When many of us think about cruising, grand ports of call packed with culture and history might first come to mind. However, Viking’s new line of expedition ships is challenging that notion in a big way. Make no mistake, the recently-launched Octantis (and her soon-to-be-completed sister ship Polaris) provide guests the same elegant, top-notch onboard experience devotees of the cruise line love, but there’s something extra…and it’s terrific.
We’re talking about the science being conducted onboard during sailings through the Great Lakes and to Antarctica. What’s more is that the guests have an open invitation to unleash their inner science guy (or gal) and take part in the process.
Read on to learn more about Viking’s commitment to science, how it became a reality on the two new expedition ships, and why a high-adventure voyage might just be your next dream vacation!
Science Is Truly Baked Into The Ship’s Bones
First, a bit of context. Before Chairman Torstein Hagen became famous for founding Viking, he received his undergraduate degree in physics. His ongoing commitment to science was on full display during the COVID-19 crisis when PCR labs were installed on each Viking vessel and passengers were tested daily to prevent outbreaks and keep everyone safe. Hagen also expressed a keen interest in understanding our natural world, and that’s evident once you’re onboard Octantis.
“Tor is a visionary, in the way that he is so single-minded about being a physicist by training and a scientist by self-identity,” Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, head of Science and Sustainability of Viking told me. “We’ve set out to create an expedition program that’s credible, rigorous, collaborative.”
That expedition program is an innovative, intriguing mix of leisure and laboratory, and one that makes for an unforgettable onboard experience. Octantis (and Polaris when she’s complete) sails with a full expedition team, comprised of scientists, guides, pilots, naturalists, and other experts, depending on the cruise itinerary (right now, expeditions sail on the Great Lakes and to Antarctica). While that team is conducting research — including data collection about climate, measuring microplastics in the water, bird migration patterns, species surveys, and more — it also actively engages guests (only 378 on each expedition ship) to take a peek behind the curtain at its scientific process, and participate in it on a near-daily basis.
“This isn’t a cruise ship with a bit of science in the back,” said Dr. Stanwell-Smith. “It’s a working, state-of-the-art research vessel that happens to also have a state-of-the-art, Viking-quality hotel expedition operation. What we’re interested in is how those interconnect. If we were to take one of the premises of Viking that’s resonated really well — the idea that our guests want to see something that is real — by extension, what we’re doing is allowing a paying guest to work on a state-of-the-art research vessel.”
It’s also clear Viking has been quite intentional with its partnerships. Cambridge University, Cornell University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are all included in the core expedition group. Scientists from all three institutions will routinely conduct research onboard the ships, and the data gleaned from each voyage will be shared among partners, with the aim of publishing findings, and making them publicly accessible. This truly makes the most of what the ships have to offer, not just for guests, but also for scientists working to address some of our world’s greatest challenges.
“That trio — Cambridge, Cornell, and NOAA — it’s as strong a partnership as you are going to find in science,” Dr. Stanwell-Smith told me. “With our partners, we started to reimagine what a ship of opportunity can be.”
Try Out The Toys
That reimagining included ensuring top-notch research could be conducted onboard. To do that, Viking realized it needed to have top-notch tools ready for its scientific staff. The cruise line delivered in a big way, both in the design of the ships (slim and quiet to not disturb aquatic life, and with a bow able to slice through ice and rough weather with nary a ripple felt onboard) and in outfitting them. While on Octantis during a Great Lakes sailing, I had the chance to tour its extensive hangar, an area beneath the ship’s hold where an entire fleet of Zodiac inflatables, special operations boats, and even two submarines are stored.
All of these marine exploratory vehicles are used to take samples, conduct experiments, and make observations on the waters and areas where they deploy. However, guests are invited to them as well. Excursions with full explanations are offered so you can really get a feel for the natural beauty of your location, better understand the importance of the science taking place, and the fragility of the ecosystem. Getting out there on these high-tech vehicles with the researchers helps make you feel like a part of the action and expands your knowledge of the region around you.
Take A Lab Tour
Octantis also has a fully-outfitted laboratory onboard, and like the marine vehicles described above, it’s also accessible to expedition guests. Here, you can get a download of all the experiments taking place from scientists assigned to your sailing, and learn more about the equipment used to break down the data collected during individual voyages. It’s a professional, slick space that’s fascinating to check out. I found myself incredulous when touring and looking over all the bench equipment. Was I on a luxe cruise ship or a science vessel? Turns out Octantis is definitely both!
Truly Get Involved In The Science
Launching a weather balloon, accompanying researchers on missions, looking for harmful microplastics in water, and even helping bait camera boxes in the Antarctic with homemade frozen fish popsicles are all examples of how guests onboard Viking’s expedition ships can and do assist with the research taking place during an individual sailing. Your Viking app and daily bulletins will list the science offerings each day, with sessions that won’t cut too far into your excursion, spa, or relaxation times. There are plenty of opportunities to take part, and it’s so fascinating you’ll forget some people might consider this work!
Listen To A Lecture
Every evening, lectures took place in Octantis’s stunning Aula theater, highlighting the work and observations of one of the scientists, naturalists, or experts on the expedition team. These lectures were presented in easy-to-understand, approachable terms, and the expedition team took great care to ensure the science took center stage without being stuffy or elitist in any way.
Word to the wise: the Aula, with its plush seats, stunning aft-facing views, and retractable screens featuring the work of Edvard Munch, is also the perfect place for pre-trip briefings, science discussions, presentations, and viewing films taken during the day’s voyage. It will likely become one of your favorite places onboard.
Lean Into Your Itinerary
Remember, your experience onboard Viking’s expedition ship will likely be different from another you’ve experienced while cruising. Instead of a city or port focus, you’ll be leaning into nature. Your excursions might include hiking, kayaking, and observing flora and fauna. I wasn’t sure about this aspect of the trip and ended up loving it. Embrace the natural beauty that will surround you!
Another word to the wise: be flexible. The weather patterns in both the Great Lakes and the Antarctic can change rapidly, which means your itinerary might shift as well. During some days on my sailing, the water was too rough. So, the Zodiac, special ops boat, and sub trips had to be canceled. Fortunately, there were plenty of places onboard to curl up with a good book and a lovely cocktail to rest and recharge for the next adventure.
You Might Just Discover Something Brand-New
Last but certainly not least, there’s a chance that during your Viking expedition trip, you’ll spot something surprising, rare, or even exceptional. From gorgeous rock formations in the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay to penguin-spotting and whale watching in the Antarctic, the voyages have the potential to amaze on a near-constant basis. With the chance to go deeper than ever under the un-chartered Antarctic waters, you might just be on hand for a new discovery. During its first sailings of the region, Octantis scientists spotted a giant, elusive jellyfish species in the Antarctic three times, out of just 115 sightings total. There’s likely much more to discover.
“In places like Antarctica, we’ve been scuba diving there about 50 years,” Dr. Daniel Moore, Octantis’ Chief Scientist explained to me. “Anything on top of 50 meters, we know what species are there. Below 50 meters, there are big question marks. There’s just so much we don’t know. And our submarines will be diving down to 200 meters regularly. I would bet everything that I own that these submersibles on this ship will find new things to science.”
Can you imagine uncovering new findings, or even perhaps a species, during a sailing? Talk about a vacation tale that would last a lifetime!
The bottom line is that Viking designed a robust, exciting expedition program with leading partners in the scientific world. Guests onboard the Great Lakes or Antarctic voyages will get to interact with and assist the scientists and staff conducting vital research that will be used to better understand and hopefully help protect and preserve our world. It’s a richly rewarding, unforgettable experience, and one that will appeal to the curious and adventurous set.
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