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Bailey College of Science and Mathematics

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Merging Science and Fun: Cruise Ship CEO and Cal Poly Alumnus Sponsors Naturalist Expedition Programs

By Nick Wilson


Cal Poly graduates Emily Thayer (Anthropology and Geology ’22), Nathan Lesser ((Biological Sciences, ’20), and Olin Bruton (Marine Sciences, ’21) in Alaska during an American Queen Voyages excursion (from left to right). Photo credit: Jeremy Fratkin 


In 2022, Cal Poly College of Science alumnus John Waggoner (B.S., Biological Sciences, ’79; MBA, ’89) — CEO of the American Queen Voyages cruise ship company — introduced a new tour excursion in Alaska that combines scientific education and voyage expedition.

With that new venture and the generous support of Claudette and John Waggoner (’17 College of Science and Mathematics Honored Alumnus), Cal Poly students have been brought into the fold, forging a unique partnership between American Queen Voyages and the university.

American Queen Voyages offers Cal Poly students paid internships to help guide cruises in Alaska and Costa Rica.

In addition, the newly created Naturalist and Expedition Fund provides scholarships for marine sciences students with financial need and will also provide co-curricular programs that prepare students to enter the naturalist and expedition industry.

“These hands-on, Learn by Doing opportunities will help create the next generation of naturalists,” said Morgen Marshall, Cal Poly’s senior director of advancement and external relations. “This program will provide opportunities for CSM students to train and explore a really exciting potential career path they otherwise might not get the chance to try.”


CSM Conference Presentation

From left to right, American Queen Voyages CEO John Waggoner; John, Dean and Nate: From left, John Waggoner, Waggoner’s daughter Marissa Applegate; Olin Bruton (Cal Poly Intern, Marine Sciences ’21), Lesser and Dean Wendt, CSM dean. 


Additionally, a dedicated Cal Poly naturalist coordinator position has been established to form a comprehensive internship program and curriculum.

“This new coordinator will help our students develop key skills to present research,” said Dean Wendt, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, who joined the inaugural cruise last year from Seattle to Vancouver. “A vital aspect of being an effective naturalist is to understand the environment around us and to communicate that to general audiences.”

The new naturalist program aims to provide students opportunities both through American Queen Voyages and other destinations, including nearby campus in San Luis Obispo County and elsewhere in California where eco-tourism offers job opportunity.

“We live in an incredible area for eco-tourism,” Marshall said. “This program can really help support our local economy and the state of California when it comes to preparing our students to take on roles as guides.”

American Queen Voyages staffer, Nathan Lesser (Biological Sciences, ’20), first served as an intern on multiple three-week trips to Alaska with American Queen Voyages during the inaugural season in summer 2022. He will resume his service as a naturalist guide when the season resumes in May, running through September.

Lesser’s role has included educational presentations and hands-on science labs where guests are informed about topics such as native birds, whales, indigenous people of Alaska and glaciers.

“People are getting to touch things like glacial ice or seaweed and investigate with a microscope,” Lesser said. “We want them to be interactive and ask questions. We have a bird bingo game where they identify birds. In some cases, there’s an art component.”

Lesser also helped with the Zodiac boat and kayak tours that take travelers from the cruise ship to prime viewing locations for whale and bear watching. The Cal Poly graduate recently earned his captain’s license to become a Zodiac driver.

“The best way to describe it is like a summer camp for adults,” Lesser said. “Apex predators, salmon and the rainforests of Alaska are among the populator topics. We have a wonderful classroom with the rare opportunity to teach about glaciers right in front of a glacier.”

Two people discussing their project

Cal Poly interns, former CSM Dean Phil Bailey and American Queen Voyages Capt. Brandon McCrary on a boat. Photographer Credit: Jeremy Fratkin.


Cal Poly graduates Olin Bruton (Marine Sciences, ’21) and Emily Thayer (Anthropology and Geology, ’22) also will be company naturalist guides this season. Sophia Jones (Biological Sciences, ’22) will be an intern for the first part of the season and move to a kayak guide if she completes her kayak certifications.

American Queen Voyages’ Alaska cruises start and finish in Vancouver. Students live in cabins, share rooms, and immerse themselves in life on the sea among tourist groups typically of up to about 170 to 180 people.

The boat makes day trips to cultural hotspots such as the Tlingit village of Kake, an authentic Tlingit village for a cultural immersion experience wherein guests meet native locals, hear their stories, witness some authentic carving examples and learn of their efforts to revive the Tlingit language and customs in their youth camp programs. Guests can join in on excursions to observe bears and orcas.

Each season, typically a handful of Cal Poly students or recent graduates will participate as interns or guides. They present on topics of their choosing and research, using monitors and displays to showcase their topic. Last year on the cruise company’s Costa Rica tour, Lesser presented on the banana production industry.

“Nate’s presentation on the banana was just fantastic,” said Pam Navis, an expedition manager for American Queen Voyages. “We make sure we have a lot of different ideas that students often research themselves and come up with the presentations. And we want that diversity of topics.”

Michael Bennett, Alaska expedition program director for American Queen Voyages, said that the partnership has helped pique guest curiosity and Cal Poly bring their recent classroom and research experience to the table.

“The educational component is wonderful, and the Cal Poly interns are just great,” Bennet said. “People have responded so well to the lectures and hands-on science opportunities. People get into it, which we hoped they would.”

A bear capturing a fish. Photo credit: Jeremy Fratkin  



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