Cruises have gotten a bad rap lately, and some would argue that’s justifiably so. One recent study found that air quality on a cruise ship deck was “worse than the world's most polluted cities,” with one ship emitting as much particulate matter as a million cars each day.
The 2016 Cruise Ship Report Card from the NGO Friends of the Earth graded 17 major cruise lines on their environmental impact. Only one (Disney Cruise Lines) scored an A-; four other lines were given a C; and the rest were all rated as Ds and Fs.
Of course, not all cruises are created equal, and not all cruise lines feature behemoth ships carrying 5,000+ passengers. Expedition cruises have become increasingly popular in recent years, offering a more intimate and adventurous experience that focuses less on the ship and more on shore-based activities.
Here we’ll take a look at some of the major differences between an expedition cruise and a “normal” cruise to help illustrate why we believe that small-ship cruises offer a better overall experience for travelers.
Expedition Cruises vs. “Normal” Cruises
Expedition cruises are taken on small ships carrying fewer than 170 passengers: Most have around a 10-to-1 guest-to-guide ratio. Their diminutive size and shallow drafts allow these ships to get much closer to scenic wonders and dock in less-visited ports than those massive cruise ships can access. And, because expedition ships are smaller, their scheduled itinerary tends to be more flexible, allowing for last-minute changes due to weather, sea conditions, wildlife sightings, or other unforeseen events.
The experience aboard the best small-ship cruises tends to be very different as well. On typical cruise ships, the primary focus is on the onboard activities and entertainment, from water parks and sports to cabaret, concerts, and shopping. The cruise staff is there to ensure their guests have a good time. Educational programming is typically minimal, sprinkled in as seasoning rather than being the “main course” of the cruise’s offerings.
But on expedition cruises, the staff is typically made up of naturalists and science-oriented guest lecturers. There are often daily (or twice-daily) presentations on the politics, culture, history, geology, ecology, and/or anthropology of a destination. These lectures are designed to help enhance the visitors’ understanding of the places and activities they explore. Some expeditions may even have expert photographers or travel writers on board to help guests learn how to better document their own experience.
These expeditions often offer luxurious accommodations on board the ship, but more rugged adventures when going ashore. Excursions are generally taken on Zodiac inflatable crafts, which presents the option of “wet landings” on beaches or rocky shorelines. From that point, groups are occasionally divided by fitness level or interests. For instance, one of our landing parties in Antarctica hiked up a huge hill in order to get a better scenic vista, while the rest of us hung out along the shore, where we were surrounded by penguins.
Zegrahm Expeditions’ Small-Ship Cruises
For over 25 years now, Zegrahm has established itself as a global leader in expedition cruises. Here’s a look at a few highlights of the 16 different small-ship cruises being offered in 2018:
Most people think of safaris when they consider travel to the African continent. But the Sea to Sahara expedition offers 100 guests an opportunity to explore Cape Verde, the Canary Islands, and Morocco aboard the recently renovated Island Sky with Zegrahm President Van Perry and co-founder Mike Messick. On the eastern side of Africa, there’s also an 18-day adventure aboard the Silver Discoverer that visits the Seychelles and Madagascar.
Arctic / Antarctic
Polar exploration makes for some of the world’s most memorable expedition cruises. Perhaps this explains why Zegrahm offers four different trips to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In the Untamed North, guests get a chance to see the wondrous wildlife of Greenland and Iceland, while the Svalbard expedition offers an opportunity to view polar bears and other animals in Norway’s remote archipelago. In the Southern Hemisphere, there are two in-depth adventures that offer incredible access to the stunning landscapes of Antarctica.
Zegrahm’s small-ship cruises include two very different experiences in the only country that is also a continent. The Australia’s Kimberley expedition visits nearly a dozen destinations in northwestern Australia’s outback, which boasts unique wildlife and striking desert landscapes. And marine life lovers won’t want to miss the Best of the Great Barrier Reef trip, which provides unparalleled access to snorkeling and diving in some of the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s most pristine coral reefs.
Late spring is arguably the best time to visit Europe, before the heat of summer and the swarms of mass tourism make things uncomfortable for visitors and locals alike. Zegrahm’s Discoveries of Coastal Europe excursion provides 120 guests with two weeks of adventures along the coast of England, France, Spain, and Portugal in the newly refurbished Ocean Adventurer. The Wild & Ancient Britain expedition focuses on the United Kingdom and Ireland, including some of the region’s most beautiful and remote islands.
Central & South America
Thanks to the Obama Administration’s loosening of restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, the island has become one of the world’s hottest expedition cruise destinations in recent years. Zegrahm offers two options: The 14-day Circumnavigation of Cuba provides a more in-depth and immersive experience, while the Canal to Cuba excursion gives guests smaller samples of Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama. The Wild Galápagos expedition is a small-ship cruise that should be on every nature lover’s bucket list. And, Hidden Gems of the Caribbean, our final expedition of 2018, offers 56 island lovers a 12-day adventure they’ll never forget.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.