Blue- and red-footed boobies, marine iguanas, lava lizards, giant tortoises — we saw them all in the Galapagos islands. We marveled at the polka-dot patterns of spotted eagle rays, and the colorful, rock-hopping Sally Lightfoot crabs, supposedly named after a Caribbean dancer. We snorkeled with hammerhead sharks and — memorably — California sea lions, who nudged us toward open water with their flippers, away from their rookeries. (Galapagos travel tip: Snorkel away from the beach, lest you’re a pool toy for a pinniped.) As authors of a book called “Wild Encounters,” we’ve witnessed some thrilling wildlife, but this was extraordinary. By night, we attended lectures about birds, wildlife, and natural history, and woke up most days before 7 a.m. to do it again.
Such is life aboard an expedition voyage. These small ships, typically hosting fewer than 200 passengers, venture into spaces where larger ships can’t fit. They specialize in bucket-list locales — including the Arctic and Greenland, Antarctica, the Galapagos, the Norwegian coast, and Kimberley, Australia — and offer adventurous, active, more eco-conscious travel.
“We’re seeing a distinct rise in the demand for expedition cruises,” says Heidi Allison, editor-in-chief of All Things Cruise (www.cruisecompete.com), a cruise resource and booking website. Interest in expedition cruises rose 21.7 percent among older travelers in 2023, with an increase of 58 percent among adults, and an increase of nearly 36 percent among adults under age 55 with kids. Bookings were up more than 24 percent this January. Driving the demand: A desire for unique experiences. “Expedition cruises offer a chance to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations that standard cruises might not reach,” Allison notes. “This traveler is looking for adventure and immersion in natural environments and wildlife, especially in more remote regions.”
For some, that’s a lot more interesting than lounging by the pool with a cocktail in hand, or zipping down a roller coaster at sea with 5,000 besties. How else does an expedition cruise differ from the typical ocean liner experience?
Smaller ships: “Fewer passengers can mean more personalized service, easier disembarkation at sites, and a closer connection with fellow travelers,” Allison notes. Cruise lines that offer these trips include Aurora Expeditions, Atlas Ocean Voyages, Scenic Luxury Cruises, Hurtigruten, Ponant, Silversea, Lindblad Expeditions, Seabourn, Swan Hellenic, Celebrity, and Viking (see sidebar for more about this one.)
More sustainable travel: Expedition cruise operators highlight their eco-friendly practices and responsible tourism initiatives. Smaller vessels burn less fuel and create less waste, and they’re also required to adhere to environmentally safe practices based on the ecologically vulnerable areas they sail. Since many expedition cruises evolved from scientific research ships, the operators are keenly aware of environmentally responsible practices. Leaders of the pack include Hurtigruten, who launched the world’s first expedition vessel powered by a hybrid of LNG fuel and electric battery, along with Lindblad, Ponant, and Scenic.
Less partying, more learning: Expedition cruises provide a more educational experience. “Entertainment” consists of onboard experts, naturalists, and guest lecturers discussing the regions being visited, in contrast to the Broadway-quality shows and casinos found on the mega-ships. You might get a cooking demonstration, a cultural program, or perhaps a singer or storyteller aboard, but the nightlife will be low-key.
Adventure and activity-focused: Expedition cruises typically focus on active excursions such as kayaking, diving, hiking, and wildlife watching. This attracts a younger demographic, as reflected in the increased interest among adults under 55 with kids. “There are plenty of older folks, too,” Allison says. “They may not want to do every hike, but they love being close to the action.”
You won’t be roughing it: Our Galapagos trip — years ago — was not luxurious. Cabins were spartan and meals were basic. That has changed. “The level of amenities and luxuries on expedition cruises has greatly improved,” Allison says. “Travelers can now enjoy the thrill of adventure without compromising on luxury, with many expedition ships offering gourmet dining, spa services, and plush accommodations.” She cites the Swan Hellenic ships Diana and Vega as examples. “Both have swimming pools, hot tubs in public areas, and even fireplaces in the luxury suites.” Bathrooms are gorgeous, and the beds are large and comfortable, she adds.
Sounds intriguing, yes? Maybe? But, like the cute sea lions with their aggressively flapping flippers, there are a few things to be aware of as you venture into these waters.
Fitness and mobility are required: Count on long, active days. Snorkeling may be a major component of wildlife spotting (see the Galapagos, above). Inflatable boats called Zodiacs are often used for transport, and guests are required to climb in and out of them. Wet landings (walking in water) are common. Hikes may be strenuous, perhaps involving ice and snow. Bottom line: You will miss some sights if you’re not fully mobile.
Be realistic: Seeing penguins, polar bears, and pinnipeds in the wild is exciting. But as guides will remind you, this isn’t Disney World (there are no guarantees you’ll see your favorite critter.) Plus, ships are required to keep their distance from wildlife. The crew will do their best to deliver amazing sightings and are known to turn the ship around if someone, say, spots a whale, but keep your expectations realistic. And bring binoculars.
Itineraries can change: Heavy seas, storms, and ice can impact the ship’s route. You may not make it to every place on your itinerary due to these factors, or other unforeseen circumstances. Consider it part of the adventure.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org