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Anybody who has been on an expedition cruise will remember those extraordinary moments unfolding as if by magic. Thousands of penguins with fluffy chicks. The perfect sunset over an active volcano. Sea lions diving into the water to join you on a snorkeling trip. Stepping ashore and stumbling right into a dazzling local festival.
Good fortune, right? Wrong. While it may all seem spontaneous, your expedition cruise will have been meticulously planned. Dig beneath the surface and you'll uncover years of preparation and a dedicated team of experts operating round the clock, onboard and ashore, to keep the thrills coming while keeping you safe.
Expedition cruising is more in the public eye than it ever has been. "Expedition cruising is essentially where the river cruise industry was 10 years ago -- just starting to come onto everyone's radar and capture their interest," says Ben Lyons, chief executive officer of Expedition Voyage Consultants.
Change, Lyons believes, is coming thick and fast. "Traditionally, expedition ships were 100 passengers and older, repurposed Russian vessels," he says. "Now, most new expedition ships carry 200 passengers and there is a huge number of purpose-built vessels being delivered in the next four years. As the standard and comfort level has risen, more mainstream cruisers who would have otherwise not considered sailing on ships with such bare-bones comfort are suddenly wanting to travel to the polar regions."
But with so many more ships and passengers, and such high expectations, how do you put it all together? "Expedition travel is inherently more complex than 'normal' cruising," says Lyons. "You are often operating around ice, in areas that are often poorly charted, and where there is a lack of shoreside infrastructure. Veritable expedition experience is vital. You can't just show up and learn as you go along.
"Experience and operational history -- whether in the expedition staff or the captain driving the ship in ice -- does mean something and does translate into the quality of the guest experience. It isn't necessarily that expedition companies plan their trips out any further than conventional cruise lines; it's more that they need to have institutional knowledge of the destinations to deliver a safe and rewarding expedition to their guests."
One thing that's heart-warming about the expedition cruise industry, Lyons points out, is the way cruise lines work together when planning polar voyages. "While they are a group of competitors, they all come together to work for the good of the regions they are traveling through, coming up with mutually agreed guidelines and specifications to preserve the environment," he says. "Everything from search and rescue to not having two ships at the same place at the same time is all agreed upon as an industry, and they get together at two annual meetings for IAATO (the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) or AECO (the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) to review operations and guidelines. It is a remarkable spirit of cooperation that isn't seen in the same way in the rest of the cruise industry."
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Conrad Combrink, Silversea's senior vice president, strategic development of expeditions and experiences, is one man who knows know what it's like to fulfil customers' dreams in some of the world's harshest environments. Combrink has been at the front line of expedition planning for more than a decade. He agrees with Lyons about the early days. "It was a challenge at first to prove that you can combine expeditions with luxury," he remembers. "There was this whole idea that going to Antarctica was some rite of passage that meant sleeping on a hard bunk bed."
Combrink has the advantage of a long career in the field, actually leading expeditions. "I can plan the itineraries as an expedition leader, not someone who is sitting in an office," he says. "I know what the struggles are, what to avoid. You start by looking at the abilities of the ship, whether it has an ice classification, for example, and can sail in Antarctica. You look at weather; there's no point turning up in Antarctica in March. You look at market trends, see where there's a gap. You want to keep adding something new every year.
"We also look at political situations and cultural events. For example, you need to be at Pentecost Island in Vanuatu between April and June for the land diving -- it's the forerunner of bungee jumping when men dive from wooden towers with vines tied to their feet. So we decide where we need to be going, and what works commercially. Then we build the itinerary around the highlights."
Combrink is a firm believer in detailed research. "Our company wants to make sure that if it's done, it's done in a way that is unique. Of course we don't always get it right. With 900 destinations there are incredible challenges but we spend so much on scouting and development. We're currently scouting destinations that are not even on the radar. The challenge is, whether what we can do in theory now, we can actually put into practice three years later."
Working so far ahead to plan can make it difficult to guess what will be in vogue in three years' time. Sometimes, Combrink says, destinations take a while to capture the public's imagination. "We're launching the West Coast of America in 2018," he says. "We're a little disappointed with the reaction; I don't think people realize just how good it can be. I'm not concerned; we had similar reactions when we launched the Russian Far East in 2014; at first, we were sailing with barely 30 people. Now, it's waitlisted. We may be a bit ahead of our time. It takes persistence."
And once a destination takes off, you need to keep the interest coming. "We're going to Wrangel Island in the Russian Far East this summer, where hopefully, we're going to see lots of polar bears," Combrink continues. "It's the first time we'll have gone that far in. "Looking ahead, we're going to do the North East Passage next year -- we'll be one of just a handful of companies and ships to go there."
Sometimes, even the most carefully made plans go to waste and it's often down to human error. "We were in Papua New Guinea," Combrink remembers. "We were planning on visiting Murik Lakes, where thousands of people would greet us and there would be a massive cultural experience. I hyped it up to the passengers at the previous day's briefing but in the morning, when we sent out our scout boat, there was nobody around. We went to the chief and he said they hadn't known we were coming. We made the best of it, exploring in our Zodiacs and it was actually wonderful in the end, just seeing village life.
