MDI couple to repeat naturalist roles on radio cruise

Posted March 10, 2010, at 7:06 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:46 a.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Local residents Rich MacDonald and Natalie Springuel are going on what many people might consider a once-in-a-lifetime gig.

The married couple is leaving this week for Florida to go on a weeklong Caribbean cruise. That’s not the once-in-a-lifetime part. Neither is the fact that, as official naturalists for the voyage, they are getting paid to go.

This isn’t just any cruise. It’s a floating version of the nationwide public radio show “Prairie Home Companion.” The cast and crew of the show, including host Garrison Keillor, will be among the 1,200 passengers on the cruise ship Ryndam as it leaves Tampa for ports of call in Key West, Belize and the Mexican ports of Costa Maya and Cozumel. Twice during the cruise, which runs from March 14 to 21, the radio show will be performed and recorded on the vessel for possible future broadcast.

But it is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for MacDonald and Springuel. In fact, it will be the fourth “Prairie Home” cruise they’ve gone on as naturalists.

“It’s a blast,” Springuel said Monday evening at their Knox Road home. “It’s definitely a lot of work. It’s a lot of fun.”

Springuel and MacDonald landed their roles by being in the right place at the right time in 2005. As they tell it, when the first-ever PHC cruise was being planned for the Gulf of Maine and Canadian Maritimes that summer, Keillor decided he wanted someone on board who could talk to passengers about whales, birds and other natural phenomena they might come across. Keillor talked to his brother Philip Keillor, who then worked for Sea Grant in Wisconsin, and asked him if the marine educational and research organization might have anyone in Maine who could help.

It did. Springuel, who works for Sea Grant at College of the Atlantic, and MacDonald had kayaked recently from one end of the Gulf of Maine to the other and were intimately familiar with the types of birds, marine mammals, tides and weather patterns in the region. They got the job.

They were the only naturalists on the cruise and found themselves working around the clock to help passengers with their inquiries. But they enjoyed it — even when Keillor pulled them onstage the first night to interview them about what they do.

That gave MacDonald, an experienced ornithologist, the chance to demonstrate another of his talents: silly puns. Thinking of a scarlet tanager, MacDonald told Keillor onstage that the one bird he really wanted to see during the voyage was a “scarlet teenager.” Keillor liked the joke and since has used the joke himself.

“He thought that was funny,” MacDonald said. “[Now] I’ve got to work up a repertoire for each cruise.”

On that first cruise, they learned that two naturalists aren’t enough for 1,200 passengers.

“We’re in charge of organizing all the naturalist programming,” Springuel said. “Five [naturalists] seems to be the magic number.”

On subsequent trips, they lined up extra help. In 2006, when “Prairie Home” cruised in Alaska, they enlisted MacDonald’s brother Rob MacDonald, an ornithologist who lives there. When “Prairie Home” cruised off Norway in 2007, MacDonald recruited an old naturalist colleague who was living in the Scandinavian country. This year’s cruise is the first one “Prairie Home” has taken since the Norway trip.

MacDonald and Springuel won’t be the only naturalists on this cruise with connections to Mount Desert Island. Helen Hess, a COA biology professor with tropical expertise, is going along. So is Susan Drennan, a Vermont naturalist whose son lives on MDI, and Chris Bennett, an elementary school teacher in the Caribbean who used to live in Bar Harbor.

MacDonald and Springuel have been busy this past week packing clothes, binoculars, field guides and nautical charts, and getting their lectures and computer presentations ready. This time they are bringing their 3-year-old daughter Anouk, who was too young to go on the Norway cruise.

“We go fairly well-loaded,” Springuel said.

The couple has been busy with their day jobs — MacDonald in starting up a new naturalist retail and consulting business in Bar Harbor — but Sea Grant has been supportive of Springuel’s involvement in the cruise. Plus, the couple said, the appreciation they get on the trip is unusual for naturalists.

The lectures they give are almost always at full capacity, their morning and afternoon sessions on the ship’s deck are well-attended, and “Prairie Home” cruise passengers tend to be knowledgeable and inquisitive, they said. Between scheduled events, they frequently are engaged in conversation with individual passengers.

“I like the intellectual stimulation,” MacDonald said. “I think that’s one reason we keep going back. We get challenged in a good way.”

More information about the trip can be found online at http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/features/cruise/2010/.

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