Thursday, May 30, 2019

Crossing the North Pacific: Puk-uk vs. Norwegian Jewel

Since I've been lucky enough to do it both ways, some of my friends have asked for a "compare and contrast".  I travelled to Attu in May 2017.  Those adventures are also available for your perusal on this blog site. The Norwegian Jewel trip crossed from east to west in 2019. 


Norwegian Jewel

Okay, let's be honest.  Comparing the vessels is the greatest case of apples and oranges I've come across.  The Puk-uk carried 13 of us in 2017; the Norwegian Jewel, about 3000, but the group I was travelling with was just a little larger than aboard the Puk-uk at 16 people.

Norwegian Jewel wins for comfort, not just from a sea-sickness level, but in terms of accommodation.  On both vessels, my room did not have a functioning window, but the beds on the Jewel were amazing.  If I had been seasick on this latest crossing, I would have been able to do it in style with a bathroom in my cabin.
Shot taken from my bunk on the Puk-uk.  Four of us in this cabin.  Those cubbies were our only storage, and there was only enough room for two people to stand in the cabin at once.
Norwegian Jewel inside cabin. Not much room for hanging out, but we didn't spend much time there.  Room was cleaned daily with new towels and bedding as requested.  Our space was in the middle, low in the ship. Perfect for dealing with seasickness, but it didn't happen.

Bathroom with full shower.  
To be fair, it didn't seem that we had weather as rough as we did on the Puk-uk.  It's not clear to me how much of that was due to the size of the seas and how much due to the size of the vessel.

The Jewel traveled at about 20 knots.  We were happy when the Puk-uk hit 6 knots, and would slow down or hang out in an area if we wanted more time with the birds.  The Jewel just kept going regardless of how much we might have wanted another chance with a bird.

The Food: The meals on the Puk-uk were lovingly prepared by cook extraordinaire, Nicole. It was unbelievable how well she was able to do on the bobbing cork.  There were usually a couple of selections, and always enough for everyone.  There were many more choices on the Jewel, and a lot more food, more than any of us probably needed.  I didn't try out the fancier restaurants, but was always able to find something for my tastes.  
Nicole working her magic in the Puk-uk galley.
The seating was more spacious, and the menu more varied, but at times it was tough to find enough table space for those of us who wanted to eat together.

The Guides: There was no naturalist on board the Jewel, and we didn't have an experienced seabirder with us on the cruise.  Aboard the Puk-uk, we had the amazing skill and experience of John Puschock and Neil Hayward, as well as that of several of the participants. They were able to spot rarities, like Red-legged Kittiwake, Mottled Petrel, and others, while most odd birds were not detected by us aboard the Jewel. Whether on shore or at sea, the Puk-uk wins this aspect hands down.
John Puschock spotting birds for us on one of our calmest days on the Puk-uk.

Neil Hayward scouting Attu.
 The Birds:  I was surprised at some of the differences between the two trips, especially for the seabirds. Perhaps because the Puk-uk is a repurposed fishing boat, the birds literally came to us. While we saw Short-tailed Shearwaters from both vessels, they sat on the water near the Puk-uk, which stopped so we could enjoy them, while they were fly-bys on the Norwegian Jewel.
Albatrosses from the Puk-uk

Short-tailed Albatross from the Norwegian Jewel

The routes were quite different, and with the Puk-uk, we got to do it twice--once in each direction.  The Puk-uk was usually within sight of the Aleutians, while sight of land was uncommon from the Jewel. This put the Puk-uk in position for several birding spectacles, especially of the small alcids, while we saw most of them from a great distance, and struggled to identify them, from the Jewel. Gulls were common around the Puk-uk, but only around the Jewel when we were close to port. The species that overlapped the most was Northern Fulmar, which were abundant on both trips.
Whiskered Auklets from the Puk-uk, by Neil Hayward

We also had wonderful spectacles from the Jewel, the likes of which I may never see again, but the areas where they occurred did not overlap with the area covered by the Puk-uk.
Short-tailed Shearwaters from the Norwegian Jewel

