Expedition cruising has been rising in popularity over the past decade, even becoming one of this year’s hottest travel trends. This dramatic growth has seen passenger numbers rise from approximately 67,000 in 2012 to 367,557 in 2022. The market is projected to grow even further, reaching an estimated 430,000 passengers per year by 2027.
The growing appeal of expedition cruising can be attributed to many unique aspects of these vessel’s designs and itineraries. The smaller, sturdier structure of these ships allows them to travel to the farthest reaches of the Earth, visiting more secluded or environmentally protected areas that larger cruise vessels cannot. Many are outfitted with equipment allowing passengers to embark on expeditions of their own. The smaller, more intimate size of these ships also appeals to passengers wanting to connect with their fellow explorers. Additionally, many expedition vessels boast lecture halls and science labs that encourage guests to learn more about their destinations.
Ships promising the utmost in comfort while taking passengers to the farthest reaches of the globe are on the rise. Current and upcoming expedition vessels are not only glamorous, such as the remarkable Seabourn Pursuit, but they are also more environmentally friendly, such as the zero-emission Northern Xplorer, set to debut in 2026.
The first expedition cruise vessels
These vessels are a far cry from the first expedition ships. This article will look at traditional expedition cruise vessels, sailing since before ‘luxury expedition’ was a market. Some of these ships are still sailing, braving the passage to the North Pole and exploring the Earth’s less-seen regions. Some have had their day, replaced by newer, more comfortable, and environmentally friendly ships. All of them have a tried-and-tested sense of adventure, harking back to an age of weathered explorers embarking on dangerous scientific expeditions.
While some may still be used by scientists, these ships were either built for or adapted for the cruise tourism market. Explore the original cruise expedition vessels below…
Hurtigruten MS Nordstjernen
Nordstjernen, named for the North Star, was built in 1956 and still takes passengers around the waters of Spitsbergen, an archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Although modernised in 2000 to ensure safety in Arctic sailing, Nordstjernen still has the aura of a classic Atlantic ship. Its design boasts wooden interiors, brass details, and the same art collection she launched with. Nordstjernen offers a classic small-ship exploration experience with a passenger capacity of only 149 and itineraries designed around the Arctic scenery and the chance to see polar bears.
Quark Expedition 50 Years of Victory
50 Years of Victory is a Russian Arktika-class nuclear-powered icebreaker, named for the victory of the Soviet Union in World War II. Having taken almost 20 years to build from the start date of October 1989, 50 Years of Victory missed the 1995 50-year anniversary of victory and departed on her maiden voyage in 2007. The ship features an experimental spoon-shaped bow, which is capable of breaking through 2.5m of ice. The vessel, acquired by Quark Expeditions in 2008, takes up to 128 guests on voyages to the once-in-a-lifetime destination of 90*N. In addition to fantastic destinations, passengers can enjoy a sightseeing helicopter, pool, library, sauna, and sports court. Quark Expeditions also hold claim to the first ever tourist transit of the Northeast Passage, with a different chartered Russian icebreaker, in 1991.
Lindblad MS Explorer – the first cruise vessel to sail the Antarctic Ocean
MS Explorer was the first cruise vessel used specifically for sailing the icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean. It took its first expeditionary cruise to the Antarctic in 1969. As luck would have it, MS Explorer was also the first cruise ship to sink in the Antarctic Ocean, making its final journey in 2007 (all passengers and crew were rescued). MS Explorer carried 118 passengers to destinations previously untouched by tourism. These included Easter Island, the Galapagos, Alaska, and the Amazon.
Hapag-Lloyd MS Bremen
Expedition cruising saw a period of significant growth in the 1990s, with the founding of Quark Expeditions and Aurora Expeditions. During this time, Hapag-Lloyd also turned their attention to the expedition cruise market. MS Bremen and MS Hanseatic were both launched under the Hapag-Lloyd name in 1993. MS Bremen has room for 155 guests, making it small enough to visit ports less frequented by tourists. In 2003, a previously uncharted island in the Antarctic was discovered by MS Bremen and subsequently named Bremen Island. For Hapag-Lloyd, Bremen is sadly a victim of the pandemic, with the cruise line accelerating her retirement. The ship was sold to Scylla, a Swiss river cruise company looking to make the move into the ocean market. Bremen left Hapag-Lloyd’s fleet in Spring 2021. Since April 2021, the vessel, renamed MS Seaventure, has been operating under VIVA Cruises, owned by Scylla Cruises.
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