By Fran Golden
July 18, 2011

The giant purple starfish had me trying to say “wow” in my snorkel mask. The big, spiky red sea urchin looked like dinner. The long, wavy sea kelp reminded me of TV “housewives” with flowing blonde hair extensions.

The colorful undersea delights might have seemed less surprising in a warm weather climate, say the Caribbean. But this was in Alaska.

Snorkel Alaska is the brainchild of Fred Drake, who was raised in Fairfield, Conn., became a SCUBA dive master and while working on a cruise ship got the idea that cold-water snorkeling might appeal to passengers seeking a beyond-the-norm shore excursion.

Drake set up business in Ketchikan, a popular town on the Inside Passage cruise route and the self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of the World.”

Sixteen of us off the Disney Wonder, ranging in age from 11 to 55, headed from the pier in an old San Francisco city bus, on a cloudy June day, as Drake assured us the water was a balmy 57 degrees, slightly cooler than the temperature outside.

In his 11th year, Drake runs a fine-tuned operation that includes a stop at a heated dive shop where snorkelers are outfitted in state-of-the-art wetsuits.

“Everyone assumes you need a dry suit in Alaska, but that would be overkill,” Drake says. The water during the May to Sept. cruise season ranges from 45 to 65 degrees, he adds.

The equipment also includes fancy fins and masks, even prescription masks for those who need them.

In your gear, you head a short distance in the bus to a beautiful spot, Mountain Point, with bald eagles overhead and snow-capped mountains in view.

The undersea beauty unfolds pretty immediately, and you quickly forget any initial chill (combined with body heat the wetsuit really does keep you warm) as three experienced guides lead you on a one-hour tour that includes tidal pools and 30-foot rock wall drop-offs.

The guides bring up creatures and let you handle them—a slimy sea cucumber and impressively bright orange starfish, for instance—before carefully placing them back where they found them.

The sights are plentiful and amazing. Bonus: You gain bragging rights for having snorkeled in Alaska.

Drake offers the snorkeling excursion via cruise lines including Disney Cruise Line, and by appointment.

Guest blogger Fran Golden is the author of numerous books on Cruising.