I never get tired of being at sea.
It occurred to me today that this is probably our 35th cruise in five years. I never would have chosen cruising as a holiday style—I’ve always been an independent, off-the-beaten-path kind of explorer. But the work I do on cruise ships is so immensely satisfying, and the ports of call so endlessly varied, that we have made this lifestyle our own. A big part of the attraction for me and Tom has become the simple and endless pleasure of watching the ocean go by.
I recall the time we were making our way southward from Alaska in a howling gale one autumn. Seas were over 25 feet, which made for a pretty choppy ride. I stepped out on the outer deck just to feel the power of the storm, and discovered I could barely stand up in it. The ocean seethed and foamed and I imagined my Irish ancestors out in their fishing boats, doing battle with the waves while their loved ones fretted at home. (Actually, I have no idea if they fished; I just like the notion of it. They might have been bricklayers for all I know.) Anyway, as I stood there taking in the wildness of it all, a lone humpback suddenly shot upward through the waves, not a stone’s throw from the ship. It was breaching, throwing itself up into the air in spite of the storm, as if to show us all that life goes on placidly below no matter what the conditions above. My heart still races remembering it.
I recall the many times we’ve sailed on the outside of Vancouver Island, where you’d most expect a ship to pitch and roll, and discovering deep blue skies and seas calm as a mill pond, their surface broken only by Dall’s porpoises racing by.
Sometimes, it’s almost mythically beautiful, like last year when we sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar in the early morning sunlight, accompanied by leaping herds of common dolphins.
It’s the marine mammals that keep us glued to the ocean, hour after hour. There’s a very Skinnerian reinforcement schedule that keeps me hooked: as long as I see something—a whale’s spout, a porpoise, anything—once every two hours or so, I am rewarded enough to keep at it.
And there’s the bird life, of course. I never would have imagined myself, prairie boy that I was, mastering the identification of pelagics (ocean-going birds). But today while scoping for dolphins, we identified flesh-footed shearwaters, fork-tailed storm petrels and a very aggressive south polar skua attacking gulls along the way. It was fascinating.
It’s very rare that there’s no life at all to catch your eye. In the tropics, we keep our eyes peeled for ubiquitous flying fish as they glide miraculous distances after a single energetic leap out of the ship’s path. Or we watch for sea turtles, floating and relaxing and looking for all the world like olive-green garbage can lids from the height of the observation deck. Sometimes we spot gulls perched on their backs, enjoying a dry vantage point.
This ocean watching is why we never eat in the fancy dining room. That’s a two or three-hour commitment as you wait for endless courses to be served. We discovered early on that we’d weigh four hundred pounds each if we settled into that lifestyle. So up to the informal buffet we go every night. The food is good, the room is quiet, and we sit silently after dinner and sip our coffee, waiting to see what the ocean will offer us. Even when there’s nothing, there’s something, if that makes sense: the sea is endlessly calming. When I lived on the prairies, I used to roll my eyes at the sentimental Maritimers who would wax on about the power of the sea and how you really had to live by it to understand its attraction. Now, I can’t see myself ever living far from the ocean again.