"Unpredictability comes when there's a human element. When it's just us and our operation, it's far easier to predict the outcome. In New Caledonia, the local tour operator, who was used to handling big ships, wouldn't listen to what we wanted. Our guests were greeted with women dancing in plastic 'grass' skirts and drinks in plastic cups instead of coconut shells. The day before we'd been on top of a mountain in pickup trucks, watching a volcano erupting at sunset, but luckily, our guests saw the funny side."
However much you plan, nature can conspire against you. On a maiden call to Bangladesh, Combrink and his team fell afoul of an early monsoon. "Bangladesh was incredible," he says. "All the best-laid plans went to hell but the kind of clientele that books a cruise like that has a serious sense of adventure and the passengers were excited. We got to Cox's Bazar [a town on the Bay of Bengal] and the weather was foul. The monsoon had come early. We were supposed to sail inland, up a river to the town, but all the sandbanks had shifted and none of our waypoints were accurate. The weather was so bad that even the local boat drivers wouldn't come out.
"We had a guest lecturer onboard who was fluent in Bengali. It was 5 a.m. but I woke him up and put him in a Zodiac. He was terrified! We chased down a fishing boat and convinced the captain, with money, of course, to show us the entrance to the river. We'd spent three years planning this and I didn't want to let the locals down any more than the guests. It was the first time in history a cruise ship had been there and it would have been a terrible blow if we canceled."
In the end, a brief window of opportunity opened to go ashore, despite the fact that the guests would have to skip lunch as plans were by now upside down. "Seeing the kids in the local school giving their hearts to the performance they laid on for us brought a tear to my eye," remembers Combrink. "I thought, these kids will be getting an aid ration pack for their lunch and here I am, worrying about the guests, who eat in abundance on the ship.
"It was a huge success and we're making three more calls in 2019."
Expedition travel by nature will take you to parts of the world where people live in challenging conditions. But rather than shy away from the issues, a good expedition cruise line will find a way to present difficult situations in a positive way. "In Sierra Leone, for example, we take our guests to a clinic that deals with amputees," says Combrink. "The war here was brutal but this is a country that's reconciled and one way it's done this is through sport. So we take our guests to an amputee soccer match, which is deeply moving. You shouldn't shy away from reality; our guests are very intelligent people and wouldn't like that."
But delivering the authentic does not always mean exotic. "In Ireland, we stay in Galway till midnight and while we could, and do, show the guests castles and gardens, we also take over a pub where they can drink Guinness and eat pub food," says Combrink. "Because that's what you should do in Ireland."
The expedition market is becoming a crowded one; Expedition Voyage Consultants' Ben Lyons notes that demand for the polar regions is outstripping supply. How do you, as the customer, pick your cruise line? Unfettered luxury and submarine trips? Or years of experience? "I'm not shying away from the fact that we don't have the newest ships," says Combrink. "There's space for everybody and I wish them all luck. We don't have helicopters and submarines. We're a different product. We focus on destinations, staff, onboard delivery and we've got more than 20 years of solid experience. We will never do gimmicks. We understand luxury.
"We don't have big name speakers, for example. Instead, we focus on the best expedition staff. It's far more important to have an active expedition staff member who shares our vision than a celebrity guest lecturer. Our crew are passionate, energetic and vibrant. I'd rather have 12 or 20 really good people than make it all about one person.
Whether or not expedition companies are going down the helicopters-and-subs route or working with older vessels, one big issue has to be faced: At some point, there won't be enough expedition leaders. "A lot of expedition leaders are getting older and retiring," says Combrink. "We have a very strong database of expedition staff but we feel there's a need to expand and start training the staff of the future. We set up our own training academy two years ago and we recruit eight trainees every year. We take them through a training process online and then they do six weeks on a ship, where they learn everything from Zodiac driving to first aid and public speaking. The course ends with a contract to work exclusively for Silversea Expeditions."
Finally, is there anywhere left that's completely unexplored? "It's not like that," Combrink explains. "This is not exploration cruising. It's expedition travel, although there are many destinations that you can interpret differently, for example, Scotland, which is a phenomenal place. In any case, you don't want to be so ambitious in your itinerary planning that you fail. You have to make sure that you retain the safety of your guests at all times.
"What we do is take the modern traveler to destinations that would otherwise be inaccessible. We go to places that explorers like Shackleton visited under real hardship. The experiences that we have delivered to our guests were once considered untenable in a luxurious context. Yet we have transformed the industry to enable travelers to reach the world's most beautiful and secluded destinations in utmost comfort."
Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist and a big fan of expedition cruising. As well as working for Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia). Top of the bucket list for adventure cruising are Antarctica and Raja Ampat in Indonesia, although her recent expedition to the Galapagos would be hard to beat.