|Claving glaciers are just one of the many attractions in Alaska|
I am currently aboard the Holland America Oosterdam sailing from Seattle to the Alaska Inside passage, an itinerary taken by thousands of cruisers every summer on several different cruise lines and ships. Since we arrived in Seattle on Friday we have seen two Celebrity ships, two NCL ships a Princess and a Holland America ship. Many more ships sail to Alaska from Vancouver.
Alaska is a very different cruise experience than the Caribbean because much of it takes place within close proximity of the shore, close enough that you can stand on deck and actually watch the landscape going by on both sides of the ship. This starts as soon as you enter the Inside Passage which stretches down through Alaska Panhandle, a series barrier islands which hugs the western border of Canada.
The Inside Passage was given its name during the famous the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s. It is such a calm stretch of water that most of the prospectors built their own boats out of local timber to navigate the waters up to the Klondike gold strike, near what became the city of Juneau, capitol of Alaska today.
Navigating the Inside Passage on a modern cruise ship today you can sit on deck and enjoy the scenery on both sides of the ship. The picturesque shoreline is rife with forested islands where one may spot the occasional bear or bald eagle. On most ships a professional guide from the National Park Service is onboard to give a narrated description of the scenery passing by, pointing out the bears, eagles, sea lions and other local wildlife most of us would miss if left to our own devices.
But this scenario points out an important aspect of an Alaska cruise - there are riches of experiences awaiting you in Alaska- but you have to be prepared to make the most of your Alaska cruise to experience those riches. You need the help of experienced locals to get you there and to show you where to look.
Alaska has natural scenic beauty in its landscapes, impossible to miss, especially when a cruise ship pulls into a fjord and stops within proximity of a glacier so you can witness the glacier calving - breaking apart into gigantic shards that go crashing into the sea water. There are majestic mountains to be seen from the ship, the upper reaches of what become the Rocky Mountains in the lower 48.
Alaska also has immense riches in its wildlife as one of the favored summer feeding grounds of the mighty humpback whale. If you are lucky you can even see pods as large as 10 to 15 whales all coordinating their quest for food in an almost ritualistic trapping procedure known as "bubble net feeding."
While "bubble net feeding" the whales trap large schools of small fish far below the surface. Using verbal cues the pack leader coordinates the pod to swim around the school of fish in circles while blowing air out to create a "net" of bubbles with the fish trapped inside. Once the bubble net is complete the whales then swim below the trap the fish inside as the bubbles and the fish rise towards the surface. Once the tiny fish hit the surface they get crushed together in a big mass. At that point the whales open their mouths and swim straight up to break through the surface of the water, each one gulping down as many fish as possible. The observers see about a dozen whale heads breaking though the surface of the water, mouths wide open and teeth glaring. They stay suspending that position for a few seconds before they close their mouths and then slowing arc their backs and dive under water again, blowing huge gusts of seawater out of their blow holes and ending with a flourish of the their "flukes" (their tails) waving goodbye. It is an amazing sight.
We watched whales bubble-feeding in Alaska a few years ago, but that was on a on an expedition cruise line called Innersea Discoveries where the "ship" (some would call it a boat) only carried 50 passengers. It was an amazing trip, but not inexpensive. In fact, although the accommodations were much less plush than what we have now on the Holland America Oosterdam, the cost of the cruise was four times more expensive. The difference was the personalized, up-close access to nature, something a large cruise ship just can't offer. But that does not mean you cannot have a similar experience on a regular Alaska cruise.
A regular large ship Alaska cruise must stay on a schedule, and even if the captain sees whales he cannot change course and follow them. We are now on a cruise with scheduled ports of call in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and days scheduled to visit various glaciers like Hubbard (largest in Alaska) and Tracy Arm fjord.
The key to regular Alaska cruises is to plan to take wildlife shore excursions in port. I have a six hour whale watching excursion scheduled on a small boat in Juneau. My hope is that we will have an experience close to what we had before - up close and "personal" with the whales. I do know you don't have to travel far from Juneau to get to popular (with the whales) feeding grounds. So I have high hopes. I will be letting you know more as this trip progresses.