Expedition cruising has been the flavour of the cruise industry for the past few years. It’s a segment of the market that has multiple players, some of which are well entrenched, some are new, and others are returning.
With two purpose-built polar vessels earmarked to join its fleet in the next 14 months, Seabourn is knuckling down on expedition in a major way.
Seabourn Venture launches in December 2021 and is a natural progression for the ultra-luxury cruise line after offering an expedition program for the past eight years.
Robin West, Vice President and General Manager, Expeditions for Seabourn says Seabourn Venture and the yet-to-be-named sister ship is an “evolution” of the brand, now four years in the making.
Under West’s guidance, Seabourn introduced an expedition product in Antarctica in 2013 which proved to be a runaway success. Based on that triumph, Ventures by Seabourn was born, a program of optional shore excursions (think Zodiacs, kayaking and hiking) delivered by an onboard expert expedition crew who also conduct lectures at sea. Ventures by Seabourn was offered across Seabourn’s fleet and expanded to Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, South America, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.
Over those years the Seabourn Expedition Team has amassed, with a group of academics, scientists and general naturalists eager to share their passion for exploration and learning in remote corners of the world. On board, the Expedition Team provide expert insights into the biodiversity, ecosystems, physical science, history and culture of places visited, both in formal Seabourn Conversations presentations and casual discussions.
The team are also off-ship expedition guides who enhance and enrich guests interaction and engagement in destinations.
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“We’ve built up an incredible team of bridge resources in terms of Captains, Ice Pilots, Officers with ice experience over the years. We have an incredible database of Expedition staff that have worked for us all over from all over the world.
“We’ve built up this experience, so now it’s a natural progression to these two expedition ships.
“There are a lot of players in the industry that are coming into the expedition segment and it’s new to them. They’ve never been in the segment,” West remarked.
“Although we’re for the first time building two dedicated expedition ships, in terms of the overall operation, in terms of the guest experience, in terms of the resources, the skills, the experience – we have all of that. We’re now just going to put that onto two dedicated expedition vessels,” West explained.
To bring guests close to the action in remote parts of the world, Seabourn Venture will sail with a full armoury of “toys” onboard.
The vessels will each carry an industry-leading 24 Zodiacs – enough to actually accommodate all 262 passengers on the ship at any one time. With four cranes on the top deck, Zodiacs can be lowered at speed, enabling Seabourn to respond quickly to a ‘sighting’, such as an encounter on the shore with wildlife.
“Most expedition ships would put guests in two groups as they don’t have enough space to accommodate everyone. For example, you would head out with one group, they have an incredible polar bear experience, come back, swap over groups, and the others don’t see them.”
“We wouldn’t do it often, but where we have a small window due to challenging conditions, we actually have the ability and flexibility to launch everything – put the guests in [the water], have a great experience, and within 2-hours – start, operate and finish, and we’re out.”
Of course, there’s more hardware than just the Zodiacs. Seabourn Venture is also equipped with a collection of sea kayaks to explore the polar and tropical regions of the planet. And for warmer climes, there will be scuba diving equipment for those guests that wish to dive, along with snorkelling gear.
A typical expedition day aboard Seabourn Venture would include a Zodiac landing in the morning, three or four submarine dives and kayaking opportunities, then an afternoon repositioning the ship over lunch, before repeating the morning’s experiences in the afternoon.
But perhaps the big-ticket item for expeditioners will be the dual six-seater (plus pilot), U Boat Worx submarines that have the range to dive 300 metres below the surface.
“Those are going to be fantastic to really explore an entirely new realm,” West said.
“We’ve put two onboard specifically to give us the capabilities to meet the demands of the entire vessel in some regions of the world.
A large portion of West’s career was spent as a dive instructor around the world, so getting close-up to mother nature underwater isn’t new to him, however even he was blown away by the clarity inside the U Boat Worx subs.
“When I was first invited to dive in the sub I was like, yeah, I’m sure it’s going to be great, but you know I’ve spent a lot of time in the water. The submarine’s spheres have the same reflective index of water, and when you descend, all of a sudden you feel like you’re just sitting underwater. I certainly didn’t expect it to be as overwhelming.”
“A lot of our guests may have missed the era of scuba diving and it is quite a physically demanding activity, so I think from a guest perspective, for the first time to be able to sit in that sub and go into the water, and just experience everything, it’s going to be an incredible experience for them.”
Interestingly, Seabourn will operate its two submarines from the expedition garage of the starboard side of Seabourn Venture with a 12-tonne crane. As a contingency, that design will be completely mirrored on the aft side of the ship, but with an empty space, should there be a failure with the primary crane.
“Essentially, if we wanted to, we could carry, service or maintain and operate with four submarines on one ship if we needed to,” West revealed.
Initial plans for Seabourn Venture included one submarine, but Arnold Donald, the CEO of Carnival Corporation which owns Seabourn, insisted two would be necessary, to a) meet demand; and to b) provide a backup should something break down on the first sub.
“When we built the ship, we were also building it with redundancy in mind. We have two 12 tonne cranes to launch the subs because if they’re in the water and a crane breaks down, we don’t want to leave a million dollars lying around,” West quipped. “We need to be able to get them back onboard”.
Most importantly though, having two submarines enables all 262 guests on Seabourn Venture to take a submarine dive on an itinerary in Antarctica.
Why no helicopters?
On the subject of initial plans, West also said the luxury cruise line had considered helicopters and Seabourn Venture’s design had included a double-deck hangar and helipad at the aft.
Consultants were called in to determine the noise and vibration impact a helicopter would have on the vessel and more importantly on the remote areas the expedition fleet would operate. Seabourn also heeded advice from travel partners, West said, who were overwhelmingly against having choppers onboard.
“Helicopters are fairly noisy. We looked at the process with specific noise reduction blades but the noise pollution and noise impact in remote areas was quite significant and over time we eventually came to the conclusion that it wasn’t really hugely beneficial to have them on board.
“The risks and the environmental impact didn’t outweigh having the helicopters so we eventually chose not to go that path,” he said.
Stay tuned to LATTE for more insights on Seabourn Venture from Robin West in coming weeks.