An Inside Look At Un-Cruise Adventures' Safari Endeavour

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Near Admiralty Island, passengers gaze upon a pod of whales.

Ocean Safari

A small-ship Alaskan adventure cruise allows you to experience the real beauty of nature.

The author, Michael Shapiro, ventures out in a kayak.
The whale-watching in Alaska is serene and splendid.

By Michael Shapiro
Orginally appeared in April 2015 issue of Virtuoso Traveler

Our day at sea begins with yoga on the top deck. As about a dozen of us early risers arch into downward dog, we hear the tail slap of a humpback whale on the ship’s starboard side, then a resounding splash on its port. Our instructor understands as we all make a beeline for the rail, where we find not one, but a pod of colossal humpbacks surfacing, the sheen of their slick black fins catching the morning sunshine.

I’m on day five of a seven-night cruise in southeast Alaska aboard a small ship called the Safari Endeavour, which takes no more than 84 guests on each voyage. It’s no coincidence that this alternative to typical Inside Passage cruises is offered by a company named Un-Cruise Adventures.

In Juneau, where our midsummer trip began, the Endeavour looked almost like a toy next to much larger cruise liners that hold 3,000 or more passengers. Because the ship is relatively small, it can travel up inlets toward glaciers that big ships can’t reach.

Keeping with the theme of up-close and personal, the Endeavour comes equipped with a fleet of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards so its guests can venture out among whales, porpoises, and otters, all under the eagle-eyed supervision of the ship’s cautiously adventurous guides. And the food served on board is fresh, local, and sustainable – the ship’s bar even has five taps from Alaskan Brewing Company, as well as fine wines, single-malt scotches, and other premium spirits. Though drinks are included in the fare, it’s not a party-all-night boat – outdoorsy guests seek out the Endeavour for only-in-Alaska adventure.

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Later on day five, the Endeavour traverses Frederick Sound, an abundant summer feeding ground for whales. “There’s a humpback right next to the boat!” a passenger on the view deck exclaims.

The snuffling sound of the whale’s spout electrifies the 20 or so passengers on deck, then the 80,000-pound animal makes an elephant-like trumpeting sound. A tail slap sends up a saline spray that drifts over the boat, and the leviathan turns its head to give us a single-eyed look before slipping back down into the sea. In the distance several whales breach, including two simultaneously, a soul-elevating sight.

Jenna Stevens, the Endeavour’s captain, has held the ship so we could all witness this spectacle of whales frolicking in the sound, evidence that the Un-Cruise crew, from the top down, get it. They allow the itinerary to be flexible – a key advantage of small-ship cruising.

Why rush to the next destination when we’re sharing a once-in-a-life-time experience?

What’s more, any passenger who wants to learn what it takes to navigate the 232-foot-long, 37-foot-wide Endeavour through southeast Alaska’s narrow fjords and coves can drop in and chat with Captain Stevens. Like other small-ship adventure-cruise companies such as Australis and Zegrahm Expeditions, Un-Cruise has an open-bridge policy, and guests are welcome up top almost anytime.

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On our sixth day, we see huge, shiny, black-and-white forms leaping out of the water. The lightning-fast orca whales are soon out of sight. A dozen of us jump into a skiff with boatswain Joe Bruzda, who locates the pod behind an island. We watch in wonder as these fearsome predators roll about and slap their fins. 

“Alaska is teeming with life,” Joe says. “By mid-May you can tell Alaska is waking: The snow is melting, the bears wake up. By June the herring and Steller sea lions show up, the dolphins and porpoises come in, the orcas become more active, and then the humpback whales arrive. It’s a very exciting place to be because it’s in its natural state. … It’s like a symphony of life.”

Kelly Wannop, a guest from Canberra, Australia, remarks that the crew and fellow passengers are a big part of what makes the trip special. “The crew are amazingly knowledgeable, always helpful, and endlessly patient.”

When I ask about her highlights thus far, Wannop adds: “Waking up and opening the cabin curtains each morning to new and spectacular scenery, almost unbelievable in its pristine beauty, and ending the day with great food and more breathtaking scenery!”

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From the start, one adventure has built upon the next. The voyage commenced with a visit to Glacier Bay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Close to half a million people visit Glacier Bay each year (most aboard large cruise ships), but only about 15,000 of them come ashore to visit the land portion of the preserve. We were among that small percentile and took skiffs to the park, hiking past glacial lakes and seeing a display of a 45-foot-long humpback whale skeleton.

Back on the ship, we watched snow-colored mountain goats clambering high on the steep rocks that protect them from predators. In the distance, Margerie Glacier – a mile wide and 250 feet high, and one of the few Alaska glaciers that’s growing – swooped down from jagged, snowcapped mountains.

Alaska’s native Tlingit people say that “glaciers come forth with the speed of a running dog,” which sounds fanciful until you’ve seen huge chunks of ice crashing into the sea, pushed forward by the unstoppable momentum of these frozen rivers.

One day, we boarded skiffs and motored up the Endicott Arm fjord, to within a quarter mile of Dawes Glacier, and watched slack-jawed as a chunk of ice the size of a ten-story apartment building cracked loose and splashed down, launching a whooshing wind that blew by us a few seconds later. Our guide poured cups of hot chocolate fortified with peppermint schnapps, and we raised a toast to the wilderness. That night, back on the Endeavour, we sipped cocktails poured over the glacial ice we’d pulled out of the fjord’s waters.

Reflecting on my experience, I’m amazed at how many adventures we’ve packed into such a short time: kayaking close enough to smell the fishy exhalations of whales, stand-up paddleboarding past spruce forests as bald eagles watched from the trees, seeing lion’s mane jellyfish as big as basketballs silently floating underwater, catching sight of a lone grizzly padding along a beach.

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On our penultimate day, the crew invites us to take a late-afternoon “polar plunge” off the stern into the 40-degree waters. Jackie Hedgpeth, a marine biologist who enlivened the week with vivid descriptions of the creatures we saw, takes the hands of a pair of guests and leads the charge.   

Never one to back down from a challenge, I run full-steam into the icy water. It’s shockingly cold, but my arms recover quickly and I paddle toward a ladder. Back on ship, my legs carry me straight to a hot tub on the top deck. A bartender arrives moments later (though I didn’t order anything) with a pint of Alaskan Amber and a shot of tequila. Heaven!

Just before sunset, we spy the big dorsal fin of a dominant orca male swimming among his pod on the Endeavour’s starboard side. To port, humpbacks fin-slap and breach as vibrant rainbows arc over the azure waters. There’s so much to see, we don’t know where to look. The moment is beyond perfect. It’s real.

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80+ Cruises And Counting
Ray Pasquin has been on over 80 cruises (the majority of them as a Virtuoso traveler). Want some tips? Here you go.

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