What it’s like on an Expedition Cruise

by Ned Levi on September 23, 2013

Iceberg Graveyard in Rodefjord, Scoresby Sund, Greenland - Zodiac peeking out under the arch, photo by NSL Photography

In columns on cruising, I’ve mentioned that expedition cruises are very different than mainstream cruises. Expedition cruises are typically run on very small ships, so they can visit locations where most cruise ships are unable to travel. Expedition ships can be luxurious or somewhat bare-bones. They don’t have gambling, lavish entertainment, lots of dining options or avenues of shops.

Instead of performers, expedition ships have geologists, marine biologists, historians, naturalists, anthropologists, zoologists, ornithologists, veterinarians and other experts who will give informative lectures about the sights on the cruise, and will act as guides on and off the ship.

Like mainstream cruise ships, you’ll be disembarking the ship often for off-ship excursions, but don’t expect to dock at city piers and walk off your ship. Bus rides and shopping will be extremely rare. In fact, on many expedition cruises, you may not dock at all, except perhaps at embarkation and disembarkation.

Zodiac cruising in the Iceberg Graveyard in Rodefjord, Scoresby Sund, Greenland, photo by NSL PhotographyMore often than not, getting to shore from an expedition ship will be by Zodiac™, a rigid inflatable boat powered by an outboard motor, and you’ll sit on its inflated sides.

At right is a Zodiac cruising among the icebergs in the Rodefjord, in Scoresby Sund’s “Iceberg Graveyard,” in Greenland.

Over the last few years I’ve been on three expedition cruises: the Galapagos, Antarctica, and the Arctic. I cruised on Celebrity Cruise’s Xpedition, a 98-passenger ship in the Galapagos. I journeyed on Silversea Cruise’s Silver Explorer, a 132- passenger ship with an ice-class notation (1A) hull, enabling it to safely push through ice floes in the Antarctic and Arctic.

Both ships are luxurious among expedition ships, but the Silver Explorer is even more so.

All three cruises were “all-inclusive.” Meals, beverages (except for especially expensive alcoholic brands), gratuities, excursions and chartered flights were included in the cruise fare. Special services were extra, such as purchases in the small shop, Internet minutes, etc.

To have a reasonable feel of what it’s like to be on an expedition cruise, I’ll describe a day in Greenland on the Silver Explorer during my recent Arctic cruise.

At about 6 a.m. the ship arrived off Hekla Havn in Scoresby Sund, Greenland. Scoresby Sund is the largest and longest fjord system in the world.

The first groups getting off the ship were already up, either having some light breakfast in their staterooms or in the dining room. By 6:15 a.m. the first groups were back in their cabins dressing for the short Zodiac trip, with its typical wet landing then hike, once ashore. It was about 45ºF that morning, so we could dress lightly. I wore my heavy socks, cargo pants, lightweight safari style shirt, then over that my water repellent pants, down sweater and ball cap. Then it was off to the mud room to don the insulated waterproof boots and then the line to board the Zodiacs.

After a two-minute ride to shore, we were off the Zodiac into about a foot of water and a few steps to land. For the next 2½ hours we hiked with our guide, a historian who discussed the Inuit settlement and its ruins there, which was abandoned 200 years before. We asked questions of another guide on the island too, a geologist. Then we returned back to the ship for breakfast.

Muskox at Renodde, Scoresby Sund, GreenlandAfter the last Zodiac was recovered we sailed to the Red Island area and arrived by 2:45 p.m. Before arriving at our next stop, there was an after- lunch lecture on the geology of Greenland. By 3:30 p.m. we were back in the Zodiacs for another wet landing, this one on Renodde.

We were there hoping to see muskox. We hiked about a half mile from the shore and climbed about 200 feet. Then, continuing on quietly and slowly, we climbed up a rise. Reaching the top, looking down about 300 feet below the rise, we saw a muskox up close. Muskox are skittish, and while we tried to stay as hidden as possible, the wind changed, putting us upwind. The muskox turned toward us and took off. We saw more muskox, but they were all more than a half mile away. At the completion of our 2½ hour climb/hike, we went back to the ship.

The day wasn’t over. At 6:30 p.m. that night we were again off in the Zodiacs, this time for a cruise in them.

The ship had sailed further up the Rodefjord. About a mile from the ship, an extremely shallow area less than 10 feet deep runs across a connecting fjord, which trapped hundreds of icebergs in a small area. I named the location, the “Iceberg Graveyard.” Slowly, these icebergs, which will never travel again, are melting into the fjord. We had a one-hour Zodiac cruise in and around these gorgeous hunks, some as high as 300–400 feet above the water, meaning they go to about 2,100–2,800 feet below the water.

After returning to the ship we had dinner, then a briefing on the next day’s excursions before retiring for the evening.

If days like this appeal to you, then seriously consider this type of travel. Expedition cruises can take you to sights and locations virtually unreachable any other way.

For more Arctic photos visit my Arctic Galleries showing the Iceberg Graveyard and Renodde in Greenland, as well as Lagoya Island and the July 14th Glacier area in Svalbard. More images will be posted in new Arctic galleries over the coming months.

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