Somewhere in the distance, on the giant cruise ships that hold thousands of people, the splashy evening entertainment is just beginning: elaborate production shows in glitzy theaters, comedy acts, karaoke backed by live bands.
Yet on Alaskan Dream Cruises' small Admiralty Dream, passengers are watching a spectacle of a different sort, one more distinctly Alaskan: a pod of orca whales frolicking in the waves just off the bow.
"They look like they're auditioning for Sea World!" shouts a giddy Michelle Spillman, 55, of Orange County, Calif., as the distinctive black-and-white mammals roll and breach as if performing.
The latest "after-dinner show," as some have come to call it — last night brought humpback whales, the night before Dall's porpoises — has lured all the Admiralty Dream's passengers out on deck.
All 31 of them.
Two years after the collapse of Seattle-based Cruise West eliminated the largest operator of small-ship cruises in Alaska, three companies have jumped into the resulting void, offering a new crop of off-the-beaten-path, wildlife-filled adventures on vessels that hold fewer than 100 people.
In addition to year-old Alaskan Dream Cruises, which operates the Admiralty Dream and a second vessel, Alaskan Dream, another new brand called InnerSea Discoveries is operating three small vessels in the state this year.
The third company, Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines, launched its first voyages in Alaska this week on the 100-passenger American Spirit.
Smaller slices of real life
Like the Alaska cruises offered by big-ship lines such as Princess and Royal Caribbean, the new small-ship sailings focus on Southeast Alaska's glacier-carved "Inside Passage," a beautiful region of snow-capped mountains and icy fjords. But the similarities, for the most part, end there.
Starting in remote Sitka, the Admiralty Dream's seven-night itinerary mostly avoids traditional stops such as Ketchikan and Skagway, where the big ships disgorge thousands a day. Instead, it heads into remote bays and fjords in search of wildlife and to such little-visited Southeast Alaska outposts as Petersburg, a scenic fishing town of just 3,000 people.
"We want to show off what it really is like here," says Alaskan Dream vice president Michael Wien.
In Petersburg, a lively local named Hoopie Davidson tours passengers around in a yellow school bus (she's also the town's school bus driver), eventually depositing them at a nearby trailhead to hike through the spongy muskeg. The next day the Admiralty Dream heads to the native Tlingit community of Kake, which has a population of just 600 people and where tourism is even rarer. Passengers visit with a totem pole carver and tour a locally run fish hatchery begun in the 1970s as a school project. Afterward, they head to the town's gymnasium for a demonstration of Tlingit dances.
As with other small-ship cruises in Southeast Alaska, a big draw of the Admiralty Dream is its ability to get passengers up close to wildlife in a way the big ships can't. In Tracy Arm, an icy fjord backed by a glacier, the captain steers the vessel toward shore for a better view of a giant brown bear lumbering along the waterline. Later in the day, he shifts course again to approach a black bear.