Southeast Alaska is majestic, but aesthetics aside, that epic expanse which makes the untouched Alaskan wilderness so beautiful, should be also largely– terrifying. Observing a grizzly bear, post-hibernation, two weeks before the salmon run, is a true marvel. That bear though, weighing in at a hefty 600 pounds, is also starving and the human observer, me, watching from the bow of a tiny skiff just off shore, would be far more satiating than a couple of sad barnacles at low tide.
When Dawes Glacier, located at the end of The Endicott Arm, calves its ancient ice, it is an explosion, thunderous and echoing through the fjord as tens of thousands of pounds of crystal blue ice crash into the water creating a splash a hundred feet high and a quarter of a mile wide. It is violent and powerful, yet from the bow of our small expedition boat, we watch humbled, yet fearless in the wake of the icy explosion. Even in a boat surrounded by a pod of orca, one chooses awe over fear notwithstanding the porpoise’s more menacing moniker, ‘the killer whale.’
Despite Alaska’s interwoven seismic beauty and perilous power, why then, is it, that as I set out to observe some of the region’s slowest and smallest resident wildlife, I am, for the first time on my seven day cruise with Un-Cruise, completely terrified?
The water temperature is just below 40 degrees and though unseasonably sunny during my early May voyage, on this chilly morning, there are only clouds. The wetsuit, a 7milimeter, I am assured, will be more than enough to keep me warm. Warmth and comfort, however, as I jam myself into the vice-tight wetsuit are mutually exclusive. As the hood smacks tight onto my skull, it drowns out the giggles and yammering of my fellow travelers as they set off on skiffs towards far more palatable and warmer excursions. With Frankenstein-like rigidity, I lumber into a small skiff that will take me and four other brave and arguably stupid adventurists to a small island a fifteen-minute skiff ride from our boat The Wilderness Explorer, and once there, after much nervous anticipation, into the freezing water, I shall plunge.
For twenty years, Un-Cruise has served as a small, intimate and educational alternative for cruisers and outdoor enthusiasts who love the water but want to avoid the crowd and cliché of so many of the world’s larger cruise ships. Given the smaller nature of the Un-Cruise vessels and unrivaled insider knowledge and talent of the ship’s captains and guides, passengers have access to virtually untouched wilderness from Hawaii to Alaska; the Pacific Northwest to The Galapagos, Costa Rica and Panama. Each day, boats offer guests a variety of excursions suitable for any age, skill set or physicality. From hikes and long sea kayaks to skiff boat rides and in my case, snorkeling, each excursion is led by world class naturalists who offer insight into every aspect of nature from geology to marine-biology; land mammals to bald eagles.
At night, the ship’s naturalists offer playful, informative and interactive talks over relevant topics and the previous night’s lecture had been on Alaska’s intertidal zones and invertebrates. The creatures of the intertidal zone, largely crabs, krill, mollusks, sea slugs and anemones, are Alaska’s most dramatic, complex and colorful. The apex predator in the area is the Sunflower Sea Star. More commonly, and incorrectly called a “starfish,” the Sunflower Sea Star, unlike many sea stars, has up to a dozen legs, is as big around as a trash can lid and though slow, is infamous for hunting even slower invertebrates, devouring them slowly and leaving piles of bone and shell in its wake. A chase between a Sunflower Sea Star and another invertebrate might take a couple of days before the actual kill but in invertebrate time, that is cheetah fast.
Like most days with Un-Cruise, the next day, there were two excursions. One, the naturalist explained, involved a hike with multiple crossings of a roaring river atop of mossy logs in the rain. There second less conventional excursion option for the foolish and the brave: snorkeling. Snorkeling in Alaska… Why hike when you could simply become cryogenically frozen? I thought, quietly cursing my wanderlust as I agreed to join in the cold fun.
That night, my sleep was plagued with frozen nightmares. I’d seen whales, killer whales, bears and glaciers crumbling. Why now, was I afraid?. So much thought had gone into what such frigid water might feel like that when I finally hit the water the next morning, I’d almost forgotten that my purpose was not just a polar plunge but to opportunity observe and embrace a rare and complex eco-system.
There were two ways to warm up when snorkeling in Alaska. One, you wait as the water seeps in through the neck of the wetsuit until the cold has enveloped you and slowly your body temperature warms the intruding seawater as close to a normal temperature as science will allow. The other, more pleasant way to deal with the terror of the cold was to simply put your mask on your face, your snorkel in your mouth and go under water.
There are no fish to speak of in the intertidal zone. Leafy kelp coats the rocky bottom and the cauliflower-like plumose anemone wave like mad Dr. Suess characters. Tiny shrimp dart from leaf to leaf. A rock crab waves his arms lazily on a stone ledge. Brightly colored sea cucumbers roll around along the rocky bottom. Everywhere I look are blue and red, huge and supposedly terrifying, are the apex predators: sea stars. Life unfolds in every direction and for forty-five minutes I hover over it and marvel. It is a crazy world under Southeast Alaska’s ink water. And like all things in Alaska, it is a complex world, violent and slow, terrifying and beautiful. And cold… very, very cold.