On the surface, “expedition cruising” is a tough, seemingly contradictory concept to wrap your head around. As the name implies, expedition cruising is a taste of exploration and adventure in off-the-beaten-path places. It’s an experience more likely torn from the pages of National Geographic than Leisure Travel.In fact, National Geographic, in partnership with major expedition operator Lindblad Expeditions, is a prominent player in this niche. Expedition ships are small, with shallow drafts, and are able to inch closer to those less-visited, out-of-the-way ports or scenic wonders. A seven-night expedition sailing in many ways feels more like a weeklong shore excursion than a cruise.
What sets expedition cruising apart from “normal” cruising is the relationship between the voyages and ports. On a typical ship, the cruise experience is made up in equal measure by experiences ashore — both organized and independent — and various activities and entertainment onboard, provided by a “cruise staff.” When conventional ships add programs of an educational or informational nature, they are defined as “enrichment,” an augmentation to, rather than the main thrust of, the cruise experience. They are the seasoning, not the main course.
In lieu of cruise director and staff, expedition ships are led by an “expedition team,” with a team leader and sometimes a support staff of naturalists and science-oriented guest lecturers who give presentations on the politics, culture, history, geology, geography, biology, ecology or anthropology of their vessel’s destinations. In this context, the educational becomes the meat and potatoes, with a soupçon of entertainment occasionally thrown in to spice things up and keep the trip from getting too serious.
Aboard an expedition ship, the expedition leader often has a lot greater say in day-to-day scheduling and destinations, and both aspects are more fluid than in the daily programs of conventional ships. This permits the flexibility of changing course or altering plans on a dime to take advantage of weather, sea conditions, wildlife sightings or any other serendipitous occurrence.
One keystone of expedition cruising is the extensive use of Zodiac inflatable crafts instead of conventional tenders. Not only does this require more agility transferring to and from the ship, but often the destination is a beach or rocky shoreline lacking any sort of a pier, necessitating a “wet landing” (having to jump over the side into the water and wade to shore).
Once ashore, groups are often divided up into smaller packs based on fitness level and interest, with the heartier travellers taking off on hikes of various degrees or long kayaking outings and easier-going folks taking a leisurely, naturalist-led walk along a shoreline to look in tide pools or search for rare birds.
If you think expedition cruising is something you’d like to try, you may be wondering what the best cruising regions are, what you should expect to experience and which lines go where. Though there are expedition-type adventures virtually anywhere on earth a boat can float, here’s our primer on the most popular locations for sea-based exploration adventures.
Alaska is arguably the favourite choice for cruise travellers looking to get their feet wet in expedition cruising. When it comes to the natural world (biology, ecology, geology, climatology — virtually any “ology” you can think of), Alaska has it all, and there’s no better way to capture nature’s magnificence. For one thing, the ships are small enough to navigate areas that normally only shore excursion craft could tackle. Also, they almost always anchor overnight in these remote coves so that, at dawn or dusk — when most animals wander down to the shore to hunt — you’ll be right there to capture a glimpse from your vessel’s deck or through your cabin window from a stone’s throw away. If the action doesn’t take place right next to your ship, there undoubtedly will be daily Zodiac excursions.
Little-known among most travellers, except in expeditionary circles, Arctic Norway — specifically the archipelago of Svalbard — sits higher north than Siberia or Alaska, providing some of the most spectacular scenery on the globe. Like Antarctica, the region requires ships with ice-strengthened hulls and has a very short visitor season. Most tours depart from the Norwegian cities of Tromso or Longyearbyen (though some expeditions embark in Iceland or Greenland) and generally weave among the islands of the Svalbard archipelago, including the largest, Spitsbergen. With a few exceptions, they generally make landfall at all of the same noteworthy spots.
Could there be a more inhospitable spot on Earth than Antarctica? Unless you’re a penguin, orca or seal, probably not. But what could make a place more desirable to the traveler looking for the under-visited than that? There is no native population in Antarctica or within 500 miles of its coasts, yet the sea abounds with life.
Nature has granted animals an adaptation that prevents them from freezing to death. For many, survival is possible through a thick, insulating layer of blubber. Meanwhile, fish thrive thanks to naturally produced “antifreeze” in their blood. Fortunately for those creatures who consider fish the tasty next-lower rung on the food chain, this antifreeze is protein-based, not derived from toxic hydrocarbons.
While there are voyages in the Brazilian Amazon, Peru is more popular and accessible. Travellers fly into Lima before connecting with flights into the jungle-locked city of Iquitos. (The only way in or out is by airplane or boat; there are no roads connecting Iquitos with the rest of Peru.) Ships embark in Iquitos or the newer port just upriver in Nauta.
Famed evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin was a naturalist aboard survey ship H.M.S. Beagle, was fascinated by the variation of similar species evolving in nearby, but physically isolated, islands. In the 20th century, Thor Heyerdahl reportedly uncovered shards of pottery in the Galapagos that, to him, suggested a match with shards from South American Indian archeological sites, leading him to the theory that the islands of the South Pacific were populated by ocean-crossing migrants from South America.
There is so much interest in the Galapagos, in fact, that the government of Ecuador, which administers the islands, has designated 97 percent of them a protected national park, with tourism strictly controlled.