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The rise and rise of expedition cruises

Expedition cruises to far-flung parts are increasingly popular — despite the cost — due to a voracious appetite for active, experiential travel

By Kate Simon
Published 27 Oct 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 13:28 BST
A penguin in front of a cruise ship

Until recently, expedition cruises were regarded as the preserve of serious wildlife and wilderness fans

Photograph by Getty Images

The waterfalls on the cliffs at Aurlandsfjord are drying up. "Around 25 years ago, all these would have been flowing with water," explains my guide, John, pointing at stripes on the rockface once fed by the snowpack well into spring. "Global warming?" I ask. John is coy. "Climate change," he hesitates, "it's always a touchy subject, at least for the current guy in the White House."

Yet, my North American co-passengers seem unfazed by the discussion; in fact, they offer their own observations of the consequences of the melting icecap. Emboldened, John continues: "What I've seen in the past 10 years has been a bit scary; what I've seen in the past two has been alarming. The Briksdal Glacier — the last time I saw it, I didn't think it was the same glacier. It's actually falling apart. And what no one's really talking about is the permafrost. It's starting to melt and that's going to cause the land to shift."

I'm one of a group of just eight bouncing across the water in a Zodiac inflatable boat steered by John, a biologist by profession, to get a close up of this branch of Sognefjord, Norway's largest and deepest fjord, as well as an insight into the wilderness in general. Most of my fellow passengers on Seabourn's 600-berth Ovation, the luxury cruise line's latest ship, are pottering around the village of Flåm — its population of 350 overwhelmed by about 450,000 tourists annually — or riding the famous vertiginous railway 2,844ft up to the mountain station of Myrdal. But I've opted to do one of the more adventurous expedition-style excursions now being rolled out on Seabourn ships through its Ventures programme.

Zodiac tours, sea kayaking, paddleboarding, scuba diving, snorkelling, hiking and wild camping are the staples of expedition cruises. These adventurous activities are run by teams of natural scientists and historians, professional adventurers and photographers, who complement experiences with expert talks and a high level of interaction with guests. The ships are defined by their small size — usually less than 200 passengers — and thus the smaller ports they can call at, as well as the kind of destinations they visit, typically the polar regions and the Galápagos, but increasingly other parts of the world, hot and cold, including remote parts of Russia, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. Even yacht and river cruise operators are beginning to offer expedition itineraries, but the real business is on the oceans.

Expedition cruises aren't new — the first was led by Lars-Eric Lindblad in Antarctica in 1966 — but until recently they were regarded as the preserve of serious wildlife and wilderness fans happy to forgo comfort for creatures and bunk up in an old, no-frills, Russian icebreaker. That's all changing thanks to our voracious appetite for active, experiential travel to far-flung parts, especially places under threat from climate change, and a growing audience of travellers, largely baby boomers, who have the time and money to spend on these expensive cruises and want a higher level of luxury.

They certainly cost a pretty penny. Edwina Lonsdale, managing director and co-owner of the London-based expedition cruise agency Mundy Adventures, which can advise on and help package up this type of high-cost holiday, explains. "If you're going to Antarctica, there's a relatively short option, but it's still 10 days, plus you have to get to and from Ushuaia, the departure point. Your start price will be a minimum of £5,000 per person and if you want to do South Georgia, you're talking more like £15,000-£20,000 per person for a medium-level cabin," she says. "The reasons are obvious. These cruises are very small, so you don't have economies of scale, you're going to fragile areas, so the ship will use a high grade of fuel, there's a very high staff-to-passenger ratio, and an expedition team to pay for on top of the crew. So, there's an awful lot that pushes up the price."

Luxury at sea

While expedition cruises may amount to less than 1% of the 26 million people who take an ocean cruise worldwide, these lucrative voyages offer fat profits for the industry. For you and me that means there's an increasing number of trips to choose from and not just with the established specialists, because some ordinary cruise lines are expanding their horizons into these waters. These mainstream players know they can meet the expectations of high-paying customers both on and off the ship. Sail with Seabourn in Alaska, for example, and you can spend the day paddling around wild waters in kayaks, safe in the knowledge that in the evening you can dine in a restaurant by three Michelin-star American chef Thomas Keller and watch a show created by Sir Tim Rice, before retiring to your suite to find your butler has popped a chocolate on your pillow.

Seabourn has strengthened its position in this market with the recent commission of two ultra-luxury purpose-built expedition ships. The vessels, which will hold 264 passengers, are due for delivery in 2021 and 2022, and will include the chance to explore beneath the surface of the ocean in a submarine. They'll be among more than 20 purpose-built expedition ships due down the slipway in the next five years. Of the mainstream lines, Celebrity Cruises, a name you might more readily associate with the Mediterranean and Caribbean circuits, is credited as a pioneer of its type, having launched the Xpeditions brand in 2004. Its three expedition-class cruise ships in service in the Galápagos will be joined by a fourth in May 2019. Flora, accommodating just 100 guests, promises 360-degree views of the islands and an open-air stargazing platform with guided astronomy tours.

Crystal Cruises captured the headlines when it sent its ship Serenity up the Northwest Passage in 2016 (with a little help from two ice pilots and the escort ship RSS Shackleton), the first voyage of its kind by a large luxury cruise ship. In 2020, Crystal will launch a polar-class expedition yacht, the 100-suite Endeavor, which will be able to handle medium first-year ice and will serve both poles as well as other exotic destinations. Scenic, the river cruise specialist, will also make its expedition debut on the ocean in January 2019 with the 268-berth Eclipse. The first of two polar super-yachts, it'll be capable of penetrating the deep Arctic and Antarctic and promises a passenger-to-staff ratio of one to one. Silversea is another option, with three expedition ships doing the rounds.

