The last thing I expected to encounter was an American bald eagle drifting on a slab of ice just metres from my sea kayak. Factor in a curious seal pup staring wide-eyed from nearby, and the advantages of cruising southeast Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park on a small craft become obvious.
The Endeavour is packed to the gunwales with inflatable Zodiacs, sea kayaks and paddle boards. While Alaska is more often explored on cruise liners with up to 3000 passengers, our agile craft with just 80 passengers could negotiate concealed coves and hidden harbours; and Animal Planet moments like my eagle and seal pup combo are the norm, not the exception.
Our week-long journey, punctuated by active adventure, begins from the low-key Alaskan capital of Juneau. Departing along the narrow Gastineau Channel, the boat cruises past big liners queued like road trains at a border crossing. Elemental shape-shifting clouds drift apart to reveal spruce forests and, as indigo mountains surge upwards, our craft is rapidly subsumed by Alaskan wilderness.
Early the following afternoon the wilderness reveals the leviathan mass of Dawes Glacier. Huddled together in Zodiacs, we cruise towards the glacier's giant terminus comprised of overlapping shards of precipitous ice.
“There's no bad weather in Alaska – just bad gear,” warned expedition leader Matt Symanowicz at the first night briefing. A trifecta of beanie, gloves and multiple thermal layers keeps me cocooned from the chilled zephyrs drifting off the glacier's sprawling icefield. I found a volley of shots of peppermint schnapps with hot chocolate effective at warming from within.
Bobbing around 400 metres from the glacier's expansive face – the closest that boats are allowed to venture – elemental creaking sounds emanate from within the ice. Massive frozen towers crumble into the water and a few seconds later the telltale sound of the calving glacier echoes around the bay.
Between the Alaskan bookends of a slowly advancing river of centuries-old ice and making eye contact with pint-sized seal pups, life onboard soon assumes its own compelling routine. Gourmet breakfasts set us up well. At least two different activities are on offer each morning and afternoon. Dinner is preceded by a relaxed cocktail hour, and a convivial bar ensures guests are soon on first-name terms with the crew and each other.
Bonding with other passengers is also strongly advocated beyond the confines of the boat.
On cue, a brown bear is sighted swimming in the forested shadows of the bay.
“Stay together as a group and try and look big,” is the recommended action plan if we were to chance upon a bear. While exploring forests carpeted with iridescent spongy moss, a few animal tracks criss-cross our narrow walking path, but the verdant mayhem swallows them up within metres.
For an encounter with a moose – a more irrational and unpredictable creature apparently – the advice is more individual. “Just get behind the nearest tree.”
When we do eventually encounter these animals, it's around Red Bluff Bay on Baranof Island, a compact harbour only navigable by smaller boats. The Endeavour negotiates a narrow entrance to expose a cove framed by quicksilver waterfalls of melting spring snow.
“This is bear country,” says guide Paulino Perez as our Zodiac approaches a grassy meadow. On cue, a brown bear is sighted swimming in the forested shadows of the bay's calm waters before clambering slowly onto the bank, bobbing and rolling into long grass enlivened by recent rain.
On an adjacent bank a broad-racked moose is even less obviously concealed before it barges awkwardly and audibly like a four-legged wrecking ball into the dense forest. Cruising slowly back to the boat, Alaska's stellar reputation for wildlife is further reinforced as a floating raft of sea otters drifts languidly past and a dramatic aerial fight sees a gutsy seagull escaping into trees to evade harassment by a much larger eagle.
Marine wildlife also features regularly. When humpback whales commence the rare behaviour of bubble net feeding in Icy Strait, the decision is made to defer dinner. Ensconced in Zodiacs a few hundred metres from the pod, we're treated to several whales conspiring to entrap schools of tiny fish by producing a series of ever-decreasing circles of underwater bubbles. As a spectacular coda, another two giant humpbacks breach continuously near the feeding; as we journey back to the Safari Endeavour, foaming white splashes of water continue to flash on the near horizon.
The following morning, another meal is postponed when breakfast is ambushed by a pod of orcas surfing on the boat's bow wave. With the on-deck alternative of espresso and still-warm croissants, no one is complaining.
As we finally arrive in the northern reaches of Glacier Bay National Park there's one last opportunity for the Endeavour to shine. More than 500,000 travellers visit annually, but just 5000 visitors ever get to hike or kayak in the park. As the only big liner we've seen in six days departs south down Glacier Bay, I dip my kayak paddles into silky moraine-infused waters and steer for the dense turquoise bulk of Reid Glacier.
An audacious amphitheatre of ocean, mountains, ice and snow surrounds me, but I'm pretty sure the eagle floating coolly off my starboard bow has seen it all before...
Reported by Brett Atkinson for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue