Chum for the Fishes

I admit it’s an icky subject but given the fact that much of Alaska can only be explored by water—and that most tourists first experience Alaska by taking a cruise. Let’s put aside our squeamishness and do a deep dive into the issue. 

What causes it?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Seasickness is a result of conflict in the inner ear and is caused by a vessel’s erratic motion on the water. Inside the cabin of a rocking boat, for example, the inner ear detects changes in both up and down and side to side acceleration as one’s body bobs along with the boat. But since the cabin moves with the passenger, one’s eyes register a relatively stable scene. Agitated by this perceptual incongruity, the brain responds with a cascade of stress-related hormones that can ultimately lead to nausea, vomiting, and vertigo.” 

Basically, your inner ear is your balance-keeper. And it gets confused when your eyes don’t agree with it.

When does it happen?

Most folks feel sick within the first 12 hours of setting sail, but sometimes it takes longer for the vessel to reach waters turbulent enough to affect you. After all, a boat is going somewhere, likely leaving a placid port into open waters with variable winds and swells. It might take three days to hit big rollers—or two hours. If you start to feel hot, have a headache, or start salivating, grab a bag or run to an outdoor railing. It can happen very quickly—as in, the movie The Exorcist quickly. Don’t wait. 

How will I know if I’m going to be affected?

Everyone from seasoned commercial fishers to marine scientists can succumb to the affliction. However, if you already know you struggle with motion sickness in a car or plane, or heaven-help-you a carousel ride, you’re likely more susceptible. If you’ve never had a problem before, you might be okay until you hit 20-foot swells or get side-to-side rocking combined with up and down. That combo tends to leave most travelers bolting for the outer decks.

The only way to see ice sculptures like this at LeConte Bay is to hop aboard a boat.

What can I do to prevent it?

Having just come off the roughest seas in the world, the famed Drake Passage enroute to Antarctica, I have a few tips.

1. Take medication. I’m a big fan of it, but I’m not a doctor, so you should see one before taking any. Almost all drug options need to be started several hours before you get on board or have been warned that rough seas are ahead. Some people swear by the Transderm Scop, a prescription patch you put behind your ear that lasts for three days. It can have some serious side effects, and it actually makes me feel worse, so I skip it. Another prescription option doled out by our ship’s doctor was Phenergan. After taking the 25mg pill, I slept for a full day and couldn’t speak in coherent sentences. I split it in half, and that was the magical dose for me. We hit 30-foot seas that wracked the boat sideways and I held onto all my cookies. I took it every 12 hours. Dramamine, especially the “less drowsy” option, works well for most people and can be purchased over-the-counter. I’ve used Dramamine on shorter cruises as a “just in case.” It works for 24-hours.

2. Try natural remedies. Who knows if they work, but they’re certainly worth a try. They can be used in conjunction with the above meds if need be, and they are safer for children than many pharmaceuticals. So go for it. Two of the most popular options are ginger chews and wrist bands. Wrist bands are knitted, elastic bracelets with a plastic stud creating an acupressure point to relieve nausea. Ginger can be taken in a variety of organic forms and has been used for centuries to relieve gastrointestinal ailments.

3. Get outside. Being able to watch the waves helps your vestibular system understand what’s happening to your body and environment. Also, you’ll be able to gulp some fresh air and be in the perfect spot to chum the fish without making a mess, should it come to that. 

4. If you can’t go outside, try to ride on the higher decks where you can see out a forward window to watch the horizon. 

5. Put down the iPhone, camera, and binoculars.

6. Eat in moderation. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but having an empty stomach only worsens sea sickness. Nibble on food before nausea occurs and throughout the voyage, but don’t overindulge.

7. Avoid smells. Exhaust from the boat or the smell of fish can exasperate an upset stomach. 

8. Hydrate, but not with alcohol.

9. Face forward. Sit in the direction the boat is traveling.

10.  If the boat is in extremely turbulent waters, rocking side to side and up and down, you may want to avoid windows or outdoor decks, since it’s impossible to see and process the motion happening on all sides of the boat at once. Try to move to the middle of the ship, below deck, where it is most stable, close the shades, and lie down. Focus on something inside the room or close your eyes.

One final thought: know that the condition is temporary. At some point, you’ll dock or you’ll get your sea legs. The destination, especially in Alaska, is always worth it.   

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