It's fair to say that the entertainment is positively wild. Dolphins, Dall's porpoises and Steller sea lions might be the opening act for superstar fin, orca or humpback whales. In between these celebrity appearances, passengers convene in the lounge to listen to naturalists lecture on marine mammals, regional flora and geology, even the cruising region's cultural diversity. The photo instructor offers tips to improve passengers' wildlife and scenery shots, as well as hands-on help with individual cameras. ("Where do I find the running man setting?") During our sailing, the underwater specialist made several dives so the rest of us could watch footage of Alaska's colorful marine life from the warm, dry lounge.
Guest lecturers might come onboard in port. On our cruise, we were treated to a talk on humpback whales by the director of the Alaska Whale Foundation, as well as a presentation on indigenous culture by a Tlingit interpreter from the Glacier Bay area.
By night, in the absence of TV and DVDs, passengers read, play cards and chat in the lounge. The ship doesn't offer musical or cultural entertainment onboard.
Sea Lion is outfitted with a nifty array of equipment that Jacques Cousteau would admire, including a hydrophone to eavesdrop on marine mammals, underwater cameras and video microscopes. A "bow cam" and "splash cam" also record the underwater scene.
Expeditions aboard Sea Lion are fairly active, centered on hiking, kayaking and (in warmer climes) snorkeling. The vast majority of excursions are included in the cruise fare, except for occasional special offerings, such as a glacier flightseeing trip in Alaska; this first-come, first-served trip could accommodate only a few passengers, and it cost a few hundred dollars per person. A variety of hikes are offered -- from slower-paced, interpretive walks to moderate jaunts and power "less talk, more walk" hikes. Water bottles are a must, and walking sticks (available on the ship) help along rocky terrain. Colorful kayaks (12 tandems and 8 singles) are launched from shore.
On Central America itineraries, snorkels, masks and fins are available onboard. The Columbia and Snake rivers itinerary is Sea Lion's least active, largely due to the older demographic it attracts.
Sea Lion's three decks are connected by a staircase located in the center of the ship. Smoking is allowed only in one designated outdoor area.
The Main Deck lounge is the ship's hub, a comfortable gathering place for nature lectures, drinks or a game of chess. In addition to apricot-colored banquette seating, there are round, wooden tables and revolving chairs bolted down to the floor. Whale and dolphin sculptures add accents to the nautical blue and mustard decor. There's a game cabinet for kids and a small but excellent library with reference titles on regional flora and fauna, plus a small selection of fiction. The bulletin board posts useful information, including a map with the ship's route, expedition reports, daily menus, and checklists for wildlife and plant sightings.
There are two computers in the lounge -- one for internet access, the other for downloading and sharing photos. Passengers can use the photo kiosk to submit their favorite shots for inclusion in the cruiser slideshow at the end of the sailing. In case you forget your camera, a videographer chronicles each voyage in a 35-minute DVD that comes with an added fee.
Passengers can buy internet cards for use at the kiosk in the lounge or for wireless access: prices depend on the sailing but discourage use; an unlimited pass for one five-night sailing was $200. If you have a smartphone, you won't need to buy an internet package on domestic sailings.
The gift shop, referred to as the Global Gallery, offers a good selection of unusual souvenirs, including bamboo scarves from Guatemala, Costa Rican wood carvings and uniquely flavored Alaskan jellies (salmonberry, wild fireweed). You can also pick up some Lindblad/National Geographic logowear or even the Zodiac soap dish from your bathroom sink. On our sailing, a naturalist was selling his own hand-carved wooden pendants.
There is no laundry onboard although there are two dryers on the Upper Deck for clothes that get wet during shore excursions. There is only one public restroom and that is located on the Bridge Deck.
The Upper Deck observation area is a popular hangout for whale-watching. It's also a fantastic spot for up-close views of porpoises riding the bow wave. A raised platform makes it easier to spot the blows of distant whales or the bodies of brown bears on shore. In reality, the entire Upper Deck is used for this purpose, as marine mammals often resurface behind the ship. As soon as the expedition leader announces a whale sighting, passengers spill out of their cabins and hurry to the observation area.
The attractive but small sun seck at the aft Bridge Deck is outfitted with an awning that covers about half the area. The outdoor fitness center consists of three pieces of fitness equipment -- two stationary bicycles and one elliptical machine. There are several wooden tables with chairs, as well as comfortable loungers, creating an inviting seating area. Teak boxes hold plaid wool blankets, exercise mats and free weights.
The LEXspa – simply a room with a massage bed in it – offers massages, body treatments, facials and hand/foot treatments, depending on the itinerary. Spa treatments can typically be scheduled daily between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. A 60-minute massage runs about $120.
The massage therapist also leads a well-attended daily 7 a.m. stretch class on the Sun Deck, which is frequently interrupted by sea lions and whales. (In bad weather, the stretch class is moved into the main lounge.) Yoga mats, resistance bands and small hand weights are available for individual workouts.
There is no doctor on Alaska sailings, but one is brought aboard on international itineraries. Seasickness pills and ginger candies are left at the bar.
Lindblad sailings are kid-friendly, but there is no onboard childcare, babysitting or drop-off program. Kids' activities vary by sailing but could include dedicated excursions with the photography instructor, Zodiac driving lessons and a chance to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park as well as in Baja, Mexico. Children younger than 18 receive $500 off their fare. Cribs are available for infants and toddlers. Lindblad has no set minimum age to sail, but the line will consult with parents on a case-by-case basis to determine whether their children are old enough to enjoy the experience. Active itineraries (most Wild Escapes) recommend a minimum age of 10.
Kids under 14 must be accompanied by a parent or designated adult when snorkeling and must wear life vests. (Children's snorkeling equipment is available on warm-weather sailings.) Children younger than 12 must be accompanied by a parent or designated adult when on deck.
The biggest surprise is that Sea Lion's cabins are keyless. While we were initially concerned about security, we grew to appreciate the convenience of coming and going without having to fiddle with keycards -- and the crew and fellow passengers were so friendly that we soon felt at ease. Cabin doors can be locked from the inside, which we only did overnight. Despite the fact that many passengers travel with expensive camera equipment and electronics, Lindblad assured us that there have never been any thefts reported on Sea Lion sailings. There is a safe in the purser's office that is available to passengers upon request.