Time seems to slow down as the cruise ship National Geographic Sea Lion meanders its way through the calm, protected waters of Alaska's Inside Passage.
By the second day aboard the ship on Lindblad Expedition's “Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness” cruise, the troubles of the real world float away with the icebergs, and life's stress is replaced with the serenity of nature.
The open water is never blanketed with true darkness. During a cruise in June, the sun set around 10 p.m. and quickly rose again by 4 a.m. Nights became days and days became nights. Removed from the routine of daily life, the concept of time was no longer measurable.
The Sea Lion is intimate, typically accommodating 62 passengers in 31 cabins. Life aboard the ship quickly becomes as comfortable as life at home. The passengers form bonds as a family. Strangers become grandparents, friends and siblings floating along the Inside Passage in the far Northwest.
A Lindblad expedition is designed as a learning experience and not simply as a vacation.
“We try to inspire people to explore and care about the planet. And nothing is more important, but it has to come from a place of understanding and that comes from education,” said Marc Cappelletti, director of expedition development, Lindblad Expeditions.
“To bring people out here to educate them on the beauty of Southeast Alaska and how fragile it is as well is immensely important to us because we hope to inspire people this week,” he said
To help with the education is an expedition leader, four naturalists, an undersea specialist, a wellness specialist and a video chronicler. One of the naturalists also serves as a photo instructor to help guests learn about capturing Alaska's beauty with their cameras. The naturalists lead hikes through the forest and cruises on inflatable motorized boats called zodiacs. During cocktail hour in the ship's lounge, they also lead small lectures and recaps of the daily adventures.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in a small dining room where passengers eat together at large and small tables. But, leave your tuxedos and evening gowns at home: Life aboard the Sea Lion is casual.
The food aboard the ship is excellent but the food is not the star of the trip — Alaska is the start, starting with the scenery.
Onboard, guests have a 360-degree view of the mountains and regularly see humpback whales, mama bears and cubs, sea lions and other animal life.
The adventure begins
I arrived in Juneau on a Saturday afternoon in June after 12 hours of changing planes and time zones. By evening, I was personally greeted by Captain Dan Dion as I boarded the Sea Lion.
After all the guests were tucked away in their cabins, the Sea Lion left port around midnight for Tracy Arm.
By 5:30 a.m., a tiny stream of light hit my face waking me from my deep slumber. The sun had been rising for over an hour before its light fell over the mountain peaks and into my cabin. I scrambled to take pictures of the sunrise before getting ready for the day.
Around 7 a.m. a soft, smoothing voice transmitted through my intercom in my cabin: “Good morning, it is beautiful day in Southeast Alaska. Good morning.”
Our expedition leader Lee Fleischer provided the wake-up call we would hear every morning. We came to treasure it, even as it came in the early hours to alert us killer whales were swimming next to the boat.
The beauty of the Sea Lion is its small size. It allows the boat to travel in smaller passageways. But, it still can't go everywhere, so the ship uses the zodiacs to shuttle passengers to the coastline and small coves.
The passengers can choose to kayak in the coves or explore the land by foot with a naturalist-led hike. For the less adventuresome, there is an option to explore the coast via zodiac. There are two activity times, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Calving glaciers and seals — The first day
On the first day, we set anchor near Williams Cove.
I chose to kayak. It was so peaceful to float in the calm waters with Alaska's towering mountains peering down on you.
After the morning activities, we boarded the Sea Lion and made our way toward the face of the South Sawyer Glacier. The passengers were once again loaded into zodiacs to experience an up close and personal view of the glacier.
It did not take long to hear a thunderous crash as the glacier calved, tumbling parts of itself into the icy-blue water. The Tlingitnatives call this “white Thunder.”
The glacier and icebergs reflected the most brilliant blue color. Sometimes, they looked like large chunks of sapphires floating in the water.
Often, on top of these sapphires were rolly-polly seals. They were gathering near glacier because the water was protected from their predators and they had babies with them.
After watching the seals and glaciers, once again, we reboarded the ship. Following dinner a few of us were in the lounge telling stories. We reminisced about the bears we saw earlier in the day wrestling in the meadow. We talked about how the seals were curious with our presence.
Around 11 a.m., a staff member came over and told us the captain saw the moon rising above the mountain.
We raced to the deck. To our surprise a large, orange-colored moon was just peaking over the mountain, contrasting with a deep blue-tinted sky.
This was my moment to channel my inner Ansel Adams in honor of the famed nature photographer. I clicked away on my shutter along with the other guests.
As the sky turned deeper blue, we passed a tiny iceberg illuminated by a stream of light from the moon. We continued to click our shutters mesmerized by stream of light. A bald eagle swooped down and perched itself of the iceberg, posing for us.
It was at this moment all each one of us knew this adventure was going to be extraordinary.
Every day was this magical.
It seems clichéd but watching nature has a profound effect on a person. Watching the humpback whales flipping their giant flukes into the air as they dive under the ocean is awe-inspiring. To think that these giant creatures live in a vast ocean in a planet that sometimes seems so small in our daily lives.
Many of us learned about the glaciers in school. We learned how they carved and shaped the land we live on. To see them still moving, still carving, is a reminder that nature is always at work.
Experiencing Alaska was life-changing for the passengers of the National Geographic Sea Lion. Our trusted leader, Lee, said it best in our ship's video chronicle.
“I think that everyone that comes to Southeast Alaska goes home a different person; the immensity of this place is staggering,” he said. “There are many of us who go home feeling a little less significant. We find our place in the world changed when we see nature at work and the incredible life that mother nature has put on this planet and in this very special place.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.