Updated January 8, 2020
Larger cruise ships use tenders for getting passengers to and from shore, smaller ships -- especially in the adventure category -- use Zodiacs to provide the same service or for nature-viewing excursions. Created in 1896 by the Zodiac boat company, Zodiacs come in different shapes and sizes but have a few key components in common. First off, they are inflatable; the sides and bow are constructed of inflatable tubes filled with pressurized gas, making them light, fast and easily transportable. They have shallow drafts, which means they can access shallow waters or water with obstacles such as rocks that would damage a less-hearty metal or fiberglass hull. And they are typically open-air, which makes them ideal for exploration by water, such as whale-watching excursions or sightseeing trips along rocky coastlines.
Cruise ships use these sturdy inflatable rafts in every part of the world, from the Caribbean where Zodiacs may take you through mangrove isles on a bird-watching tour, to Antarctica, where their easy navigation is key in getting passengers through waterways dotted with chunks of floating ice. Due to their smaller size and lack of cover, Zodiacs are best used by passengers with full mobility who are comfortable boarding and disembarking at sea, when the boat will be rocking due to wave motion and currents. Be prepared for wet landings, where the Zodiac pulls up at a beach and passengers hop out in the water and wade a few feet to shore.