I’m trying desperately to pull on a 7mm wetsuit but it’s clinging to me like a surgical glove. We’d been warned it would take some effort, but it’s so absurdly difficult that the other women in the dressing room and I can’t stop laughing. I’m convinced there’s a hidden camera and we’re being filmed for a reality show.
It’s 50 degrees, grey and drizzling, and we’re going snorkeling. Did I mention I’m in Alaska?!
I’ve snorkeled where there’s white sandy beaches and umbrella drinks, but the land of 100 thousand glaciers? It hadn’t occurred to me. Even Fred Drake, Snorkel Alaska’s owner, the Ketchikan outfitter behind this excursion, admits that the 49th state is probably the last place people think about snorkeling.
Which is exactly why it intrigued me.
Finally dressed in what one woman jokingly called our full-body Spanx, we were issued a pair of fins and a snorkel mask. I’m starting to cook in my suit but I figure that’s what it’s for, to keep me warm. We drive a mile to an inlet along Mountain Bay Point in southern Ketchikan where the tide is low, revealing a rocky, kelp-covered cove as our point of entry. Kurt, one of our guides, tells us not to worry when our suits fill up with cold water because our body temperature will warm us right up.
I assumed it was called a wetsuit because, you know, the ocean. I had no idea that the mechanics of the thing included a layer of water between my body and the neoprene. With the water at a cool 53 degrees, I’m starting to dread the dip, but I tell myself I’m an adventurer and to get over it.
Myself weakly submits.
It’s Just Not That Cold
Looking like a herd of bipedal seals, we navigate the stones to the water’s edge. Moments later, I’m on top of the waves, bobbing up and down like a floater on a fishing line. The wetsuits are so buoyant that the snorkelers who want to freedive have to wear weight belts. When I stop to tread water, my legs swing out from under me and rise to the surface, forcing me on my back staring at the sky.
Righting myself, I feel the chill of the ocean trickle up my legs and down the back of my neck. I brace for a flash of bitter cold but to my relief, it never happens. My dressing debacle was worth the humiliation.
There’s A Lot To See Beneath The Dark Waves
The coastal waters around Alaska are teaming with marine life, including Humpback whales, harbor seals, dolphins, orcas, sea otters and sea lions, and I’m on the lookout.
I spot several small fish gliding through the murky tea-colored water but it’s the spiky purple and red sea urchins that catch my eye. Brown slug-likes sea cucumbers the size of baguette lie scattered on the seafloor. Clumps of golden kelp sway in the current and a pink starfish looks as if it’s waving at me from its perch on a rock.
I maneuver around a stone reef and come face to face with dozens of clear moon jellyfish. Transparent mushroom blobs with tiny luminescent centers shaped like four-petaled flowers. A vibrant orange species known as lion’s mane floats five feet from me, its long thin tentacles trailing behind as it ripples and swells. Its head is the size of a soccer ball but they can get much bigger. The largest ever recorded was over seven feet wide. I’m hypnotized by its undulations then remember Chelsea, our other guide, warned that it stings. When the current pushes it in my direction I mildly panic, propelling myself in the opposite direction squealing like an idiot. (Thankfully, I don’t think anyone heard me.)
A curious harbor seal named Sedgewick appears. He’s a regular—at least enough to earn a name. He pokes his head above the surface to stare at us then zooms around the seafloor with a flick of his powerful flippers. Instantly the lot of us transform into children. He’s here! He’s here!… wait… He’s there!….I see him! Did you see him?! It’s not as if we haven’t seen a seal before but something about being in the water with him makes it more exciting.
You Get To Touch
Periodically, we anchor ourselves on a rock wall in shallow water and Chelsea and Kurt stage a show and tell. I listen as they explain the basics about the spiny, slimy and bumpy creatures we’ve seen below, and I’m thrilled when we’re allowed to hold them. Kurt hands me a large purple sea urchin covered in three-inch spikes. It’s beautiful in an S & M sort of way but at the same time, it doesn’t look real. How is this thing alive?
Later, Chelsea holds a giant knobby pale starfish they’ve named Patrick (for Patrick Star, Spongebob Squarepants’s best friend), another regular on the snorkel tour. Chelsea starts to hand him to me but he clings to her like a toddler with two sticky arms. It takes her three tries before she can peel him off. He’s heavy, I’m guessing five pounds, and his shell is hard. “It depends on what they eat, how soft or hard their arms get,” Chelsea explains. “He must be eating a lot of grit.”
A World Most Travelers Won’t See
As I explore the nooks and crannies of the inlet, I think about the people on the Holland America cruise that brought me here. Everyone on board has seen Alaska above the waves but only a few will see this intriguing world below. Out of 1900+ passengers, we’re the only 10 to sign up. It’s a shame really.
We’re all on a bit of a high as our exploration comes to an end. An hour ago, I wondered if I was going to regret snorkeling and now I can’t stop grinning. Then it hits me, something Fred said to us earlier, “If you thought putting your wetsuit on was hard, wait until you try taking it off.”
How You Can Snorkel Ketchikan
I went on this excursion during a 10-day, Alaskan Land + Sea Journey with Holland America.
Wetsuit including, hood, gloves, boots, snorkel, and fins.
How long is it?
Tour is 3 hrs from start to finish with 1 hour in the water.
What you’ll need for snorkeling in Ketchikan
Towel, swimsuit, extra socks, underwear.
My Holland America Land + Sea adventure began in Anchorage. Via train and motorcoach (respectively), we stopped in Denali for a tour of the National Park then drove to Seward to board the Westerdam for the cruise portion of the journey. Highlights of the cruise included: Glacier Bay, Haines, Juneau and Ketchikan before sailing onward to Vancouver. (More about this trip in future posts — be on the lookout!)
I was a guest of Holland America but words and sentiment are my own. The company neither saw or approved this post.