I’m relaxing in my cabin on Silversea Cruises’ Silver Cloud when the captain’s voice bursts over the loudspeaker: “We have an exceptional sighting for you. Please move starboard.”
Our cabin is on the starboard side, so my husband, Eric, and I open the verandah door and stand on the balcony. All around us, passengers and crew members are perched on the decks, straining to see the gray mound moving alongside the ship.
We had seen other whales breaching (leaping above the water), but this one was so close. The captain comes on the speaker again, and the normally formal gentleman is unable to hide his excitement. “It’s a blue whale, and it’s bow-riding!” he exclaims.
In a matter of seconds, the whale’s dorsal fin breaks through the surface. Everyone gasps as its blowholes slip sideways and foaming water careens into the sky. Icy droplets pelt the ship, and water spills over my shoulders. Members of the crew are hooting and high-fiving one another. Some start wiping down their cameras to get more photos.
For his final act, the whale slaps its tail, as if asking us, “How’d you like that, tiny humans?” before it swims away. I didn’t know it at the time, but seeing a blue whale is exceedingly rare, and rarer still was taking a cold shower courtesy of the largest mammal on Earth.
The Silver Cloud crew motors a Zodiac boat along the coastline for a close-up view of pelicans nesting. Photo by Renee Sklarew
A CRUISE OF ANOTHER KIND
Expedition ships like the Silver Cloud serve passengers looking for places less traveled and encounters less familiar, such as the Equatorial Pacific, where we saw that amazing blue whale.
Many of today’s expedition ships are luxurious, with sumptuous cabins equipped with fine linens, a verandah and a full-size bathroom. Some have coffee bars and spas on board. Others are yacht-size ships with cozy cabins furnished with bunk beds and limited amenities. The maximum capacity for expedition ships is fewer than 500 guests, although most are under 200.
Expedition activities are predominantly nature-focused, often with crew members who are naturalists, photographers and ecologists on board. For instance, an ornithologist on the Silver Cloud described the flight patterns of hummingbirds, and a historian explained the impact of colonialism on the banana industry.
Casco Viejo, Panama. Photo by Bogdan Lazar/Stock.Adobe.Com
Before our cruise departs, Eric and I overnight in Panama City, Panama. The city’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with brick streets flanked by pastel-hued Spanish, French and Early American buildings and churches.
First stop is Mercado de Mariscos, where local fishermen bring their catch of the day. Eric lingers over every fish and crustacean, but I nudge him outside to the restaurant area, where we eat lemony ceviche.
Next, we stroll into Casco Viejo, watching as kids clamor for crushed ice and where a smiling girl carrying a “one” and a “five” balloon celebrates her quinceañera. On Plaza de Francia, a promenade overlooking the sea, we buy a handmade textile panel, or molas, depicting birds, turtles and lizards. From here, the city’s skyscrapers look like LEGO blocks, and Biomuseo—the Frank Gehry-designed natural history museum—a primary-colored piece of origami.
The cliffs of Isla de la Plata are home to some of Ecuador’s famous blue-footed boobies. Photo courtesy of Renee Sklarew
PASSING THROUGH THE PANAMA CANAL
We board the Silver Cloud in Colón, Panama, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. A marvel of engineering, the canal was finished in 1914, and by 2021, more than 13,000 ships had made the crossing. During the captain’s morning briefing, we learn that the average distance between North and South America is between 500 and 1,000 feet and traversing the 50-mile length of the canal will take eight to 10 hours. Before the Panama Canal was built, the distance around Cape Horn in South America was greater than 8,000 nautical miles and took 22 days!
Our ship enters one of three lanes of traffic and passes through the 12-gate lock system. Along the way, the landscape varies from villages to lakes to mountains. What’s most remarkable is seeing huge vessels navigating the canal. At one point, our small ship of 220 passengers sits side by side with Princess Cruises’ Island Princess, a 2,500-passenger ship, with people waving to us from seven decks above.
RENDEZVOUS WITH NATURE
Our first port of call is no “port.” Instead, we disembark beside Isla Parida, a remote Panamanian island with powdery-white beaches and one of the largest coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean. The island encompasses Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, so no one lives here, but a fleet of outfitters pick us up to go snorkeling. Although the fish are magical, we don’t last long in the chilly water. Time to motor back to the ship for champagne and Pacific lobster.
