I follow the guests on our photo walk, making sure none of them get too far behind, my bear spray holstered and at the ready. One of the ship’s naturalists leads us. In addition to being the certified photo instructor (CPI) on this “famous-for-its-photography” vessel, I am also supposed to be a naturalist and member of the crew. The problem is: I’m not and never claimed to be. I was called in last minute to do a month-long tour because the CPI assigned to the ship got fired. When I asked why my predecessor had been let go, in order not to repeat his mistake, I was told that the guy slept with the daughter of one of the passengers, and then hid in his cabin with her while the all-hands crew and the girl’s father searched the entire ship—twice. They were about to declare “woman overboard” when the CPI fessed up. Which brings me to the next thing that I learn: At 52, I am the oldest member of the crew. The average age of the staff is around 25. There are plenty of casual hook-ups and lots of hormones. I ask several crew members where they live and get the same answer from virtually all of them: everywhere and nowhere. They bounce from one ship assignment to another year-round, and in between, they couch-surf with friends or family. I am married, with a 14-year-old son, and have lived in the home we own for more than 20 years. And, while I am more than qualified to teach photography, I am a complete fish out of water for the rest of my duties. In addition to my age, I have multiple sclerosis, sub-par hearing, an injured shoulder, and a bad back. No one asks about my physical limitations or how comfortable I am in the water—if I can use a satellite GPS, or paddle a kayak, or even swim. I do tell them that I’m allergic to onions, and suddenly onions appear in every single meal I have on board. 

On the hike, I’m supposed to glean information about the flora and fauna of the George Islands by shadowing the naturalist, so that when it’s my turn to lead the group solo, I will have the knowledge to do so. The naturalist’s voice drifts to the back of the line. I hear him say, “You can eat this plant, but don’t eat this one. A single bite of the leaf will kill you in two minutes.” When I am on my own with the next group, this translates to me saying, “Don’t put anything in your mouth. There’s something in here that will kill you on contact, and I don’t know what it is or what it looks like.” Evidently, this advice doesn’t apply to banana slugs, which guests are encouraged to lick in order to experience the anesthetic properties of their slime. 

Bow of a cruise ship with passengers and glaciers ahead
Approaching Johns Hopkins and Gilman glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park. Photo by Michelle Theall.

At one point, I’m asked if I will be a safety/rescue kayaker. I have been in a kayak three times in my entire life. I tell the assistant expedition leader this, and she tells me to “shadow” a safety kayaker to learn. She adds, “These kayaks are super stable. They hardly ever tip over, and the water is very calm.” When the safety kayaker doesn’t show up, I take a kayak on my own, just to get some time on the water. I’ve paddled out no more than five minutes, when a man falls out of his kayak and into the water. I ask if he’s hurt, and he says no. I tell him help is on the way. I fumble with my radio, trying to remember the exact verbiage to use to call the rescue Zodiac. It’s not Mayday or SOS. Eventually, I just say, “Expedition Leader, we’ve got one in the water.” Silence and static follow before someone responds, “One what?”

On a pea-soup fog day, we head out with guests in Zodiacs to tour icebergs surrounding LeConte Glacier. I’m handed a satellite GPS and told briefly how to work it—before being warned that it will likely be impossible to see the way back to the ship. I try to use the GPS, but push all the wrong settings, and fortunately, another Zodiac passes us, and we follow it back to the vessel.

I lead hikes in places I’ve never been, on trails without markers. I only get lost twice, and no one seems to notice. I get asked questions and do a lot of shrugging. What is this plant? What do banana slugs eat? Do moon jellyfish sting? I stick with scheduled photo walks in driving rain and on excursions where the only things to shoot are leaves or mushrooms—and the most interesting creature is a banana slug. Lots of banana slugs in Southeast. Just saying. 

On the ship, I stay in a room below deck that is the size of a walk-in closet, shared with my 22-year-old roommate and all of our gear. I’m a photographer, and she’s a diver. Our gear takes up every square inch of space. Our room reeks. It has a leak, so the floor is perpetually wet. I find a pine-scented tree-shaped air freshener and hang it next to my pillow in order to sleep. The smell is that powerful. I take the lower bunk, even though the upper one has a small porthole to look out, because I know I’ll have to pee several times at night and don’t want to face-plant climbing the ladder while I’m half asleep on a moving boat. I secretly covet that tiny window—and my young roommate’s agility. At a port in Petersburg, I buy an overpriced can of Febreeze and some baking soda to use inside our room, shoes, toilet. Nothing works.

sink, two bunk beds in small space
The author’s tiny, shared quarters aboard the ship. Photo by Michelle Theall.

Ironically enough, I’m featured in O, The Oprah Magazine for my work as a wildlife photographer, and the issue hits newsstands while I’m on board. Our ship only stops in one town: Petersburg, a burly and gritty commercial fishing port. The fish haven’t been running yet, and half the town is angry and drunk by mid-morning. When I ask the cashier at the hardware store/pharmacy/grocery store if they carry O Magazine, she rolls her eyes and says, “Seriously?”

In between hikes and boat excursions and staff meetings, I spend my days and nights hauling luggage, lifting and ratcheting kayaks into piles atop Zodiacs, placing mud boots and name tags and brochures in each cabin on three levels, disinfecting binoculars so the guests don’t get pink eye, checking in and out photo gear, schlepping food stores for the kitchen, fitting life jackets onto passengers, restocking the library, creating and filing daily reports before midnight, helping people in and out of Zodiacs, and offering champagne to patrons. During my 17-hour days, I occasionally get to teach photography. I give a few presentations. I photograph all the polar plungers, process the images, and have them available the same day. I collect images for a guest slide show and set them to music for the final day.

The back-to-back tours blur together, and before I know it, my stint as a CPI is over. Despite the glorified title which did not fit the job expectations, I feel incredibly grateful to have experienced remote areas of Southeast. I saw my first of many bubble-feeding humpbacks, a Great Pacific octopus, ice sculptures with seals hauled out on them and bald eagles perched, and curious sea lions crowded around Zodiacs. However, when asked if I would do it again, I declined. I imagine my next trip on a cruise ship to be as a passenger, grateful for the long days and nights put in by a crew trained to make my experience aboard unforgettable—in a good way.

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