The Sound of Adventure

Glacier Bay is once again overflowing with wildlife

By: Mark Krasnow

Soaring high off the starboard railing, an eagle spots its prey in the mirrored waters below. Pulling its wings back while extending a deadly pair of razor-sharp talons, the predator dives toward the water its black and white plumage an incredible sight against the blue sky. Just yards away, an angered harbor seal rises up like a phantom submarine, defending its own favorite fishing hole.

Amazing? Yes. But, this close encounter was repeated numerous times on my recent Glacier Bay Cruiseline journey in Alaska. The Seattle-based, small-ship adventure line introduced a new Prince William Sound itinerary for the 2005 season. I was fortunate enough to escape the heat of Miami for one of the inaugural sailings this summer. The eight-night trip began with a pre-cruise stay at the AAA four-diamond Alyeska Resort, 40 miles outside of Anchorage. The next morning, Glacier Bay guests boarded a motorcoach for the ride to Whittier, Alaska, where the 69-passenger, 156-foot Wilderness Adventurer awaited.

Our roundtrip cruise from Whittier would take us through the glacial and ecological wonderland that is Prince William Sound. Boasting stunning tidewater glaciers, breathtaking alpine peaks, lush green meadows and more picture-postcard waterfalls than I ever imagined, the region ranks among the planet’s most pristine ecosystems.

An ecological disaster propelled the area to worldwide notoriety, however. In March of 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, causing a massive oil spill and the worst man-made environmental catastrophe in history. Sixteen years later, through continuing efforts, Prince William Sound is again one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

The Wilderness Adventurer was the perfect vessel for exploring the wonders of this part of south-central Alaska. Her shallow draft and compact size allows her to go places where big cruise ships cannot. She can anchor in hidden bays and cruise through dramatic, narrow passages. These passages called “arms” in these parts lead to much of Prince William Sound’s most breathtaking vistas.

With three decks, the Wilderness Adventurer never feels cramped, even for a guy like me, who likes to stretch out. I was pleasantly surprised by the roominess of the cabins, as well as the amount of storage space. But, this wasn’t a cruise where anyone spent much time indoors. The spacious sun deck on top was the hub of the vessel: The place to watch for whales and photograph the breathtaking panoramas or simply to hang out, enjoying the cool, crisp Alaskan air and the bright sunshine.

My fellow passengers on this Prince William Sound adventure were a diverse lot: Baby Boomers, 30-somethings like me; families with kids; and a few active seniors. Everyone shared a love of adventure and a desire to see a different Alaska than the traditional big cruise-ship experience along the Inside Passage. We soon became quite friendly, almost like a family that had come together for an adventurous reunion. Five onboard naturalists opened our eyes to amazing facts, natural phenomena and incredible wildlife sightings throughout the journey.

We spent several days cruising Prince William Sound, where playful sea otters and harbor seals surrounded us at almost every stop and passage. We spotted brown and black bears lazily soaking in the sun in the high grass at the water’s edge. But the real stars of the show were the big marine mammals. We were “cruising for critters,” as onboard naturalist Erick Toussaint described it. Breaching whales, bow-riding porpoises and noisy sea lions seemed to follow us, as if to welcome the Wilderness Adventurer on her inaugural cruise.

Glacier Bay prides itself on its “off-vessel adventure activities,” and kayaking is foremost among them. A portion of the sun deck and much of the stern were dedicated to the impressive and well-coordinated kayak operation. Passengers were divided into groups depending on their desired activity level. Naturalists led the way, as we paddled along the shorelines spotting wildlife. Our leader, naturalist Alli Astrella, explained that if you speak softly and sweetly to a harbor seal it will approach you for a close-up look. She was right. A harbor seal followed along with us for the afternoon, seemingly as curious about us as were about her.

On another day, we spotted an extremely rare black-coated brown bear napping near a mountain stream. It made me especially glad that I had purchased a small dry bag in the vessel’s gift shop for my camera. The photo opportunities were amazing that afternoon, and many other afternoons, for that matter.

There’s nothing like a full day of paddling to work up an appetite. Chef Joe Bailey’s culinary masterpieces were almost as impressive as the natural wonders we encountered on our journey. The daily menus featured all things Alaska, from king crab legs to almond-crusted halibut to mouth-watering grilled salmon. There were savory steaks, pastas and salads, as well as a vegetarian option at every meal. In the afternoons, we’d have freshly baked cookies on the sun deck. In the evenings, bartender Ben French, who also played a mean classical guitar, whipped up the best mojitos I’ve had outside of Little Havana.

Midway through the week, the Wilderness Adventurer called at Valdez, Alaska known as Little Switzerland due to its steep, snow-capped mountains. The line offered two tours there, a glacier walk and a whitewater-rafting trip. Afterward, there was plenty of time to shop for souvenirs, visit the museum dedicated to the infamous oil-spill disaster or even grab a naturalist and hike some amazing trails. An easily accessible tourist center provided maps for those that wanted to hike on their own. We also made a stop in College Fjord, where an early exploration team named the glaciers after Ivy League universities.

This being the inaugural season, Glacier Bay still had some glitches to work out. On our cruise, the line still had not secured the necessary permits allowing us to disembark and hike along the way as promised. But Glacier Bay is working diligently to iron out any rough spots. Hotel manager Jelena Malenica encouraged us to fill out comment forms on our last day onboard.
“Our practice is to build on suggestions we’ve received from passengers during the inaugural season,” she said.

As the vessel returned to the dock at Whittier, I couldn’t recall a weeklong vacation where I’ve felt more relaxed, and at the same time rejuvenated. It was obvious that my fellow passengers felt the same way. Glacier Bay believes the Prince William Sound cruise has the potential to become its most exciting adventure destination yet. They’re hoping the word will get out. As more people visit the Sound, more will be interested in this incredible adventure that is nothing like a mega-cruise-ship experience.


Cruise Line: Glacier Bay Cruiseline

Vessel: MV Wilderness Adventurer
156.6 feet
Passenger Capacity: 69
Number of Cabins: 32 on three levels.
All the cabins were renovated in 2000 and have lower berths. A few also have a Pullman-style upper berth to accommodate a third guest.
Crew: American
Plugging In: 110-volt American current
Commission: Glacier Bay Cruiseline pays a base commission of 10 percent on all cruises as well as an additional percentage for consortia member agencies.