The next morning, we arrive in Costa Rica and set off for Parque de Aventura and Canopy San Luis. My senses come alive as sunlight streams through the dense forest, warming crimson blossoms and tangled vines. An aroma of eucalyptus tickles my nose, and the river cascading over rocks creates a dreamlike melody.
Our guide leads us under a thick canopy of trees to a series of bridges suspended high above. “Don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights,” he cautions.
“Now he tells us,” I mutter, as the bridge sways like a trapeze. I forget my fears when clouds of butterflies flit by and a family of howler monkeys barks at us from the tree branches.
The seafaring tradition of crossing the Equator for the first time involves kissing a fish. Photo courtesy of Renee Sklarew
CROSSING THE EQUATOR
On the seventh day of the cruise, we seem to be far from land. Over the loudspeaker, our captain announces, “The Sons of Neptune invite you to deck nine for the Crossing the Line Ceremony.”
Passengers gather around the swimming pool where crew members are dressed as pirates or mythological sea folk. On a table sits a bowl of turquoise shaving cream (representing seafoam) and a whole red snapper.
“For those who’ve never crossed the Equator,” says King Neptune, “it’s time to kiss the fish!”
Our crew chants, “Kiss the fish! Kiss the fish!”
“No way,” I say, backing away, but Eric willingly puckers up when they hold the fish to his face. He laughs uproariously as the mates plaster his face and scalp with foam. Apparently, this naval tradition began centuries ago when experienced sailors initiated every newbie crossing the Equator.
I’m last in line. Everyone is waiting. There’s really no choice. I give that fish a smack on the lips.
That evening, we dine on deck as the dazzling day transforms into rosy twilight. I clink my glass with Eric’s and joke, “You never forget your first time.”
Blue-footed boobies are famous for their baby-blue feet. The male birds march around to attract a female, showing off their feet in a mating ritual. Photo by Joel Herzog/Eyeem/Stock.Adobe.Com
NATURAL WONDERS OF ECUADOR
When we arrive in Ecuador, the crew motors the ship’s Zodiacs to the shores of Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited island in Ecuador’s Machalilla National Park. The inflatable boats are used to transport passengers to sandy beaches and get close to protected habitats without disturbing them.
Machililla shares some species with the more remote Galápagos Islands, but while the Galápagos is 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast, we are just 12 miles out. Stars among the wildlife here are blue-footed boobies, unique to Ecuador’s islands. Unaccustomed to humans and thus not fearing them, they get close to us as they wobble about on their webbed feet.
Fluffy immature boobies circle their mother, whose primary job is to protect her eggs. The male boobies are showier, strutting before the females in a courtship dance. Our guide explains that the bluer their feet, the more appealing they are to females. We watch as one male flaunts its feet, raises its beak and spreads its wings. The female looks unimpressed, but we are giddy.
While our days are full of adventure, there’s nothing better than returning to our stateroom to sleep in the same comfy bed each night. While at sea, I practice yoga, attend cooking classes, join wine tastings and chat with fellow passengers about the day’s activities. We share a common passion: our love of nature, history and learning. And we now share a special memory: None of us will forget meeting that friendly blue whale.
FAQS ABOUT EXPEDITION CRUISES
What cruise lines offer expedition cruise?
Along with Silversea Cruises, expedition cruise companies include Seabourn, Celebrity Cruises, Tauck, Viking, Hurtigruten, PONANT, Lindblad and America Queen Voyages.
Where can you go?
Expedition ships travel to the Alaska and the Northwest Passage; Niagara and the Great Lakes; the Arctic; Antarctica; Australia and New Zealand; Europe, including the British Isles, Norway and Svalbard; the Canadian High Arctic; Greenland and Iceland; the Falkland Islands; the Galápagos Islands; the Caribbean; Central America; South America; Fiji; French Polynesia; the Marquesas Islands; Africa and Cape Verde; the Azores and the Amazon River Basin.
How are these companies giving back?
Cruise companies such as Hurtigruten and Viking are researching the effects of microplastics and launching weather balloons in tandem with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On Lindblad Expeditions, passengers upload images of whales and other wildlife to iNaturalist, an initiative with the California Academy of Sciences.