Yes, clients can book a vacation onboard Viking Octantis in plush accommodations featuring the cruise line’s signature Scandinavian style. Sure, they can savor global cuisine — including nightly lobster tails — along with time in the full-service Nordic spa. And of course, they will sail to ports and destinations with the opportunity to see new things and take part in once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But don’t be fooled — Viking’s expedition arm is not your average cruise.
Viking Octantis — and soon-to-debut sister Viking Polaris — are fully equipped research vessels employing several scientists and specialists onboard; for a lucky few, their full-time job on the ship is to go about conducting their research. “It’s not just a cruise ship that happens to have a science program,” says Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, a marine scientist with an office at Cambridge University whose portfolio is an impressive one. He was headhunted by Viking three years ago to be its head of Science and Sustainability, leaving a pristine position as the executive director of the International Association of Antarctic Operators (IAATO).
Onboard a Great Lakes itinerary this week, he led us on a tour of the ship and into its bowels where an unbelievable bounty of equipment lies, from two $5 million submarines to a full, 400-square-foot genetics laboratory. Recreational submarines are relatively nonexistent, and passengers have the chance to dive down to the depths of their destination if the conditions are right. The only other ship that has a lab like the one here is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. We’re told that Viking is in the process of transforming the lab from health-based genetics testing (aka processing PCR results) to nature-based genetics research.
No detail was too small in designing and outfitting the ship, which Stanwell-Smith assisted with. The boots provided to guests and used on expeditions in Polar regions have soles that are specially designed to not carry seeds or other environmental contagions with them in their tread; 1,000 pairs were privately commissioned by Viking to adhere to these biosecurity standards.
“It’s like the back of the vessel is paid for by the front end of the vessel,” Stanwell-Smith says, explaining that the revenue from cruise passengers helps to sustain the ship’s many significant scientific programs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is one of Viking’s many partners and Octantis is the 103rd civilian weather station, providing essential data back to NOAA from Antarctica or the Great Lakes where it sails. (Viking Polaris will be number 104.)
“And it’s almost like the back end of the ship justifies the travel taking place onboard,” according to Stanwell-Smith. The staff has been shocked by how popular weather balloon launches have been with passengers, which typically take place on the top deck early in the morning, before sunrise.
Stanwell-Smith explains that the difference between citizen science and primary science is that instead of passengers participating in isolated science experiments, professional scientists are conducting studies and gathering information, and guests can witness and learn about this exciting research as it’s happening. “I would benchmark Viking Octantis against any other operating research vessel,” he says.