JUNEAU, Alaska — Capt. Dan Blanchard lowered his voice over the intercom: "Humpbacks spouting to starboard--3 o'clock."
Engines idled and a hush fell over the decks as the Sheltered Seas' 80 passengers focused cameras and binoculars for the whale show.
The yacht coasted quietly toward the gentle giants, so close that we heard a deep hollow roar as a mother humpback breached, rolling her 60-ton body in a graceful backflip. She waved a tall pectoral fin and, resurfacing a mere 30 feet off the bow, slapped her flukes in slow motion for everyone's dream photo.
The calf tried to follow her lead as passengers from stem to stern watched spellbound.
Those who choose to pass up the discos, aerobics, glitzy floor shows and elaborate menus of the mega-cruise ships can experience the grandeur of southeastern Alaska, staying in three distinctly different hotels by night, cruising into twisting narrow inlets and breathtaking fiords by day--a land/sea "Sheltered Seas" adventure vacation.
Inside Passage Yacht Tours' basic five-day package includes optional shore excursions by float plane and helicopter, and by trawler for salmon, crab and shrimp fishing.
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The five-day Sheltered Seas itinerary starts at either end of the Passage, north from Ketchikan or south from Juneau.
From Ketchikan, the sightseeing begins with a coach tour of a dense boggy rain forest, and includes a ceremonial Indian lodge framed by towering totem poles. The park is fragrant with conifers, home to an extravagance of wildflowers, birds and streams bubbling down to the sea.
The first night is spent just north of town at the brand-new Salmon Falls Resort. This low, rambling hotel complex of giant pine log buildings, bridged together by verandas, has a glass-enclosed dining room for viewing spectacular sunsets across the bay.
Breakfast in the dining salon aboard the yacht was followed by the first sighting of bald eagles. Two eaglets stood like a pair of statues on their treetop nest's edge, waiting for the mother to return from her early morning hunt.
Between hushed glides to sight snow-white mountain goats, silver-tipped brown bears, plus whales, dolphin and eagles, the 90-foot Sheltered Seas cruised at 18 knots to get us to the mouth of LeConte Fiord while the sun was high.
The captain pushed closer and closer to the glacier until the boat was solidly enclosed in fractured ice, a vast gallery of baby icebergs.
Stephanie Laurie, one of the crew of six (each of whom can fill the role of naturalist, boat handler, cook or bartender), explained that LeConte was southern Alaska's most active glacier. The engines were shut down so we could hear the resounding boom of the calving glacier and watch great chunks of ice crash into the sea.
Some of these new icebergs resembled mounded free-forms of aquamarine quartz, while others looked like snow-frosted formations of crystal and polished blue sapphires. Many serve as private islands for sunning harbor seals.
Slim, satiny black mother seals find this a safe maternity ward, a haven from killer whales who do not fancy freshwater glacial melt--too rich in minerals, silt and rock flour to suit them.
As we steamed away from LeConte, sparkling floaters, bumped by the yacht's heavily reinforced hull, were swept back into the foaming wake, where they resembled iridescent surfing sculptures.
Scarlet-beaked arctic terns, gulls, loons and black and white guillemots swim among the bergs and nest on cracks and ledges of cliffs rising sheer out of the sea.
There were more wonders the next day during the 25-mile zigzag up the granite-cliffed fiord of Tracy Arm to the twin Sawyer glaciers. The captain nudged the boat's clipper bow against a smooth rock face so Stephanie could lean out over the rail and fill pitchers with ice water from the falls.
First mate Travis Stephens summoned all to the bow on the upper and lower decks to raise a champagne toast to the glacier. The cook hauled up blocks of ice from the sea to use in the galley ice chest.
Petersburg, our base for two days of cruising along the Passage, is home to the nation's sixth-largest fishing fleet. We stayed at the Tides Inn, where proprietor Gloria Ohmer told us 1989 was such a dry year, with the rivers so low, that at the height of spawning season, thousands of king salmon were netted, poured into tanks and lifted by helicopter to the top of the rapids.
Large vessels cannot navigate through the Narrows, so this town of 3,000 has remained as its Norwegian settlers built it--a frontier community of colorful clapboard houses, native craft shops, good seafood restaurants, authentic smorgasbord buffets and simply sinful Norwegian pastry.
Petersburg, like the few widely separated port towns of the Inside Passage, is crowded up against the sea by snow-peaked mountains and connected to the outside world only by air and sea.