“Bubble feed, portside! All eyes on bubbles!” Alex Carroll, our naturalist guide shouted, sending everyone on our small expedition boat rushing to the rails as five humpback whales emerged on the water’s surface, each spouting fountains, swimming nose to tail in a giant circle.
Each about 45 to 50 feet long, they moved as if synchronized, flipping tails high as they dove down, leaving a ring of bubbles in their wake. “You’re seeing a rare sight of gams – or groups of humpbacks – feeding together,” Carroll said. “They’re typically solitary mammals, but they’ve communicated to rally to create a bubble net to corral the bloom of small fish and krill, and push them to the surface so they can feed.”
Minutes later, the whales breached the surface, jostling in a feeding frenzy, their mouths gaping as they inhaled their catch. So close, we could see their jaws and baleen plates that filter the food. “These whales have communicated, creating sounds by controlling the airflow through their pharynx,” Carroll said.
Explaining that she is an acoustic technician, she dropped a microphone into the water so we could hear their oscillating tones. “Wow! Tones usually evolve in a slow progression, but we just heard five harmonics!” Carroll exclaimed, raising the microphone. Amazed, we watched as the whales repeated their act four times, the last diving so close and under our boat, we felt their spray. “This is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen,” Carroll said when they disappeared and then surfaced in the distance.
Ten minutes later, while sailing through the Saginaw Channel near Point Retreat Lighthouse, she shrieked: “Orcas, starboard!” Counting fins slicing the sea, and black-and-white bodies arching into the air, we figured on 18 or 20.
“Orcas or killer whales are pod oriented and stay with their mothers. They usually hang near the coastline, so it’s rare to see them here.” Carroll dropped her microphone again, dazzling us with the orcas’ sonar songs.
Having previously sailed all of Silversea’s vessels, and cruised Alaska’s Inside Passage on large ships, we’d chosen this cruise for two reasons: the indulgence to interlace luxury and nature, and because the 382-passenger, 28,000-ton ship’s small size would allow navigation deep into narrow channels to sites that prohibit larger vessels.
Silversea delivered every promise of luxury in an all-inclusive package and beyond every expectation for unique nature experiences, proving to me (a fourth-time cruiser to these waters) that I can return several times, each for different sensations.
With many excursions available for this itinerary, Silversea’s travel journal – offering everything from guided culture tours, sea-kayaking, sport-fishing from fly-in lodges, scuba-diving, dog-sledding to rainforest hikes – was delivered early, a boon for advance planning.
From Ketchikan – our first port of call – two half-day tours of Misty Fiords provided a true sense of Alaska’s wilderness as a haven for wildlife. On a flight-seeing tour, we came eye-to-eye with an American bald eagle. We could see the yellow ring of its eyes and its piercing gaze, its slick white head and sharp beak, the oily feathers and thick claws clenched towards its abdomen. Separated only by a glass bubble, we watched mesmerized as this noblest bird of prey joined us in a surreal, mid-air dance. Undaunted by our whirring helicopter, it elevated its wings and swooped toward the trees.
On the afternoon boat tour, as we navigated between tiny green islands and veered into a narrow fiord, our guide spotted wild birds, hawks diving for prey, eagles nesting in trees. We slowed to a drift near rocks clustered with dozens of seals. Some lazed like shiny lumps; some grunted, slapping their tails; playful babies splashed in the water. When the channel opened to the serene pocket of Rudyard Bay surrounded by mammoth rock mountains, we were awestruck by the silence, interrupted only by the sounds of birds and splashing fish.
In Juneau, we geared for an all-day jaunt combining Mendenhall Glacier and whale watching. As we’d previously taken heli-flights to walk the slippery glacier crest, we hiked the wilderness to the glacier’s foot.
Every day, every port brought new adventures. From Skagway, the White Pass & Yukon Steam Train took us above the tree line to the tundra. Golfing in Prince Rupert added a notch to our “courses played.” The day spent cruising Tracy Arm was – in a word – spectacular: basking in sunshine, we revelled in unfolding scenery as the Silver Shadow’s captain navigated through the narrow channel between sheer walls of the fiord, past ice floes to the turquoise face of Sawyer Glacier.
Our last port of call, Victoria, B.C., was lush with flowers, romantic as ever. With so many options – from kayaking to extreme sport-fishing – we leisurely strolled through Butchart Gardens, enjoyed English High Tea at the Fairmont Empress, then returned to indulge in massages at the 8,300-sq.-ft. spa before a final, epicurean celebration in Silversea’s Relais & Chateaux restaurant, Le Champagne. Divine. Disembarking in Vancouver, we wished to return again.