The birds of Japan were beautiful, and while not as abundant as I might have hoped, relatively easy to see. The birds of Attu were much more challenging, save for a couple of species.  When  you got your eyes on something special, you really felt like you'd earned it. And if it is the sort of thing that matters to you, all of the birds seen from the Puk-uk and on the Aleutians were in the ABA area.
Siberian Blue Robin in Karuizawa, Japan

Gray-crowned Rosy Finch on Adak

The People: Living with the same 12 others 24/7 for two weeks about a  72 ft boat brought many of us closer, and we've stayed in contact since Attu, but also made disagreements and friction especially difficult. Most of us did not know each other before the trip, although a few people had met before.  There was no escape or alone time for most of us.  It was a lot of fun to be a part of Yve Morrell's very successful Big Year.
The gang hiking Gilbert Ridge on Attu

Aboard the Jewel, it was possible to not see some of our group of 16 for a couple of days. Everyone had their own schedule for getting up, dining, birding, doing cruise ship stuff, and going to bed.  Our paths crossed frequently, and there was a decided preference for eating and birding as a group, but if anyone wanted some space, there was plenty to be had. I knew all but one in our group at least a little when we started, but we definitely all got to know each other a lot better over the duration of the trip. Not as personally as with those on the Puk-uk, though.
Birding was considerably less energetic aboard the Norwegian Jewel.

Even the hiking was more "civilized".
The Costs: The Norwegian Jewel trip was a repositioning cruise, and was ridiculously inexpensive. It was possible to do the cruise portion for well under $100 a day. Of course, you could spend more, if you wanted to upgrade.  Add to the cruise costs additional expenses to get to the departure port (Yokohama) and home from the arrival port (Vancouver, BC), and you may well double your price, especially if you want to spend some time in Japan before you get on the ship.

Attu isn't cheap, and again you have additional costs for travel to and from Adak, Alaska.  Demand for this trip varies by year, and sometimes it's fully booked well in advance. Alaska Airlines points can cut the travel costs, so sign up for an account now if you are even thinking of doing this. If you have flexibility to go on short notice and there is a late cancellation or two, deals may be available. There is some urgency, though, as there is no guarantee that these trips will continue indefinitely.

The Adventure: The Jewel trip took me to Asia for the first time, and exposed me to culture I had never experienced. Dealing with unfamiliar transportation systems, language barriers, and foreign etiquette posed challenges for me. However, the time on the ship and at many of the ports was decidedly North American and therefore quite comfortably familiar.  In fact, I'd say that comfort was the biggest thing that separated the two trips.

Attu was hard, but incredibly satisfying.  Whether it was hiking, biking, looking for birds, or travelling the seas, nothing could be described as easy. We all pushed ourselves to our limits, (well, maybe not the fittest of the group, Greg and Monica), but that left us feeling good about what we'd been able to do.  We all felt the connection with Attu birders that had gone before us, and we had a great appreciation for the opportunity to be a part of the unique history of this place.

The Upshot:  If you want comfort, are okay with crowds and lineups, don't mind viewing your seabirds mostly at a distance, and don't get incredibly frustrated by not being able to identify all the birds you get your eyes on, you would probably prefer the cruise.  If you like options like restaurant dining, shopping, and entertainment, you'll definitely be happier on a cruise. You may still get seasick, so go prepared. We had exceptional weather, but there were still some who felt queasy.

If you want to get up-close and personal with the seabirds, to take the time necessary to get good looks and maybe good photos, and to do something that thousands of others are not, there is nothing like a trip to Attu. If the expertise of experienced guides is a plus for you, and you'd rather be with a small group than a city-full of people on a big ship, the Puk-uk or another expedition-type trip would be more up your alley.  Don't even think about it, though, if you aren't in reasonable shape and aren't prepared to spend almost all daylight hours actually out birding.

I fully enjoyed both these trips, and could definitely have my arm twisted ($$$ permitting) to do either of them again!

1 comment: