As I boarded the creaky bus, my tour guide smiled and asked the gathered throngs, “Who’s ready for some snorkeling?” The response was energetic, if not a little nervous. We arrived at the dive shop, where another pleasantly over-caffeinated guide pronounced it was time for “island music.” With Jimmy Buffet blaring, the mood turned jovial — and familiar to those of us who had been snorkeling a few (or more than a few) times.
Completely unfamiliar? The wetsuits we put on — very thick — or the hot chocolate, which served as our presnorkel liquid courage.
But that’s par for the course when you snorkel in Pacific waters off Ketchikan, Alaska, where the water temperature was a balmy 60 degrees. (Warm, we were told, compared with the 42 degree temps that come early in the season.)
While I’ve snorkeled a couple dozen times and feel pretty comfortable in the water, I felt more tentative with this one, the Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure excursion offered through Golden Princess. Perhaps that’s because my experience had come in tropical waters, where swimsuits and sunscreen are the only additions to snorkel gear.
Alaska is a whole different experience.
For starters, there’s that wetsuit. Our competent (and thankfully witty) guides handed out the suits and warned that getting into them could be a bit tricky. No joke; solving a New York Times crossword puzzle is easier than putting one of these things on (especially if you’re a woman and prone to having things like hips). The process was part torture, part luck, part hilarity and required teamwork to complete. When dressed, we were covered in Neoprene from head to toe.
Still, when we slipped into the water, I was eminently thankful for that wetsuit, with its 7mm keeping my body warm. In fact, the only part of me that felt cold was my face (coincidentally, the only part of me left uncovered). Once in the water, our group, comprising roughly 20 fellow passengers and three patient tour guides, floated around for about 10 minutes, getting used to the water and the equipment.
I’ve been in waters all over the Caribbean and in Hawaii, which are typically crystal clear and teeming with marine life such as turtles, parrotfish and rays. In Alaska, though, the visibility is reduced — perhaps 7 to 10 feet — and the sea creatures are a little more shy. That’s where the guides come in. Swimming with the group, they pointed out the school of herring that flashed by and explained how sea kelp grew at a rate of 3 feet a day. They also picked up various critters such as sea stars, sea cucumbers, moon snails and jellyfish, which we were told could tolerate being handled and replaced gently. For about 90 minutes, we got a hands-on lesson in marine life in Alaska from a trio who clearly were passionate about the area and its environment.
Getting out of those wetsuits proved much easier than getting into them, and the post-snorkel hot shower was bliss. Snorkeling in Alaska requires a little more patience — focusing on the rocks for a glimpse of a crab crawling or sunflower sea star creeping — but the experience is breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. The creatures we saw – including the bald eagles, majestically perched on rocks mere 25 feet from where we swam – were like nothing you’d find in the Caribbean, and the Ketchikan backdrop, with its mountains and green pines, is an experience I won’t soon forget.
Back onboard talking with others about our day in port, we found people were surprised snorkeling was an option in Alaska; even our waiters at dinner had, “never heard of such a thing.” We felt a bit like we were in an exclusive group of nuts willing to embark on this cold-water adventure.
Want to score your own bragging rights in Ketchikan? The excursion on Princess costs $109, and most major lines that cruise to the port offer some version of this outing.
Would you snorkel in Alaska? Let us know in the comments!