As our inflatable Zodiac launched from the aft marine platform of Lindblad Expeditions’ 100-passenger National Geographic Venture, our intrepid band of six "explorers" headed into Alaska's wilderness.
Cold, crisp air swirled around our faces as we sailed through Endicott Arm, located along the southern end of the Ford's Terror Wilderness area. We were appropriately bundled up and ready for adventure on a seven-night "Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness" itinerary between Juneau and Sitka in early September.
Simply put, the Zodiac expedition was exhilarating. Since this itinerary is back on Lindblad's schedule for the ship in summer 2020, what's good to know? How did the expedition activities unfold? Here are my tips, based on this into the wild experience.
Start With The Recap
As for expedition quality, John Mitchell, expedition leader, and Luke Correale, assistant expedition leader, excelled in directing activities on our voyage. Assisted by a large team of naturalists and specialists, Mitchell ran the nightly recap sessions in the Lounge.
I'd definitely recommend attending these recap sessions to truly understand the details about what will happen expedition-wise the next day.
Cocktail hour in our Lounge started between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. with free hors d'ouevres, and usually a half hour later, the session began with Mitchell doing a recap about the various expeditions and wildlife sightings.
That morphed into a detailed look at the day ahead. He'd relay important information about weather conditions, as well as how certain expedition activities such as hiking, Zodiacs, kayaking, flightseeing and stand-up paddleboarding would unfold.
While attending recaps was totally voluntary and some basic information for the next day was included in the daily program, the recap sessions educated guests in much more detail. Guests also asked many questions of the expedition team -- making everyone feel comfortable on vacation, as they knew what to expect the next day.
Embrace Your Team
With 100 guests onboard National Geographic Venture, Lindblad splits that group into four teams, each with 25 or so guests. Why? Having fewer Zodiacs in the water at one time is less intrusive to the eco-system, gives guests a wilderness experience, allows the ship to carry fewer Zodiacs and builds a sense of camaraderie among guests.
I was a proud member of "Team Sea Otter," while fellow guests belonged to "Team Puffin," "Team Humpback" and, yes, even "Team Banana Slug." (Not familiar with a banana slug? Well, it's yellow, terrestrial and endemic to southeastern Alaska.)
Guests hailed from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Asia and elsewhere across the globe. Being a part of one team helped guests bond with other guests or, alternatively, have competitive fun chats over cocktails about which team saw or did "this and that."
During our first wildlife spotting in Endicott Arm, American Bald Eagles soared overhead, while a lone seal slowly maneuvered across the channel. Our expedition guide and Zodiac driver told us she'd spotted white dots (mountain goats) on a rocky cliff far above the water line.
Every moment was a potential wildlife spotting opportunity. Lindblad provides guests with binoculars to borrow and use throughout the cruise. I'd definitely recommend taking them on all Zodiac rides and hikes, as one might spot a bear ambling up a distant grassy mountainside.
During our recap sessions, we not only learned from the expedition team about wildlife we might see but also how to stay safe in bear country. Hiking expedition leaders also carry bear spray.
Mitchell also smartly tempered (but didn't undermine) guests' expectations about seeing bears. Early in the cruise, he almost hushingly used "the 'b' word" at times, purposely telling guests with a soft grin that he wasn't going to mention that word ("bear").
The tone set by the team was perfect; I felt people would be very happy if bears were spotted (as they ultimately were), but not unhappy with their entire cruise if they didn't see a bear.
During our "sailing day" in Glacier Bay National Park, from a vantage point of several hundred feet away, we were lucky to spot two bears sauntering along a wide rocky beach area.
The duo lingered along the water for some time, and our ship maneuvered a bit closer. From the ship, I was only able to get a so-so photo (without the right zoom equipment). But, I returned home to report that, "yes, I saw a bear -- in fact, two."
Guests should know that Zodiac departure times can vary by team, which does impact wildlife spotting. At remote Pavlof Harbor, so named by Russian fur traders, the other teams taking Zodiacs at 9:15 a.m. and 10 a.m. spotted several bears near a small waterfall, but our team departed at 10:45 a.m., and, by then, the bears had departed.
Throughout the voyage, though, we were pleased to see eagles, hawks, Arctic terns and other birds, as well as seals, porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, orcas and humpback whales, not to mention those two beach bears.
Most notable from my perspective? One was at the southern end of Glacier Bay National Park, where South Marble Island was "blanketed" in noisy sea lions. Another was the not-so-common chance to see whales "bubble feeding" right next to our ship.
Whales engaging in this ritualistic feeding behavior as a group have been studied by scientists. Not all whales have this as a behavior, so those whales that do in Alaska are now identified from a database of photos and distinguishing features.
So, in a Lounge recap presentation later, I found it fascinating when an expedition team member showed photos of some whales we'd seen and told us their "names." Check out the shots in the slide show above and a photo here too.
Not all Alaska wildlife is big. When viewing the Last Frontier, cruisers seem to love all critters. While on a Zodiac trip, we became enchanted by looking at a couple of large starfishes on rocks.
Creating a New Perspective
Yes, National Geographic Venture plies some of the same waters as big ships, such as sailing from Juneau or spending a day in Glacier Bay National Park. But even during that park transit, the National Geographic Venture found its own space -- most of the time away from other ships.