Among the expedition specialists, the granddaddy of them all, Lindblad Expeditions, has two new ships in the yard, including the 69-cabin National Geographic Venture, launching in 2020, which will tip its hat at the upscaling of this style of cruise with two infinity Jacuzzis.

Ponant, which is also partnering with National Geographic Expeditions, will increase its fleet of seven small ships to 12 by 2021, with the delivery of new expedition-class vessels and a luxury hybrid icebreaker. And on Quark Expedition's new 176-passenger all-suite vessel, World Explorer, you'll be able to take in the scenery from the glass-domed Observation Lounge and keep fit with a view on the outdoor running track. Hurtigruten, Hapag-Lloyd, Quark Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, Coral Expeditions and Antarctica XXI will also unveil new vessels soon.

Environmental concern

There's another reason for this surge in purpose-built ships: the tightening of regulations for travelling in the polar regions. Some regard any foray into this virgin territory as unacceptable or ineffectively policed. The appearance of leisure cruise ships in the largely unmapped North Pole, where vessels have come aground, is particularly controversial because of risks such as a major fuel spill. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) enforces a Polar Code, in an attempt to cover a range of concerns, from ship design, construction and equipment, operations and training, and search and rescue to the protection of the environment and ecosystems. In Antarctica, the industry also self-regulates via the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), to which you pay a fee of $30 (£23) in the cost of your cruise.

Minimising drag to use less fuel and avoiding dropping anchor to preserve the seabed are among the challenges the industry's technicians are striving to meet. Robert Halfpenny, managing director of Aurora Expeditions, explains that the company's new 160-passenger ship, Greg Mortimer, named after the Australian explorer, which will launch in October 2019, is being designed using cutting-edge technology to deliver a more enjoyable journey as well as meet stringent eco-friendly criteria. "These new ships are being built in a far more environmentally friendly way, using more sophisticated technology," he says. "We decided on using the Norwegian ship designer Ulstein's X-BOW for the Greg Mortimer, the first inverted bow of its kind on an expedition ship. It pierces the waves, so when you cross the Drake Passage, which gets quite violent at times — they call it the 'Drake shake' — you'll have less chance of seasickness. We'll also be able to get down there in a day and a half, instead of two. That means more landings and the ship will use less fuel — it's a win win."

Cruise-goer Claire Hilton, who's been on 14 expedition cruises, mainly in Antarctica, values a smooth voyage over luxury. "One Ocean Expeditions' ships Vavilov and Ioffe are functional vessels that were built for marine research, specifically to navigate polar waters," she says. "So they have very quiet engines and amazing stabilisation, which is imperative for crossing the Drake Passage and Southern Ocean."

What takes place on board also matters to cruise-goers. John Barrett has sailed with Quark Expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia, and has been impressed by the high quality of the talks on board and access to the experts. "The lectures, and lecturers who delivered them, were very interesting and there was always a sizeable number of the expedition team available. They were always more than happy to mix and chat with the passengers," he says.

Robin West, vice-president of expedition, operations and planning at Seabourn, knows how important interaction with the team is for guests. "One of our strengths is the staff. Guests love the Zodiacs, the kayaks and the hikes, but it's the staff and the calibre of their ability and knowledge that guests are drawn to," he says. "Our team dines with guests regularly; they join cocktail parties, they're on the outer decks for wildlife viewing, so guests can ask questions and converse with them throughout the trip."

Susan Adie leads the expedition team on the G Adventures ship G Expedition. She believes flexibility is key to giving passengers a great experience. "If you look at how some ships run, they're almost on a bus schedule — it's 6pm, so we have to leave and we're only going to the next point. We may say, yes, we're leaving at 6pm, but that's because we want to go left instead of right since we've just heard there's a whale out there. When we're in the wilderness areas, we may say we're going to a certain island tomorrow, but in the night we learn that another has a polar bear on it, so we'll go there instead. We say to our guests at the beginning of the voyage, please come with an open mind, patience and flexibility, because this will help us create the best experience for you."

After all, the possibility of seeing natural spectacles is the prime reason to take one of these cruises. Christianne and Nigel Brynolf-Trett have ticked off destinations including Antarctica, the Northwest Passage, East Greenland and South Georgia. Their most recent cruise was to Svalbard in the Arctic on Ocean Adventurer with the tour operator Discover the World. "It's the adventure that really attracts us to expedition cruises," says Christianne, "whizzing through the ice in a Zodiac and hiking on the tundra. The highlight of our trip to Svalbard was seeing walrus. One morning, we went to get a close-up of a group of six of the creatures. That afternoon, we were out again in the Zodiac and went just around the corner only to find hundreds of walrus. They were just hanging off the ice. It was an amazing sight."

Five popular destinations for expedition cruises

Penguins, seals, whales and icebergs are the stars here, yet there's only a short window in which to visit — late October to late March. Extend your trip to take in South Georgia.

The Arctic
Visit in June and July to see the ice and migrating birds. Polar bears and walruses will be about, too. In July and August, there's a better chance to move around and see more.

The Galápagos
A year-round destination, but the warmer months of December to June herald calm seas with good underwater visibility and the chance to see giant tortoises hatch.

The Sea of Cortez
January to March is a whale-fest in these waters between the California peninsula and Mexican mainland, when grey whales converge here to give birth.

Pacific Islands
History and nature meet at these remote drops in the ocean. Explore ancient cultures on shore, and teeming coral reefs beneath the waves. Visit June to August.

Kate Simon travelled with Seabourn on the 14-day Majestic Fjords & North Cape on Seabourn Ovation, price £8,499 per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation in a Veranda Suite, all meals, most drinks and gratuities. Flights and excursions cost extra.


Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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