Back in Alaska

I wish I had the dedication and enthusiasm to write a post on my blog everyday, but it seems that I lack the discipline and motivation.  Even if I’m on the road or amidst an adventure I find it hard to keep up with regular entries. So I’ll resort to a post every so often or when something absolutely spectacular occurs.

An update on where I am: I’ve been back in Alaska on the Sea Bird for two weeks now, after having two long months off in Vermont where I did a lot of yoga (Wanderlust Festival and a David Williams/Shelley Washington workshop), waited on tables at the Village Cup, and played with our cute new kitty, Butters.

I have one more week on the ship, then I’m heading to Jackson Hole Wyoming to visit my brother for a few days. I can’t wait! I’ve never been to Wyoming, so I’m looking forward to exploring the Tetons and maybe doing some white water rafting and/or horseback riding.

These past two trips on the Sea Bird have been great. We’ve had beautiful weather and cooperative wildlife. The brown bears have been hanging out at the mouths of the salmon streams, catching fish and putting on a good show for onlookers. At Pavlov Harbor last week we saw two young bears attempt to catch dinner at the waterfall as we watched from shore (at a safe distance) and in kayaks. The humpback whales have also been really active with their feeding. They’re trying to eat as much fish as possible before they make the 5,000 mile journey to Hawaii and warmer waters where they’ll give birth to their young. During the six months that they’re away from the productive waters of Alaska they won’t eat and only until they return Alaska will they break their fast.

We’ve had a lot of families on board since it’s still summer vacation for the kids, so I haven’t been super busy with massages, but I’ve been leading some good aerobic walks and helping out with the kayaks. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll be able to get on a trip to Europe in September which starts in Copenhagen and goes all the way down to Portugal. I’m crossing both fingers that there will be a cabin for me!

That’s it for now. I’ll try to be better about blogging during the week, especially if we see something really cool.

Which reminds me. There was a huge calving in one of the fiords we go to – Tracy Arm – and a day boat, the Captain Cook, was banged up pretty bad.  A woman fell when the wave hit and broke her leg, but luckily there were no other injuries. See the video here

Back At Sea

I can’t believe it’s March 10th already. It seems like we were in January only a few days ago! That’s what happens, though, when you live on a ship. You lose all concept of time. I do know, however, that in almost three weeks I’ll be going home! The first time since October.

But for now I’m content to sail back and forth between Costa Rica and Panama, stopping at beaches and islands along the way. Earlier this trip we had a humpback whale very close to the ship. Everyone was really excited because we don’t see too many whales down, let alone ones that come up right next to us. That same day one of our naturalists lost count of the number os sea turtles he saw after 100. We’ve also had a few visits from dolphins, either bow-riding or playing in our wake.

I have been very busy this week, too. 22 people wanting a massage (many of them half hour massages thankfully) and only two more days to fit the rest of them in. We’ll be in the Canal, though, so much of our time will be spent on board and I won’t have to worry about scheduling people in between activities. This job isn’t as easy as it sounds (sometimes)!

That’s it for now, time to lead my stretch class!

One week down, One week to go

I’m sitting in a little coffee shop in Sitka, waiting for my latte. It’s grey outside and there’s a light drizzle coming down. We just finished a trip from Juneau to Sitka and it was one of the best wildlife trips I’ve been on in Alaska. We started with the orca hunting a baby porpoise (which you can now see a video of here), then while we were at Fox Creek, I discovered (while taking a “nature break” in the woods) an entire brown bear skeleton that hadn’t been scavenged at all. You could see its skull and teeth, all its vertebrate, matted fur scattered around, and each individual bone in its paw. Another gruesome, but impressive sight. It was impossible to tell how the bear died, but the naturalists guessed that it had been wounded in some way, perhaps by a bullet, and had escaped its tormentor, but was too injured to survive. Brown bear hunting in Alaska is an extremely controversial affair because nobody eats brown bear meat. Thus all brown bears that are hunted are simply shot for trophy souvenirs. So why isn’t brown bear meat eaten while black bear meat is? There is a rumor that it doesn’t taste good, but no one is willing to try it, so all the animals that are shot are left to die and decompose for no other reason than procuring a bear skin pelt.

Moving on… At the Inian Islands, which are always a good place to see spectacular wildlife, we were rewarded by a pod of humpbacks feeding on fish in the swirling Pacific waters. I was onboard watching them, but there were four Zodiacs full of guests who got to see the humpbacks up close – probably no farther than 20 or 30 feet. If that wasn’t enough, one humpback decided to breach several times for the enjoyment of those in the Zodiacs as well as onboard the Sea Lion.

