The white whale docked in Portland in late September. While it wasn’t Moby Dick — rather, it was Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Explorer of the Seas – the event marked the coming of the mega ship era in Maine. Onlookers marveled as the cumbersome 15-passenger-deck ever-so-delicately docked.

“The ship had an unusual arrival,” notes Jeff Monroe, director of the Department of Ports and Transportation for Portland. “We had to spin it around and put it in stern first — also it sticks out 100 feet.”

The 1,020-foot-long ship transformed the waterfront. The curious stopped to wonder what exactly goes on in its belly. As a lucky guest, I was invited to tour the EXPLORER and explore a whole new world of cruise ship travel. Memories of that deck chair with the blanket, good book and hot cup of bouillon faded away at the sight of the three-story rock climbing wall.

“Cruise ships have become floating resorts,” explains Bob Sharak, executive vice president, marketing [and] distribution for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “The mega ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line represent 86 percent of the current capacity in terms of number of beds on cruise ships, and they’re high in demand, offering a full range of resort opportunities.” For example, the Explorer accommodates 3,835 guest and sails with everything from a teen disco to a skylight wedding chapel. Golf, anyone? A miniature golf course entertains children, while a golf simulator, complete with a virtual version of one of the world’s top championship courses, keeps the adult enthusiast working on his or her swing. The sports center offers basketball, paddleball or volleyball and jogging tracks; the swimming pools and the hot tubs are a given.

The ice rink, however, is what Bob Sharak calls “the wow factor.” Royal Caribbean boasts the only skating rinks at sea — by day guests enjoy skating and lessons, while in the evening an extravaganza entertains with pros providing the triple toe loops.

Sharak notes that 40 new ships are to be built between now and 2012, the majority of them huge. “The popularity of these ships cuts across demographics,” he notes. “Couples, families, extended families enjoy these ships — and when you talk to 10 people who get off any one of these ships, if you ask them to describe their vacation, you’ll hear about 10 different vacations.”

Recent studies suggest that Maine’s growing cruise ship business is bringing a mega increase in income to the state every year. Amy Powers, director of Cruise Maine, reports that while historically Maine was primarily an autumn destination for coastal fall foliage cruises, the ships are now visiting from May through October. According to the Maine Port Authority, Maine’s 12 ports hosted a total of 180 ship calls in 2005, accounting for nearly 147,000 passenger days, while only five years earlier, in 2000, the port authority accommodated only 74 calls.

According to a study commissioned by the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), the cruise industry spent nearly $31 million in Main[e] in 2005, supporting 412 jobs that paid $14 million in wages and salaries. And the cruise liners are also purchasing Maine-made durable goods. “The cruise industry has an impact far beyond what is spent by the passengers,” says Brian Nutter, executive director of the port authority.

A University of Maine study found that the total economic impact of cruise ships visiting Maine in 2005 was $13.7 million in Bar Harbor and $6.7 million in Portland.