the best of what we saw was in Tracy Arm later in the cruise, at Dawes Glacier that no other cruise ships were visiting.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Beautiful Alaskan Glaciers   Exploring a Glacier by Skiff   Map Record of our Trip
Island Full of Sea Lions   Whale Breaching

After Glacier Bay we sailed through Russell Cut to Pt. Adolphus and Spasski Island. We saw incredible displays of birds and sea lions on this island, which was fully populated because it provides natural protection from predators. For the birds the danger is bears, and for the sea lions it is orca.

Video of whale watching with Dolphin Tours in Juneau Alaska   Highly recommended video! This video shows humpback whales breaching in Auke Bay near Juneau during a three hour whale watching tour available near the cruise ship dock.

On day four we truly met the magic this cruise promised. It started early in the morning when we sighted a pod of whales feeding. The ever-vigilant captain slowed Safari Explorer to a crawl and drew closer to the whales. Soon we were witnessing a very rare sight even for the naturalists -- bubble feeding by humpback whales.

Bubble feeding, in which a pod of humpback whales (about a dozen) works together to capture the krill and small fish they live on, has only been observed in Western Alaska. It displays a level of intelligence for wild sea mammals that rivals the trained animals at Sea World. When they locate a school of food a group leader will organize the pod with auditory signals -- a whistle sound that starts at about ten seconds long and repeats several times for a minute or more, getting longer each time.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Humpback Dorsal Fin Waving   Bubble Feeding Surface Break   Watching Whales from a Skiff

As the pod gets into position, below the food with their jaws open, one whale entraps the food within a circle of bubbles. As the bubbles rise so do the whales, keeping the small fish surrounded. As the food gets closer to the surface, the signals get longer and rise in pitch at the end. The final signal, called the scream, is the longest, ending with a distinct rise in pitch and shrill immediacy. It is followed by silence while the bubbles surrounding the food and the open-mouthed whales below are all on their way to the surface. Once the food trapped within the circle of bubbles collects on the surface, all the whales break through the surface with their mouths open to collect the food. It's an incredible sight.

Video of humpback whales bubble feeding   Highly recommended video! This video shows humpback whales doing a rare practice - bubble-feeding in the wild - upclose video shot from a American Safari Explorer Skiff

In the video above, Beth, the naturalist, says each whale is 30 tons so we were next to 300 tons of whale. Dan, the owner, then says "that's the weight of the boat." He means one whale weighs the same as our boat; 30 tons. In addition, Beth says "when the sound stops get ready to shoot." She is referring to shooting pictures with our cameras, not hunting whales.

We identified at least 11 adult whales in this pod, counting individual tails after they closed their mouths, rolled over, spouted several times and then dove back into the water.

Continue Article >> Our Cruise -- Day by Day (Continued) (Part 3)

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