The salmon are still in their staging phase – not quite ready to begin their journey upstream, but congregating in the bays and streams. In Pavlof Harbor we watched as hundreds of the fish jumped repeatedly out of the water for no apparent reason other than to show themselves off to the kayakers. At the waterfall, the hikers were rewarded with a brown bear ambling across the water with a large salmon between his teeth. The bears need to put on a lot of weight to sustain themselves over the long winter, so when the fish begin to amass in the rivers, they become salmon-eating machines.

Orca, porpoises (including the few that joined us at the bow for some bow-surfing), bears, salmon… what else could nature throw at us this week? It was a grey, dreary day in Glacier Bay and we spent the entire morning and early afternoon searching the shores and waters for wildlife to no avail. Most people had retreated inside when we pulled up to humpback whale carcass that has been slowly decomposing for several months. The guests who did remain outside on the bow, however, were rewarded with a brief glimpse of two adult wolves and their five pups! Unfortunately I was in the middle of giving a massage, so I missed them, but it’s still incredible to know that they’re out there!

As you can see, it was a great week for us on the Sea Lion. I have one more week to go and I hope it’s just as exciting!

Swimming? In Alaska?!

Yep. I did. And it wasn’t by accident either! We had a beautiful day at Fox Creek last week – blue sky and warm. After sitting out in the sun for several hours in a black Zodiac with the third mate, watching the kayakers (and rescuing one after he tipped his kayak), I was ready for the polar bear plunge. We had nine kids onboard, and they all wanted to go swimming. So Jen, our expedition leader, loaded them (and me) into a Zodiac and motored us 20 feet away from the ship. One by one we all plunged into the 42 degree water and after surfacing, swam as fast as we could back to the ship and climbed up the fantail ladder. Because the air was warmer than the water, I wasn’t at all cold after getting out of the water. The water, on the other hand, was quite chilly. I didn’t have anyone take my picture the first time, so of course I had to jump in again.

We also had some great wildlife last week too. We saw our first bubble net feeding humpbacks just outside of Glacier Bay National Park. Bubble net feeding is a type of cooperative feeding where the whales organize themselves into different positions. There is a bubble blower who blows a ring of bubbles around a school of fish 20 feet or so below the surface. Then there’s a caller who makes a loud whining noise and comes up in the middle of the bubble net to scare the fish to the surface. The remaining whales come up after the caller with their mouths wide open to catch the fleeing fish and they all surface looking like giant clams. I didn’t get any pictures of the bubble net feeding this week, but here are some from a few years ago.

We also saw a pair of male and female brown bears really close. They were browsing along the shore and we nosed the ship up close without scaring them. Later we dropped a Zodiac and got even closer, maybe 30 feet. Close enough to see the individual blades of grass hanging from their mouths. I could have watched them all day!

Finally, we saw some orcas too! We had just entered Glacier Bay National Park and someone spotted the characteristic dorsal fin of the animals. There were perhaps seven  all together, and they were having fun rolling over, showing their flippers, occasionally spy-hopping (sticking their heads out of the water), and we even saw one of them fully breach just a few hundred yards from the ship. That was their first time I’ve seen an orca breach! So cool.

To finish off the week, we sailed into Sitka early last night to watch 4th of July fireworks. They got cancelled last week in Juneau due to rain (no surprise), so they lit them off a week late. I was exhausted after a week full of hiking, swimming, yoga, wildlife viewing, and 15 massages, so I only watch for 15 minutes. It was still fun though. I can’t remember the last time I saw fireworks…

So now I have one more week to go. There will be 18 kids on board, so I’m hoping (sheepishly) that I won’t have too many massages! I’m ready for my two-week break!

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to see bubble netters and orcas, and I did. So this week I’m hoping to see orcas on the hunt!

Update from the field

We’ve been having typical southeast Alaska weather for the past few days. Misting rain, cold winds, cloudy skies. It might sound miserable, but the beauty of the low-lying pall as it blankets the steep cliffs and eerily shrouds the Sitka spruce and western hemlocks, makes up for the wind and rain. We’ve also had pretty good whales. The other day (of course while I was in the middle of giving massages), there were humpbacks right off our port side, not swimming or feeding, but logging, which means they were just hanging out on the surface. They were probably no more than 15 feet from the side of the ship. I did get to see them in between massages, but I didn’t have my camera, so no pictures. Apparently they were breaching too, but I didn’t get to see that either. Last night we had more whales near the ship, but they were just doing the usual – diving down, coming up for blows, and showing their flukes.

