The sea was kind to us in other ways as well. Though she calmed considerably after the first day, she and Swanson contrived to show us how wild things still are in that northern ecosystem. The banks of the passage are generally steeply sloping rock faces covered with a thin layer of topsoil. Coniferous trees stand clinging to the rock and soil, often from the water’s edge right up into the low-hanging clouds. In one anchorage I noticed a ridge in the distance that looked like the edge of a saw blade, draped in clouds reminiscent of cotton batting that were soon carried off by a shifting breeze. Those steep slopes continued below the surface of the water at the same angle. You could be just 80 feet off a shoreline in 300 feet of water.
Swanson gets a lot out of these waters for two reasons. First, he has spent plenty of time here, doing these charters with his father since he was very young (though he’s in only his late 30s now), so he knows his way around — a cruising guide of anchorages in his head, replete with notes on where to drop the hook and what he’s seen there. Second, he understands that nature can be coy. You can look at waterfalls and beautiful foggy, moody scenes all day long. But if you don’t get the whales or bears or something big and breathing, you’re missing out on a large part of it. So when he sees something good — and he’s always looking — he just stops the boat. The timetable is secondary.
We soon became attuned to this life aboard. As Discovery cruised along, you could be midsentence … and at the slightest change in rpm everyone would head for the deck. It could be a fishing boat crossing our course at an ill-advised angle. But mostly it was some spectacular natural show, such as a pod of orcas gamboling in a playful mood or humpback whales feeding together. Jeremy Cole, an old friend of Swanson’s, and Zimmermann’s father, Volker, were along for the delivery too, and we would all drop whatever we had been doing — reading, eating, watching the scenery — and congregate on the bow to see these amazing creatures. I’ve never seen wildlife so inclined to interact with people, and the orcas could stick around for more than an hour. On one occasion, a small killer whale charged the boat only to submerge at the last moment, inverting as it passed beneath us, its white belly showing electric blue through the surface.