Imagine a job where you work eight hours a week, make great money, and encounter a constant flow of interesting people from all over the world — all while you’re cruising aboard Princess Cruises and Crystal Cruises ships. Summers are spent admiring the stunning scenery and wildlife-packed waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage and winters take you around the coast of Africa. Not a bad way to make a living.
The road to my dream job began a dozen years ago, when I published my first book, Inside Passage: Living with Killer Whales, Bald Eagles, and Kwakiutl Indians. It was about a two-year stay on a wilderness island off the coast of British Columbia. I then traveled across the United States giving presentations about my experiences to various organizations and schools, and cohosted a TV show, Earthwise, on Outdoor Life Network. When a Princess Cruises entertainment director saw a show I did on Patagonia, he called my agent and asked: “Can we pay Michael to go on vacation?” I thought about it for two seconds and now, here I am.
With passengers no longer content to simply sunbathe, gamble, or gorge themselves on the buffet, many cruise lines bring aboard enrichment speakers and naturalists to give a series of presentations about each destination’s scenery, history, native people, and wildlife. More often than not, the theaters are packed with people eager to learn.
Occasionally, when passengers ask how such a “wild man” could possibly be content on a cruise ship, I say that having had so many great experiences with wildlife and nature, I feel a responsibility to share them. And what better way than in a floating state-of-the-art theater with a global audience hungry for knowledge? (I usually meet people from 30 different countries on each Alaskan cruise.)
Alaska is where I am most alive an inspired. While it is supposedly a cold, dark place, in the summer, Alaska glows with color and light. There are 1,500 species of wildflowers that decorate the mountains with their brilliant hues. Out of a gray, leaden sky a sunbeam strikes one gumdrop of an island like a giant spotlight. After it rains, rainbows arc across the sky for a hundred miles in every direction. In Tracy Arm Fjord — my favorite place on earth — ruby-red-throated hummingbirds pollinate flowers in hanging gardens clinging to sheer rock walls that erupt from the sea. Radiant-blue icebergs surround the ship and Alaska’s beauty is ever-present.
What I enjoy most about being on a cruise ship is how quickly you can change worlds and how many wonderful experiences can be packed into every day. For me, a typical day in Alaska begins with a morning lecture, just before we arrive in port. During a shore excursion I mush dogs up a mountainside and am back on the ship in the early evening for drinks and a lobster dinner with newfound friends. The day ends at midnight, when I slide into a warm Jacuzzi on the top deck, watching the Northern Lights whirl overhead.
Being a cruise ship naturalist has many other benefits. With “guest entertainer” status, Princess and Crystal naturalists have full passenger privileges. The entire ship is my oyster and the passengers are the “pearls.” After getting to know people from around the world, back in my cabin I fill journals with the stories people tell me: amazing, wide-ranging life accounts by everyone from a Japanese Buddhist monk to a Venezuelan Miss Universe.
I’m often assigned to or sought out by celebrity passengers to help enrich their experience. I’ve had enlightening times with Betty Currie (President Clinton’s personal secretary) and Baroness Hogg, a well-known British economist, learning far more about politics in two cruises than a political science degree could give me in four years. Conversations with author Amy Tan taught me about the writing process and movie business.
One passenger I’ll never forget was Aaron, an 8-year-old boy dying of leukemia whose last wish was to see Alaska. We hung out together all week and went salmon fishing in Ketchikan. Aaron caught a 28-pound King salmon and his smile was as wide as the fish was long. He lived a year longer than the doctors expected and now every time I catch a salmon, I think of him.
Another fringe benefit of the naturalist’s job is having continuous access to the ship’s bridge to announce wildlife sightings and other points of interest along the way. While I stand there in awe, behind the tall “windows on the world,” I so enjoy picking the brains of the captains and local Alaskan pilots.
Indeed, one of my favorite moments is being up on the bridge and announcing to 3,000 passengers: “Ladies and gentlemen, to the left of the rainbow — leaping humpback whales!”
When actor Warren Beatty was asked how he knew he was becoming successful, he said: “When I could no longer separate work from play.” Indeed, I often pinch myself, having the greatest job in the world, one that allows me to use my passion to help people become truly alive and wild-at-heart.