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Wildest Alaska: I Swear By My Tattoo (PHOTOS)

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There is a passage in Jules Verne's aquatic masterpiece, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which Captain Nemo is asked if he likes the sea. "Yes! I love the sea!" he says. "It is an immense desert where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides... The sea is nothing but love and emotion."

Although my companions and I are far from being swarthy, tattooed sailors full of song and stories, we are in search of the same adventure. And although we are experiencing the sea from aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion instead of a fantastical submarine, Nemo's words ring true. Life in Alaska's Inside Passage has been stirring on all sides.

Humpback whales have broken the surface around us. One, two, three -- up to six at a time! Their blows turn the waters around us into an ever changing geyser field. Sea lions have swirled around and torn halibut into pieces in front of our very eyes. Sea otters, whose improbably thick fur is measured at up to one million hairs per square-inch, slip past on their backs. Hard to believe, right?

Unlike many who might be satisfied with spotting these larger mammalian species, we also seek the small, the unheralded, and the bizarre -- strange life forms that we can only liken to aliens and that we will no doubt have difficulty describing to friends and family upon our return.

Like the crew of the Nautilus, the ship's staff includes undersea divers. These men don strange suits and masks specially designed to help them to explore the hidden ocean depths. With tanks of air on their backs and high-powered lights and cameras in their hands they dive in search of treasure. Instead of shipwreck riches, they bring back video of strange sea creatures that only a select few visitors have ever seen. What appears as plant life turns animal-like as it feeds on tiny creatures drifting by -- brilliantly colorful anemones, nudibranchs, sea stars so large that a dozen or so stars found on East Coast beaches could easily fit within their circumference. Few could believe what they were seeing.

On one occasion, we watched as a ruffle appeared in a thick green kelp forest. Out of the shadows came a creature so strange and misshapen that passengers gasped at the video screen projection. It wasn't a giant squid capable of ravaging our ship, but it very well could have been. This creature, the giant Pacific octopus, extended longer than the six-foot-tall diver and his huge, menacing eye stared into the camera lens as if to claim its territory. Its skin was purplish pink with bumps of every shape and size protruding grotesquely from its body, if one could even call it a body. Eventually, the creature retreated into the kelp forest and the plasma screens in the ship's lounge went black. Words were few. Wows were many.

We collect indelible memories of the sea; of the sights and sounds that have filled us with a sense of wonder, of love and emotion; precisely what Captain Nemo describes as the ocean's very makeup -- nothing but love and emotion. In that vein, the sea has become a part of us.

This tale may appear a bit exaggerated. It's surely not a typical account of an Alaskan cruise and unless you come see for yourself, you may never believe me. Call it a whale of a tale, but it's all true. I swear by my tattoo.

-- Marc Cappelletti

Alaska's Inside Passage
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