Exploring Antarctica, the Komodo Islands and the Galápagos by boat
Luxury expedition cruises are a long way from the cruise stereotype, says Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell
We’ve all seen photographs of those huge cruise ships dwarfing the Venice cityscape, witnessed their wake and the damage it can cause to canal side buildings or cursed when a place of beauty is transformed by the arrival of hundreds of visitors from the floating hotel moored in a previously empty harbour.
Having just returned from a week on a purpose-built vessel in Antarctica, the difference between cruises and the luxury expedition ship I was on could not be clearer. However, having previously travelled to two inaccessible and sensitive destinations – the Galapagos and Komodo Islands – on similarly purpose-built ocean-going boats, I do think that both vessel size and operating philosophy are imperative to understand, monitor and influence.
In Antarctica, I was on a seventy-person ship (albeit with just fifty of us on board), whilst in the Galápagos and Komodo Islands, there were less than twenty. When does small move to medium and then large – and what is the threshold?
Read on for my take on why luxury expedition cruises are different from traditional cruises, offering a very rewarding way to travel, and why they are also a supremely sustainable way to explore the world.
Of the 25 couples on board our vessel, only one had ever been on a cruise before. This could be attributed to the fact that our vessel was run by a polar specialist that is keen to stress the destination, guiding and active landings over the food and beverage or fixtures and fittings, so the trip itself attracted ‘non cruise’ types. Additionally, the scheduled time on board was under a week, whilst most cruises in Antarctica last much longer – so again, the choice of vessel and itinerary was self-selecting.
While on board, I couldn’t help but question how the experience would be with a full vessel of 70 passengers and, indeed, how it could work with more than that. Even the 50 of us seemed like a lot when we first gathered at the airport in Punta Arenas. The optimum number all comes down to the logistics of the wet landings and the zodiacs used for getting on and off the vessel. Around 10 zodiacs, each with 8 passengers and a driver/guide (or 8 zodiacs with 10 passengers and a driver/guide) is about the maximum to make time on the ice and embarking/disembarking the fulfilling and immersive experience that we found it to be.
Every company that cazenove+loyd works with in Antarctica is part of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). All the guides are experts in the region, so strict protocols are adhered to in terms of disinfecting footwear and management of waste, and in behaviour on board, on the ice and in the ocean. While pressure will mount from some members to have landings of 100 plus passengers at any one time – or more in any one place – we need to help IAATO maintain the emphasis on small expedition ships and an operating culture that makes Antarctica tourism safe, sustainable and responsible.
The Galápagos Islands
Located in a super sensitive part of the world, it’s unsurprising that the Galápagos National Park has very strict rules and limits as to what is appropriate. As with IAATO in Antarctica, there is pressure from larger cruise operators to change the dynamic of small ship expeditions and the destination-focused guests and guides that the region currently attracts.
Limits on which expedition vessels land and at which sites and on which days, and on the vessel sizes themselves, means that, at present, the destination is well managed. But small is beautiful for both client experience and nature, so we tend to favour boats of less than fifteen cabins (such small boats in Antarctica are possible but are less feasible due to the logistics of operating in the ice and the nature of the Drake Passage crossing).
As with Antarctica, the use of zodiac boats for wet landings and the emphasis on sea kayaks and snorkelling, plus well managed land excursions means that active and involved visitors will ensure destination-focused tourists and operators continue to police and influence the way the tourist economy develops. You can’t protect what you do not know and have not seen or understood.
Indonesia is broader West to East than the USA, so small ship expeditions are in their infancy due to the logistical challenges. However, this also makes Indonesia uniquely able to develop sustainably and responsibly as a destination, since it enjoys the privilege of being able to learn from the likes of the Galapagos Islands.
At present, vessels being used are for less than twenty passengers and are very often privately chartered from Bali or based in Raja Ampat for the season. Many islands visited en route enjoy little to no income from tourism, so local purchase of produce is a big plus for near subsistence fishing and farming communities. In time, this could lead to jobs and opportunities.
The government barely visits most islands, let alone monitors fishing practices, but the benefits of tourism and the eyes and ears of responsible operators could put an end to dynamite fishing and the coral reef destruction that I witnessed in some of the remotest locations we visited.