Our Alaskan Cruise

August 30 - September 6, 2013

Rhapsody of the Seas

Rhapsody of the Seas is part of Royal Caribbean's fleet. It has 11 passenger decks, and a variety of restaurants, amenities and activities. On this trip, it carried 2,408 passengers and 810 crew. With sixty-seven nationalities represented, every member of the crew seemed to speak with a different, exotic accent.

Departing Seattle View from the stern as we depart from Seattle. Anniversary celebration

Our trip was a celebration of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. They were married on September 7, 1963.

My sister Christina and I joined them for the cruise, along with Aunt Suzanne and long time friend Nancy Fish. After dinner in Rhapsody's main dining room, Suzanne treated us to a very tasty chocolate cake!

Jun and Genevieve Jun and Genevieve

Cruise ships have a reputation for plenty of good food, and Rhapsody did not disappoint. Every evening in the main dining room, Jun and Genevieve brought out one gourmet treat after another. Then Jun performed magic tricks at our table while Genevieve did most of the work! They were really fun, and by the end of the cruise we felt like they were old friends.

At breakfast and lunch, we generally chose the ‘all you can eat’ buffet. My cruise expert, Laura, had offered a partial solution to the overeating problem. During the entire trip, I never stepped into an elevator. Up and down the stairs, many times every day.

Our first port of call was Juneau, where Allie and Darek took us whale watching. Christina and I found a new friend among the whales, fellow cruiser Joscelyn.

The first whales we encountered were three humpbacks hugging the coast of a small island. A female and her 7 month old calf were accompanied by an adult male named Spot. The whales spout a plume of mist each time they come up for air, then the hump on their backs rise out of the water a little.

Darek, Joscelyn and Allie Darek, Joscelyn and Allie
Seven month old calf Much bigger whale

The calf was full of energy and raised its tail out of the water repeatedly (above left). Then, without any warning, the calf leaped into the air! Its flukes were widespread at first, and water sprayed everywhere. Everyone on the boat cheered, and then the calf fell back into the ocean with a huge splash!

I was too slow to get a picture, but fortunately Romo was ready and got the shot below.

Jumping calf

Despite careful vigilance, our whales did no more jumping. Apparently, whales breech very rarely and we were extremely lucky to see it. Eventually, we found a larger pod where I got the big tail above.

Ray and Christina in front of the raft

That night, Rhapsody traveled to our next port. And the next day, we donned exposure suits and explored Skagway fjord on a zodiac boat. Ashley was our guide as we zipped along the rocky shores looking for wildlife.

Bald eagle perched on a tree Bald eagle's nest

As a white spot in the tops of green trees, a bald eagle is easy to spot. We saw one right away, and several more throughout the two hour tour.

At right is a nest. Eagles mate for life, and they reuse the same nest for five or six years. Construction over those seasons creates a nest up to ten feet wide and 300 pounds.

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagles grow as large as 17 pounds with a wing span of 8 feet. They can snatch a ten-pound salmon right out of the water.

At one point, we spotted a juvenile soaring above the fjord. It did not yet have the distinctive white head and tail and had just started flying about three weeks before. It was learning by following its parent, but when the adult gracefully came to rest on a cliff high above, the juvenile faltered and landed clumsily on another cliff.

Male harbor seals

Below the soaring eagles, we zipped around the fjord looking at trees, waterfalls and glacially carved rocks. Then, we met a very mellow group of harbor seals. These three males got the prime spot to catch some sun, on top of the best rock. The females were scattered all around.

Ashley told us that Skagway fjord offers the perfect life for seals. They have no predators like orcas here, but plenty of fish. So they hop into the water for the buffet, then back up on the rocks to bask in the sun.

Breakfast at the bow

Rhapsody visited the Tracy Arm fjord on day five. We woke up at 5am to watch from our breakfast table as the giant ship cruised between the trees, looking for a big glacier.

A fjord is a U-shaped valley created by a glacier and now filled with sea water. At 90 miles long, Skagway fjord is the largest outside of Norway. All of the Alaskan ports we visited are in fjords.

Panorama in the fjord Wide panorama of the Tracy Arm Fjord

As we progressed, the floating ice got thicker and the ship slowly maneuvered through it. Eventually, the captain announced that blocks ahead were the size of small houses and we couldn't go any further. On the way out, we passed a large boat that provided a scale for the icebergs.

View from our table Another boat

When we reached the sea again, we sailed by a large group of humpback whales. They were hunting by circling around schools of fish and blowing bubbles. As we watched them in the middle distance, three orcas appeared just a few feet away! They had probably swum under our cruise ship to surprise us. With hundreds of people watching, there was quite a cheer!

Orca, the killer whale Ray ready for snorkeling

Ketchikan was the next stop, and I was surprised to find that I could go snorkeling here. At 9am, Fred, Kurt and Maria outfitted me with a wetsuit, mask and fins. A full wetsuit makes you too buoyant to submerge, so I wore a weight belt too.

Two guides and nine of us walked to a rocky beach and into the water. Right away, I found a purple starfish. Maria said that their rigid skins allow purple stars to retain their moisture above water during low tide. Small blue mussels surrounded us, and purple stars are their only predators. Without enough purple stars, over population of mussels prevents the kelp from anchoring, and then the whole ecology becomes unbalanced.

Other kinds of starfish were abundant, from tiny little gray ones to giant yellow sunflower stars with dozens of arms. Kurt picked up a leather starfish and let us smell it. It gives off a garlic smell to ward away predators. We swam among bull kelp and saw big sea urchins and even a sea cucumber.

I loved the Alaskan water, and was surprised at the warmth and comfort with a hood, boots and gloves. Next time, I'll bring a waterproof camera!

Bear in the salmon stream

In the afternoon, Christina and I went to the rainforest at Herring Cove looking for wild bears. The salmon had been spawning for the last several weeks, so the bears were already stuffed full. With so many salmon, they eat only their favorite parts and throw the rest away. We came to Eagle Creek and found dead salmon everywhere - they smell bad.

Among the bushes at the edge of the stream, we could hear several bears splashing and rustling the leaves. We spotted at least three. This bear was in the water, with its fur dripping, and you can see dead salmon filling the stream behind it. We watched quietly, but Sarah, our guide, said their sense of smell is seven times better than ours. This one clearly knew we were there, but black bears generally don't mind people.

Ray kissing a caribou

The sanctuary offered lettuce that we could feed to their domesticated caribou, but these guys were a bit aggressive trying to get bites from our hands. When I mentioned that to their keeper, she picked up a handful of lettuce and thrust it out to the herd. They gobbled up her hand almost to the wrist! It turns out that all caribou (called reindeer in the rest of the world) have front teeth only on the bottom jaw. When they bit down on my hand, it didn't hurt a bit.

Christina shopping in Ketchikan

At Skagway, we visited a bakery where they told us the town had 600 to 800 residents, year round. Another 1200 temporary workers came for the summer, when the town hosted 10,000 visitors each day from the cruise ships. We all agreed that it's a strange way to run a town!

Christina was looking for refrigerator magnets to add to her travel collection. We also bought a very nice painted moose turd for our brother, who missed the trip. I asked the shop keeper who painted our turd, and he said it was bunch of little old ladies who drank too much and went out into the woods collecting turds.

Leaping porpoise

On a couple of occasions, our ship was accompanied by large schools of Dall's porpoises, leaping and playing in our wake.

This guy was among dozens saying goodbye at our last sunset.

Sunset on the last day