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Journey of the Sea Lion, Part One: Majesty of the Pacific Northwest

Recently, we were invited to share our stories and the details of our work with travelers making the journey up the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia aboard the Lindblad/National Geographic expedition vessel, the Sea Lion.

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Aboard National Geographic’s Sea Lion. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

We had never traveled the entire Inside Passage and although this would be unlike our Healing Journeys (no canoes!) we embraced the idea of sharing with a larger group the exploration of this pristine region of the world via “the floating tripod”, as Mary called it.

Among the places we would visit on our way up the Inside Passage were Glacier Bay National Park, Petersburg, Juneau and Sitka, Alaska, and British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii—a UNESCO World Heritage Site (formerly known as Graham Island of the Queen Charlotte Islands). Massive glaciers, fjords, abundant marine and wildlife awaited. So, joining around 45 kindred spirits in adventure and a common appreciation of nature, we boarded the 150′ Sea Lion, and left a wet and gloomy Seattle behind us.

The Sea Lion approaches Pier 69 in Seattle under heavy skies. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
The Sea Lion approaches Pier 69 in Seattle under heavy skies. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Heading north, we stopped briefly in the Canadian community of Nanaimo to clear customs. A dark sky hung low over us and a dreary forecast indicated our trip would be veiled in misty shades of gray—and would produce fabulously contrasting photographs of light and dark. So we accepted this forecast, and then, surrounded by mind-blowing scenery and a non-stop parade of humpbacks, orcas, porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, black and brown bears, bald and golden eagles, horned and tufted puffins and a myriad of other sea life, we succumbed. Over the many days and nights to follow we would find ourselves in a permanent state of awe on this mystical, magical waterway which hugs the most northwest coast of North America.

It was rare the moment that a breathtaking photo op wasn’t beckoning from somewhere just beyond the rails of the deck and a group of capable photographers were on hand to capture it. Around the boat in every direction the images were mesmerizing, and while glaciers calved, whales breached, bears foraged and eagles soared, we heard the word “wow” whispered often and shouted even more frequently. With an accommodating captain honoring our regular requests to stop or “pull over”, by journey’s end tens of thousands of photos had made their way into those discriminating “save” files to be shared time and again.

Here are our "image recording devices" as Lee, our expedition leader, so aptly referred to the plethora of cameras we stored in piles beside the bulkhead hatches. (Photo by Sharon Grainger)
Here are our “image recording devices” as Lee, our expedition leader, so aptly referred to the plethora of cameras we stored in piles beside the bulkhead hatches. (Photo by Sharon Grainger)
One of many active humpbacks who commanded our attention. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
One of many active humpbacks who commanded our attention. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

A wealth of enthusiastic knowledge accompanied us on board the Sea Lion. They are Sharon (Certified Photography Instructor), David and Elise (Naturalists), Amy (Wellness Specialist), Patrick (Video Chronicler), Paul (Underwater Specialist), Andy (Whale Biologist), and Lee (Expedition Leader). Each plays roles of hosts and guides, and they are a remarkably talented team of fun and engaging professionals who call the Sea Lion their second home. Every day was an adventure… an epic field trip, reminiscent of our time as kids in school but on a grand and grown-up scale, thanks to the knowledge and energy possessed by these folks. Not only was the Sea Lion a photographer’s dream, really a floating tripod, it’s also a floating classroom.

A bald eagle attempts to hold its perch as a larger one moves in to take it. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
A bald eagle attempts to hold its perch as a larger one moves in to take it. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Amid the flurry of activity onboard each day, Paul would go below the water’s surface to film the action occurring beneath the Sea Lion while travelers were off in kayaks or on varied shore excursions. After dinner he would share his day’s catch. His fantastic films featured opalescent nudibranchs, giant pacific octopi, sea cucumbers, a variety of sculpin, eels and jellyfish, vividly colored sea stars (some up to 5′ in diameter!) and many other forms of marine life which inhabit these cold waters just off the shore of Alaska and BC. Getting a detailed look at Paul’s surprisingly vibrant world just below us was exciting and became a highly anticipated part of our routine.

A sampling of sea stars—we encountered these colorful guys regularly on the shorelines of the Inside Passage. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
A sampling of sea stars—we encountered these colorful guys regularly on the shorelines of the Inside Passage. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Nightly we were captivated by fantastic presentations the team designed to enlighten and inspire us, providing details of places we would be visiting next or a place we’d just departed. Daily they transported us to pristine moss-covered rain forests, in sea kayaks to get up close and personal with seals, sea lions, otters and seabirds, and into the enchanting world of the ancient Haida village sites. On a more ethereal level, the team removed us from the routine worlds to which we are so accustomed and transported us to the places of our dreams.

Ryder and Chris offload kayaks for travelers to make closer inspections of this beautiful cove. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Ryder and Chris offload kayaks for travelers to make closer inspections of this beautiful cove. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

During one excursion we encountered something less dreamy than nightmarish—a large piece of debris floating in the main channel. When we delivered it back to the Sea Lion via our small Zodiac-type boat, Captain Shawn Nettles eyed us and our uninvited guest suspiciously, but he had his crew make room for it aboard, nonetheless. On that same outing, Mary spotted something else obviously out of place floating on the water’s surface… a couple of helium party balloons, which began to play Celebrate as our excursion captain, Elise, brought them aboard. Then we danced!

We transformed the Sea Lion into a true environmental "steward-ship" when a very helpful fellow traveler and I landed this unwieldy catch. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
We transformed the Sea Lion into a true environmental “steward-ship” when a very helpful fellow traveler and I landed this unwieldy catch. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Anyone missing their musically-charged party balloons? (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Anyone missing their musically charged party balloons? (Photo by Mary Marshall) 
Despite appearances, a floatplane in pieces on a dock is not such an unusual sight in the Pacific Northwest, as visitors note while visiting Alert Bay, BC. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Despite appearances, a floatplane in pieces on a dock is not such an unusual sight in the Pacific Northwest, as visitors note while visiting Alert Bay, BC. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Check out our SPOT link, which will tell you exactly where we are and have been:

Continue to Part Two of “Journey of the Sea Lion”

Read More by Jon Waterhouse