Volunteer Spotlight
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
By Daryth Morrissey

decorativeAmigos board member and volunteer Daryth Morrissey
enjoys a unique summer job in Alaska.
I am entering my 26th year as a local middle school Science/Marine Biology teacher. I have a career that I absolutely love. For the past two summers, I also have had a pretty incredible summer job that is way better than mowing lawns! I am one of the Naturalists for a major cruise line (2500+ passengers) doing trips to the Inland Passage in Alaska. We leave out of Seattle, have a sea day, then Tracy Arm Fjord, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, sea day and Victoria, and then back to Seattle. This summer, I had 5 weeks on board. Four itineraries included Tracy Arm Fjord, and the other was through Glacier Bay.

So how do you get this job? Let me back up a bit. I am a certified Naturalist for: the American Cetacean Society (both Orange and LA Chapters), the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, and have my California Naturalist Credential from UC Davis. In college, I almost had enough classes to minor in Geology. I go to Maui every year for Humpback whale season. I have stayed on San Juan Island and have Orca watched (including Granny estimated around 102 years old before her death). I have flown directly to Juneau to spend all of my time on the water watching humpbacks build back the third of their body weight they lost on that 6,000 mile migration to their winter breeding/calving grounds. Through whale/water world, I became friends with the primary Naturalist. I had asked her if there was a super cheap cabin for 1 under the engine room that I could book, and she offered me the chance to train and be on the Naturalist list. I studied/researched/read/wrote journals filled with notes almost nonstop for three months prior to my first cruise.

What does a Naturalist do on board a cruise ship? I gave three, 1-hour presentations on: “The Nature of Alaska,” “Glaciers, Volcanoes and Wildlife,” and last but not least “Whales.” I spent most of my time up on the bridge spotting wildlife and telling passengers what to look for on their own. I narrated on what we are seeing as well as any geological, historical, and ecological significance of the areas we were cruising through. There was a TV channel that replayed my presentations, and another that broadcasted my voice. I wandered the decks, answering questions and giving information to areas where my voice didn’t broadcast. I did a lesson on whales/ecology to the Kid’s Club clients, all between the ages of 5-11. That was a blast!

What did we see on the sea? Bear in mind that every cruise is different, from the visibility due to weather, wind and swells, to timing-looking at the exact right spot, at the exact right time. The marine mammal species that were fairly common: Harbor Porpoise, Dall’s Porpoise, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Humpback Whales. Less common marine mammals spotted were: Northern Right Whale Dolphins, Fin Whales, Orca, Sea Otters, Steller’s Sea Lions and one Sperm Whale off of Queen Charlotte Sound! Mola Molas (sunfish), Sea Nettle jellyfish and Salmon Sharks were pretty common and visible just off the ship. One interesting thing the Salmon Sharks were seen doing several times, was rubbing themselves on pieces of driftwood!

If you are into pelagic birds, go on this cruise! Tufted Puffins, Black-footed Albatross, Storm Petrels, Pelagic Cormorants, Murres, Loons, Murrelets, Gulls, Artic Terns, Kittiwakes, and Pigeon Guillemots can usually be seen. There was even a dog travel kennel in the Naturalist cabin to rehab any/all birds that blew on to the ship. I could get a call, and would respond to a bird 24 hours a day. Storm Petrels seemed to be the most common in need of a day to recoup. It is a bit terrifying when they were ready to be released, and they would fly out of your hands, then drop 100+ feet (along with my heart) down to sea level, and then fly off. Whew! Each one of these species deserves their very own article, and I haven’t even started on what my eyes witnessed on land: Black Bears, a Brown Bear, Mountain Goats, Sitka Deer, Porcupines, Bald Eagles, one very funny American Dipper, a female moose swimming through Glacier Bay, and the salmon!

Then we have the geology, and the fjords, and the glaciers, and the trees and forest succession, and the wildflowers! The absolute and breathtaking beauty. You are just sailing through a post card. I woke up one morning with my eyes swollen, confused, remembering that I didn’t even eat dinner. Then I remembered. We were going through an area with at least 75 Humpback whales, a calm sea, a golden sky, and I was just up on the bridge with tears flowing. They were tail-slapping, seemingly to be in response to each other, and this lasted for two hours. Incredible.

The one thing I tended to forget until I had this “job” was to be grateful for my proximity to the ocean. I have lived in California since birth. Here I was meeting so very many people, from other countries and states that have never seen an ocean, let alone cruised on one. It was humbling. My intention was not only enhancement and education, but to have passengers fall in love with the unspoiled beauty of this land. As I was preparing for this season, I realized that Alaska fills a part of your soul that you didn’t even know was empty. I am forever changed for having this experience.