Truly, I felt we were in world of our own. Throughout the voyage, the ship sailed less-traveled waterways and anchored in quiet coves or deserted harbors.
The ship also sailed close to shore, and Zodiacs came within 50 feet of glaciers. Cruisers could observe glacial "calving" action (ice breaking off the glaciers and crashing into the water) from a unique perspective -- "at water level."
In contrast, a big-ship glacier viewing experience often is from 10 or 12 decks up peering down to the glacier. Each experience has positive benefits, but the vantage points deliver different perspectives.
Finding Unique Destinations
On this small-ship "Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness" itinerary, guests flew directly into Juneau, the state capital, and it was the biggest port of the entire itinerary. The voyage ended in Sitka with Russian heritage, Tlingit culture, museums, historic sites and eco-attractions.
Yet, not that many big ships call here, as it's on the Pacific Ocean, not the Inside Passage. See our story from last year about Sitka's draws. And the largest port call mid-voyage on our itinerary was Petersburg, a fishing town with a population of 3,000, many of Norwegian heritage.
Mostly, though, this voyage transported guests to such remote destinations as Frederick Sound and the Chatham Strait for kayaking and rainforest hikes or to the Inian Islands, home to sea lions and sea otters.
My favorite destination on this trip was Le Conte Bay outside Petersburg. Massive blue icebergs that had calved from the glacier 30 miles up the fjord had floated into the bay.
Approaching by Zodiac, guests from Team Sea Otter gazed in awe at these humongous glacial icebergs, some 25 or more feet across. One towered over our Zodiac as we sailed around it, with birds occupying small holes throughout it.
The icebergs glistened with a royal blue coloring. My favorite iceberg? It closely resembled a blue whale (as you can see in the photo above.)
Dressing for the Occasion
Keep in mind that the air coming off a glacier is akin to that from an open refrigerator. Pack layered outfits. Rain boots and rain-protective clothing are also essential. Weather can change rapidly.
Even if it's not raining, the Zodiac floor can become wet (with water splashing in as the craft zips along). Guests can bring their own rain boots or rain-proof gear, or rental details are provided in pre-cruise documentation.
Clothing-wise, I improvised by wearing regular cold winter attire and topping that with a throw-away rainproof poncho, strapping my life vest over that. It worked just fine for me on the Zodiac rides. One woman who saw me in the hallway said: "That was a very good idea."
That said, had I been doing wilderness hiking, I would have definitely purchased rainproof gear. Boots and gear can be stored within each cabin's individual locker in the expedition boarding area (the mudroom).
From here, guests also head outside to the marina boarding platform. Before exiting the ship they swipe their identity card (so the crew knows exactly who is back on the ship and won't inadvertently leave a guest in the wilderness).
The Zodiac boarding process is, in my personal opinion (and I have knee issues) both easy and effective. One team member stands at the top of a five-step stairway leading to the Zodiac. Railings are on both sides, plus that team member will lend a hand to guests going down.
On the Zodiac, another crew member reaches up in an arm-to-arm grasp (more secure than hand to hand) and assists people to step onto the Zodiac and into the craft in a second step.
Some guests onboard were mature travelers whom I previously saw using canes or walkers onboard. So, I was pleased to see many of them "on" the Zodiacs; that said, the Zodiacs cannot accommodate wheelchairs or motorized scooters/chairs.
Kayaking -- on one- and two-person yellow kayaks -- was offered by the expedition team in Sitkoh Bay and elsewhere. Expedition staff gave simple "lessons" to beginners, which were much appreciated, as some guests told me they had always wanted to kayak but simply didn't know how.
Paddleboarding was similarly offered in such destinations as Pavlof Harbor. Only a few folks on our cruise were game for that activity, though.
Hiking was popular among many active guests - spanning many generations. Some headed out for a three-hour exploratory hike at Sitkoh Bay, while others enjoyed a Petersburg area hike to see the "muskeg," a peat surface resembling tundra.
Fighting off the Vikings
During one Zodiac excursion, we'd been out for an hour, hovered close to cold glacial icebergs and suddenly despite all the layers I was chilled. After all, this was September in Alaska.
Suddenly, I heard a commotion and yelling. Our team's eyes turned from staring at a glacier to the side of our own Zodiac, where a boat carrying fierce "Vikings" with horned helmets and shields had come alongside.
They yelled, wielded swords and had aggressive facial expressions. Was our Zodiac about to be boarded?
But alas, the swords were fake, and they broke into chuckles as it became clear they were friendly crew members from National Geographic Venture. Their mission was to bring us cups of hot chocolate with whipped cream (and peach schnapps, if guests so desired) to warm us up.
The timing was perfect, as it was getting very cold and the hot drinks helped fortify us for more exploring.
Funny follow-up? On another day we were looking at glacial icebergs in Le Conte Bay; it was fabulous, but I was getting cold. A few seconds later, a male guest in my Zodiac loudly pronounced: "Okay, isn't it time for those Vikings to show up?"
We all laughed. Alas, the Vikings only sailed once on our cruise, but they were certainly memorable.
Agents can take a full look at reports from the expedition team here; our voyage dates were September 1-8, 2019.
Also, stay tuned for the next installment of our Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Venture coverage. We previously covered our accommodations, #204. In the next story, coming soon, we'll look at cultural diversions onboard and ashore, public spaces and the shipboard experience.