Crew Talk: What’s an Onboard Naturalist?

Jun 23, 2015 | By Lauramay LaChance

Using binoculars to spot a killer whale pod off the coast of Alaska.


What is a naturalist and why is there one on my cruise ship? That’s what I asked the first time I discovered they existed. I learned that they’re on the ships to provide cruise passengers with more information about the region, focusing on wildlife and environmental discussions. Usually part of a cruise line's enrichment programs, most naturalists are trained in biology and give multi-media lectures on a wild range of topics. On an Alaska cruise, for example, they'll lecture on topics ranging from Alaska’s wildlife and rainforest to glaciers, culture and even Alaskan history. And they provide great programs and opportunities for wildlife and scenic viewing. They are “on-duty” every hour the ship is moving and they know Alaska and want to share it with you.

I reached out to Michelle Morris, who was the first onboard naturalist for Carnival Cruise Lines to find out more about what she does, what makes Alaska special to her and her favorite stories. Here’s what she said:

What’s the role of a Naturalist?

Interpret nature. But more basically – to help people see.

What makes Alaska special to you?

Personally, I feel kind of addicted to Alaska. It is a place where we can take in the fresh air and truly experience our wild life-giving planet. If I'm not there for any part of the summer, I start to wonder or imagine what might be happening at any given time  - Are the sockeye salmon in Steep Creek by the Mendenhall Glacier yet? Have the bald eagles been feeding in droves (50 or more) out over the inlet? Do the harbor seals have their pups on the icebergs up by the glaciers? Have the eggs hatched yet in that bald eagle nest that's always occupied the same breed pair each year?

I also feel quite protective of all of this. And this is a reason why it is so wonderful to help others see it with their new eyes in a way that is appreciative of how exquisite and importantly precious it all is.

What advice would you give for spotting wildlife in Alaska?

It’s threefold:

1. Binoculars are a must – bring them or take advantage of the selection for sale onboard (great prices).

2. Listen for naturalist's announcements and be ready and willing to go out on the decks or go to a window (bring warm and waterproof clothing – you will have fun and end up with stories to tell and photos to share).

3. Take advantage of the excursions ashore. So many of them are specifically designed for wildlife viewing.  And the guides are thrilled to showcase Alaska for you.

What’s your most memorable wildlife encounter?

One very early morning in August, we were cruising through Frederick Sound in Southeast Alaska. It was around 5 AM. It had already been light out for a while. The water was perfectly calm and there were hundreds of humpback whales feeding and cavorting in these gorgeous calm waters. Normally, we don't make announcements over the PA System at 5 in the morning, unless it's an emergency.  

Well, this had to be an exception. This was a very unusual event. This was just not something seen normally – not by a long shot.  

So, I went ahead and woke people up with announcements that went into the passageways, public areas and onto the balconies. We cruised with humpback whales surrounding us, coming up with their mouths open, breaching (jumping out of the water), and splashing here and there, for close to an hour.  

Guests spread the word and the decks were full of people thrilled with the sights they were beholding. It was the second day of the cruise and we had crossed the border into Alaska in the middle of the night. So this was their magical introduction to phenomenal Alaska. And not one person complained about the wake up call!


Let's give it up for Michelle Morris and her peers, making our cruise dreams come true! Do you have a favorite cruising memory with an onboard naturalist? Share it with us in the comments below.

Did you book a cruise?
Sign up for SailAway and we’ll send you everything you need to prepare.