Today, Glacier Bay day, is the first time we’ve seen a bear this week. It was a pretty good look, he was walking along the shore, weaving in and out of bushes. Not close enough for me to run and get my camera, though. Not much else to report – we’ve seen lots of sea lions, harbor seals, porpoises, birds, etc… I’m hoping to see some orcas, bubble net feeding humpbacks, and salmon-eating bears soon! Only three more weeks to go before I head home (for two weeks… then I’m back on the Lion for two weeks). Ship life is going to get shaken up a bit, though. On Saturday this rotation leaves and a new one will get on. That means we’ll have a new galley, a new bartender (brand new, actually), bos’un, senior deckhand, senior steward, purser, hotel manager, third mate (also brand new), and second mate. The expedition leader will be leaving too, but one of my favorite EL’s will be coming on to replace him. Then next Saturday ALL of the staff, who I have worked with for the past 3-5 weeks, will be replaced with new staff, leaving only me and Jen, the EL. It’s going to be so sad!

Wellness Specialist in Training

So I’ve been back on board for a few days now, and I’m starting to fall into the rhythm of the wellness specialists daily schedule, which is a 180* change from being a steward. I get up around 6:15, have my tea in the lounge, then head up to the bridge deck with Susan (my wellness specialist mentor) to lead a stretch class at 7. I haven’t led any yet, just watched and participated so I can learn and see what kind of stretches and exercises work. Next week I’ll be on my own, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to lead stretch classes then! We’ve had a pretty good turn out and the guests all seem to enjoy it, even though I’m sure many of them haven’t stretched their hamstrings in the past decade.

After the stretch class, we hand out the smoothie brought up by a steward (usually vegan for me!), then head down to breakfast and a quick staff meeting to decide what everyone will being doing that day. Susan and I usually lead a faster paced, or aerobic, hike for those who aren’t as interested in learning about the natural environment and history (which is what the naturalists discuss on their walks). I also help out with kayaking – getting guests in and out of the kayaks (which can be quite challenging), making sure the kayaks don’t float away, and racking them back up at the end of the day. A couple of days ago I went out with a guest in a double and we paddled along the coastline and saw a natural arch with snowcapped mountains shining through the opening.

When there is no kayaking or hiking and no one has signed up for a massage, I’m pretty much free to do what I want. We were at the Inian Islands a few days ago and I went for a zodiac cruise where we saw a lot of Stellar sea lions and a humpback whale that surfaced a few hundred yards away from our zodiac. Later, when everyone was back on board, we spotted a pod of orca among the humpback blows and even a Minke whale, which are rare in South East Alaska.

Yesterday we were in Glacier Bay National Park where we’re not allowed to get off the ship, so everyone gathered on the bow to look at the mountains and glaciers. We’ve had relatively good weather so far, so being outside for a long time is manageable with frequent trips to the lounge to refill coffee/tea mugs. En route to Marjorie Glacier we saw a mama bear with her two cubs, a couple of mountain goats and as we were leaving, there was a dead whale carcass on the shore with a grizzly bear on top, feeding on the meat. It was gruesome, but pretty incredible at the same time. Later in the afternoon while Susan was giving massages (I’ll start next week), I set up the massage chair in the lounge and gave free 10 minute massage to guests and a few crew. They all loved it!

This morning I gave Susan a facial and back massage in return for the one she gave me yesterday. I’m getting familiar with the spa – where everything is and how everything is set up. There’s a towel warmer, a number of different oils, lotions, masks, scrubs, etc… that I can use for each treatment. I think it’ll take me a week or so to get everything memorized, but I can already tell that I’m going to love it!

We also had a presentation by a National Geographic scientist later in the morning about her work with the Critter Cam. Her team attaches the camera onto the backs of different animals such as whales, sharks, penguins, seals, and sea lions to study their behaviors and movements. She showed a video of the footage they’ve captured and it’s amazing! There’s one segment of a critter cam on a baby humpback and he’s on the bottom of the ocean looking up at the rest of his pod bubble net feeding at the surface. That’s never been documented before, so it was incredible to see, especially since we see the bubble net feeders from the surface on the ship, but never what is going on down below. You can check out some of the videos here.

Later today I’ll be going for another hike at Pavlov Harbor and hopefully we’ll see some more bears!