Not fast, mind you, maybe 6 inches a minute. But moving they are, and I’m watching, on a bright, early summer morn near Ketchikan, Alaska. The encounter represents several exotic facets of modern American life, ranging from visionary business formation to impressive garment technology to the wonders of nature. And it’s a profound travel experience that may be quite unique.
Of course, real cucumbers don’t move on their own. These are a maritime version I’m goggling at—sea cucumbers: echinoderms and not at all vegetative—but they do look like kosher dills on steroids, gherkin-shaped, colored like grass clippings, extravagantly plump, foot-long. Five of them have gathered on a large, flat slab of stone, as if it were coffee-break and the rock an office kitchen.
I’m gawking at them through a snorkel mask. That’s what’s afoot here: snorkeling in Alaska. The tour operation that has brought a dozen visitors to a small cove at Mountain Point, south of Ketchikan, is called, accurately, Snorkel Alaska; it hands hardy souls wet suits, snorkels, cautions, and guidance on how to go about pursuing a tropical pastime in sub-Arctic seas. Then, it stuffs everyone in a small van and hauls the adventurers down the road to the beach.
OK, it’s not really sub-Arctic. Ketchikan is about as far south as you can go and still be in Alaska. Nonetheless, the excursion is as close to extreme as most of the company’s customers will ever get. These waters are not balmy. We’re at 55.3 degrees north, the same latitude as Labrador and Siberia.
And it’s not really a beach. Jumbled rocks greet first-time North Pacific snorkelers who must clamber carefully into the water and bob like Michelin men in the slight chop of Tongass Narrows. If you think rock-scrambling is difficult under ordinary circumstances, try encasing yourself in neoprene balloons to do it.
So why do so?
An extravagance of natural wonder. The undersea gardens of the North Pacific are in their own way as magical, mysterious, and memorable as any tropical reef. Aside from slinky sea cucumbers, frosted nudibranchs blossom, the color of Jersey cream; emerald anemones vibrate in the tidal to-and-fro; viridian rockfish, aptly named, lurk among boulders; the high summer sun knifes through the water like shafts of paint. The currents sweep along lion’s mane jellies, big as pumpkins, pulsing like alien stars, fatal and feared but transcendentally gorgeous.
All this can be seen from above-water, while kayaking, say, but there the panorama is in muted pastel colors. Below the surface, it becomes kaleidoscopic, like an El Greco landscape.
And the presumed difficulties are not as great as imagined. In the wet suit, one is just as likely to get over-warm as chilled. The mild chop of the channel is no better or worse than in Hawaii. Summer weather in Ketchikan can be described, almost every day, as 62, partly sunny with a chance of showers. And the water temperatures can rise above 60 degrees—not relaxing, but not dangerous.
“Turns out the most difficult part of the business was figuring out how much equipment to keep on hand and how to get it dry by the next day,” joked Snorkel Alaska founder Fred Drake. “My motto has always been that no one gets a wet wet suit.”
Drake’s a recreation visionary who took a long-ago Bermuda-born affinity for scuba snorkeling and translated it to Alaska’s Inside Passage, first as a tour guide aboard Norwegian Cruise Line ships, then on his own starting in 2001. With the book “Small Business for Dummies” in hand, he sold tours to cruise lines and found rapid success. During the pre-pandemic peak of the business, Drake and his staff were introducing 5,000 people a summer to Southeast Alaska’s underwater kaleidoscope. Despite his success, this is the only such tour in Alaska and quite likely the only such in the world this far north.
But now he’s downsized, guiding just two groups a day, and making sure he gets to lead some himself. “I really want to be in the water every day taking photos and introducing people to our amazing underwater world.”
Drake’s affection for this seascape is rooted in oceanographic fact. The cold, oxygen-rich waters of the North Pacific are richer in marine life, say scientists, than any tepid tropical lagoon. Measured by biomass per cubic mile, this may be the most densely populated ecosystem on Earth; here, for example, each summer brings 5–10 billion salmon from land-side into the ocean to grow fat on the plentiful marine fodder over the next three years before they return to their freshwater birthplaces.
Underwater at Mountain Point, one sees all that up close. Schools of herring, anchovies, and other baitfish shimmer past while yearling salmon, newly arrived freshwater immigrants, cruise by. Peer in the rock caves and you may spot an octopus—the region’s type being the largest in the world. Humpback and gray whales do not come into this cove for fast-food breakfast (too shallow and rocky) but they do sail by just offshore in the Narrows. Seals, sea lions, lingcod, halibut, all these and more are on hand or nearby.
Drake first chose this spot because its location is far from the silt-laden waters of glacier-fed inlets elsewhere—and, of course, because Alaska’s 1 million annual cruise passengers provide a ready customer base. Those million come north to experience the natural wonders of a place known as “The Great Land,” but the vast majority catch only fleeting glimpses of what lies beneath. It’s not only breathtaking and vivid, it’s an up-close reminder of how robust and dynamic nature can be in a changing world.
There’s more meaning than just travel memories here in the shimmering salt-waters of the great north.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.