FREDERICK SOUND, Alaska -- "There's a whale right here, next to us!" whispered 15-year-old Will, leaning over the railing and frantically trying to focus his camera on the shiny black hump off the port bow. "And there's another one, right there!" he said, pointing at the second giant head that rose up and tipped sideways, fixing a round, black eye on the ship.
Humpback whales, too many to count, circled the Sea Bird as the 62-passenger vessel, a Lindblad Expedition cruise ship, idled in Alaska's Frederick Sound. Like kids at the circus, afraid of missing something, Will and his cousin Dagney -- my nephew and niece -- dashed back and forth across the deck, counting the whales: two close to Will, another four off the starboard bow and more in the distance. Gently rippling the water's glassy surface, the behemoths rose, blew long frothy breaths and with a final flip of enormous white-flecked flukes, dove out of sight.
Warmed by long, sunny days, the Inland Passage's krill population explodes in summer, attracting hundreds of humpbacks, and in some places, nearly as many cruise ships. As long as the food lasts, the migrating whales -- who haven't eaten in five months -- patrol the Sound, following the food, surfacing, diving, hunting and eating nonstop, putting on pounds for the return swim back to Hawaii.
"You don't have to whisper," said Jonathan, the ship's onboard naturalist, out on deck to take photos of his own. "The whales can't really hear us talk," he told us. "They can hear banging and engine noises. High-pitched whines too. If there were five or six ships here they might swim away. But we're the only ship with the time to stay and watch."
Being alone is what wildlife watching is all about, especially in the hidden inlets of the Inside Passage, the inter-island coastal route between Vancouver and the Gulf of Alaska. Come July, however, if you chartered a float plane for an aerial tour of the main channel, you could count on spotting 10 mega ships on the move and another 15 docked at ports from Ketchikan and Sitka to Juneau and Skagway.
And on shore? Thousands of disappointed travelers standing in line when they'd expected to see eagles, orcas and sea otters. Precious vacation time spent waiting for tour buses and queuing up to pay for souvenirs. Towering 3,000-passenger ships so big calling at ports so small that the sidewalks feel like Times Square. Floating hotels so huge that Alaska is little more than scenery for onboard cooking demonstrations, yoga classes, floorshows and wellness seminars.
That's not my idea of wild country. I want to see the glaciers from a deck near the water, close enough to hear a fish jump. To kayak along the shoreline, looking for brown bears scratching up gravel in search of a meal. To snap photos of Bird Island, where sea lions haul out on the rocks. For me, being in the scene is what Alaska cruising is all about.
Cruise West's fleet used to sail these routes. But the company is gone now, folded in September 2010. Fortunately, five of its expedition-style ships still sail in the "silver triangle," the waterways roughly between Skagway in the north, Sitka in the west and Ketchikan in the south. A network of channels, bays and inlets protected by adjacent islands, the region teems with life.
Three of those ships now belong to Inner Sea Discoveries and its deluxe division, American Safari Cruises -- rebranded "Un-Cruise Adventures" in January. The new name reflects what the company has been doing all along, says Un-Cruise spokeswoman Sarah Scoltock. "We focus more on adventure and less on the on-ship experience," she told me. "You can pick a ship and route that best fits your kind of adventure: luxury, active or heritage."
Un-Cruise's seven-ship Alaska fleet has been redesigned to carry fewer passengers, more crew and a lot more outdoor gear: kayaks, inflatable rafts, snorkel and scuba gear. The company's so-called "luxury yachts" offer extras like yoga classes and spa treatments. The "active" ships are designed for travelers who'd rather join than watch, sportsmen on the go.
"We've gotten very good at breaking up large groups into units of eight or 10, each with a guide, so that when you're out in a Zodiac or walking along the beach, you feel like one of a very few," said Scoltock. "Even with 80 passengers on board -- and that's not a lot -- each person has a truly personal experience."