Orcas!" came a shout from the bow. "We've got killers at 12 o'clock!"
Rushing to the rail, we spotted them no more than 50 feet away. Rolling in perfect formation, a pack of six killer whales flashed us with their glistening ebony dorsals and disappeared beneath a syncopated string of puffy spouts.
Dividing into troupes of three, they raced alongside us, arching high out of the icy water so we could see the brilliant bands of white on their jet-black sides.
"More orcas dead ahead!" someone hollered from the top deck. Soon the Spirit of Discovery was surrounded by the beautiful but fearsome-looking whales. Now there were more than a dozen of the normally elusive creatures escorting our minicruiser out of Alaska's Misty Fiord.
Dipping, diving and rolling, the pack of killers accompanied us for nearly 20 minutes before retreating into the dusk as quickly as they had appeared.
It was a rare and exciting experience, one of many close-up wildlife sightings enjoyed by 80 passengers during a week-long Inside Passage adventure cruise offered by Alaska Sightseeing Cruise West.
As more of us get our fill of traditional tourist destinations and routine pleasure cruising, there's a growing urge to get off the beaten path and enjoy nature that is undisturbed and unpolluted.
A major segment of the travel industry has evolved to serve the interests of those who seek adventure and discovery. One of the greatest growths has been in expedition cruising, which combines the comfort of ship travel with the thrill of firsthand discovery on the most remote and pristine shores.
When the visionary Lars Eric Lindblad conceived the first cruise ship built for expeditions, the Lindblad Explorer, more than 20 years ago, he set in motion the concept of small, rugged, highly maneuverable ships that could go almost anywhere.
Typically accommodating 70 to 250 passengers, these vessels offer a more intimate and congenial cruise experience. And they can tread lightly, without overtaxing the environment or overwhelming out-of-the-way villages.
Today, more than a dozen companies specialize in expedition/adventure cruising, offering itineraries that crisscross the globe and provide ready access to areas of profound natural splendor and cultural intrigue.
Most expedition vessels can go places inaccessible to larger cruise ships, and many carry motorized landing craft (such as Zodiacs) that can take travelers to sites where no tourism infrastructure exists. Some small ships can even make bow landings on undeveloped shores.
The following expeditions are cruises near and far away, long and short -- and they fit different budgets. If these options are booked, check with the lines for other adventure itineraries.
With the exception of the 715-passenger Regent Sea, all of these vessels are small ships. The Regent Sea is included because it is a large ship that dares to be different.
In spite of their compact size, each of these vessels features surprisingly spacious and well-appointed cabins, dining facilities and lounges. Most have multimedia-equipped lecture halls, libraries, medical facilities and gift shops. Some even feature fitness centers.
Sorry, there are no discos or casinos -- not that you'd miss them with a world of natural wonders to explore. Airfare is not included in rates.
Alaska's Inside Passage
Profile: An eight-day trip between Seattle and Juneau aboard the Spirit of Discovery (maximum 84 passengers), available weekly May through September, 1994.
There are more than killer whales to grab your attention on this comprehensive, close-up cruise of Alaska's wild and pristine Inside Passage. The Spirit of Discovery, a nimble little vessel, is able to thread narrow fiords and passages far from traditional cruise-ship routes.
Along the granite cliffs of Misty Fiords National Monument, you'll feel the cold spray of waterfalls plunging several hundred feet into the placid waters of Rudyerd Bay. In Le Conte Fiord, your captain will maneuver past floating icebergs nearly to the face of Le Conte Glacier, where huge chunks of bluish ice calve from the glacier and plunge into the sea with the sound of artillery shells.
Wildlife sightings are common. In Wrangell Narrows or Tracy Arm, you might see black bears or sea lions. In Glacier Bay and Frederick Sound, near Juneau, pods of humpback whales seem always ready to perform for passengers.
Port calls at the capital city of Juneau and the colorful coastal villages of Ketchikan, Sitka and Petersburg afford a chance to observe the human side of life in Southeast Alaska.
Cost: $1,595-$5,941 per person, double occupancy.
Information: Alaska Sightseeing Cruise West, Fourth and Battery Building, Suite 700, Seattle, Wash. 98121. (800) 426-7702.
Columbia and Snake rivers
Profile: A seven-day Pacific Northwest round-trip cruise from Portland, Ore., aboard Sea Lion or Sea Bird (maximum 70 passengers). Sixteen weekly departures in May, September and October, 1994.