National Geographic Sea Bird Cruise Review
Itinerary: Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness - July 2011
My wife Heidi and I had a wonderful time. And thank you for the bottle of wine, which we shared with our tablemates at dinner the last evening.
Crew and Vessel
The captain of the vessel, George Coughlin, is a master seaman and organizer, and runs a wonderful ship. His first officer, Lucynda Boyce, is also a superb addition to the vessel, and I hope that your organization will keep a close eye on her as within several years I think she will be worthy of elevation to captain status, in charge of her own vessel. The open bridge policy is also special, especially for someone with a nautical background; I was on the bridge by 430 am each morning that we were underway, and often stood a portion of the afternoon and evening watches as well.
The presence of naturalists, geologists, and others on board was a special addition to the spectacular scenery. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to hike through a rain forest with somebody who can point out not only the names of the plants, but some of the behavioral issues, forest progression, ecology of a bog, etc.. Lee Moll, and Linda Nicklin added immeasurably on hikes, and it was a true pleasure talking with each of them on board ship as well. Al Trujillo shared a lecture or two with us, and his enthusiasm and interest, not only for the rocks, but also for anything in Alaska, is infectious. I did have to request specifically to drop the plankton net, and then push to use the microscope to examine the plankton, but I do understand that my background and interests may be a bit more technical than that of most guests.
One suggestion – after dinner, desert could be offered in the dining room, or forward in the lounge, with a different break-out session, led by a naturalist, in each place.
Justin Hofman, our photographer, and underwater naturalist, could have been better utilized. He did perform two dives, and shared aspects of those dives with the group. He led walks, and took us out in the Zodiac. He also led a short photography seminar. However, his photography, which is wonderful, could also have functioned as semi-official photographer for the group. Specifically, it would be a wonderful memory and keepsake had he been able to capture candid photos of Heidi and me on a Zodiac, or kayaking, or simply enjoying sites on the rail of the ship. It would certainly be easy, given his presence on the boat for a week, to task him with the unofficial job of recording each of the guests in a natural and candid manner, and then making those photos available to the guest as part of the package.
The presence of the videographer, conversely, was of little interest to me. Reviewing a video of our trip, with numerous interviews with other of the guests, was of no interest, and we did not order the video. The video position could easily have been switched to the still photo position, filled by Justin, with the above minor change in his job description.
The food was good, and at times wonderful, and there was always an option for my semi-vegetarian wife at all meals. The ship obviously sports cramped cabins, but they were certainly adequate, and other than sleeping, we spent very little time in the cabin. Cleanliness is good, again especially for a cramped ship. I did possibly break my right fourth toe on the coming between the shower stall and the main cabin area, but that was my mistake, due to my negligence in not picking up my foot high enough as I was exiting the bathroom at 3 a.m. (I have ignored it, and it is healing.)
Kayaking was wonderful, but again tremendous effort on the part of the crew goes into making the kayaks available. If kayaks could be launched from the stern of the Sea Bird itself, then it would make kayaking more available, for instance in evenings when at anchor, or allow kayaks to be launched and then recovered from the mother ship, allowing longer kayaking sessions. I know that some friends of ours on the boat were upset that they could only kayak for short intervals, and I believe we only had three or at most four kayaking sessions total. If there were a small finger dock off the stern of the Sea Bird, which could be dropped/hinged into the water with a winch, and we could launch and recover kayaks from that finger dock, then not only would a tremendous amount of effort be saved in terms of launching and retrieving the kayaks from shore, but I think we would have greater utilization of the kayaks.
The hikes, offered at different paces, and with differing objectives, are spectacular. Again, the presence of a naturalist or other knowledgeable guide adds so much!
There are three life jackets on the vessel assigned to each passenger. There's the evacuation life jacket, a typical huge May West kapok filled jacket, which stays in the cabin, for emergency use. The day-to-day jacket is a large kapok filled vest type, and finally for kayaking we were issued inflatable emergency U-shaped over the neck jackets. I don't see why we couldn't avoid use of the bulky vest type, which we were wearing every time we got in the Zodiac, and instead simply all wear the inflatable type, whenever getting into a kayak, getting into a Zodiac, etc.. This would eliminate a large number of vests, and considerable confusion as to which one to wear. Essentially, whenever we would be doing something, we should be wearing our own inflatable vest, and each one of these should have our room number attached prominently to it, so if we went for a hike, we would put that vest down and pick the same one up again upon our return.
In terms of clothing, we did not pack sufficient waterproof gear, and my wife and I bought waterproof pants in Petersburg, Alaska, and it would be important to stress to visitors to Alaska that a pair of waterproof pants really is a must. The North Face pants which I bought were perfectly adequate for the job, and I was happy to use them after my original pair of pants proved insufficient and for that matter not warm enough.
The itinerary is, I assume, somewhat variable, based on wind, current, and season, but one obvious suggestion is to spend more time in the Inian Islands. That morning of sea life observation – humpback whales, sea lions, eagles, puffins, and sea otters – was the clear high point of the entire journey. An extra half day among the Inians, or a similar spot, would have been far more interesting than the afternoon at Ford’s Terror, or in Petersburg.
Conversely, the day spent at Glacier Bay was, frankly, somewhat of a disappointment. We had already seen glaciers, closer up than in Glacier Bay, and seen much of the same sea life – again closer up from the Zodiaks. While I understand that it will be hard to pitch the cruise without a day in Glacier Bay, for me it was actually far less interesting than most of the other days!
Again, we had a wonderful time. Indeed, I have every confidence that we will be joining National Geographic again, for a multiplicity of further explorations. As we left the ship in Sitka, I turned to my wife and mentioned how much I would have loved to turn around and do the same trip all over again!
Thank you for assisting with all of our arrangements. I hope these suggestions are of some utility.
—Daniel and Heidi