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'A ship of opportunity': Viking expedition vessels visit the Great Lakes

 Superintendent of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Jeff Gray (left) and Viking Head of Science and Sustainability Damon Stanwell-Smith (right)
Zipporah Abarca
Superintendent of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Jeff Gray (left) and Viking Head of Science and Sustainability Damon Stanwell-Smith (right) pose in front of the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center after being out on the boat.

With a crew of 256 and around 378 guests consisting of scientists and people in search of an educational vacation, the Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris cruises explore the Great Lakes and oceans.

The vessels were designed to be narrow enough to enter the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. They are about 77 feet wide and hold two submarines each as they travel from places like Antarctica, Ushuaia, Canada and Nuuk.

The ships carry some 600,000 guests every year that come from all over the world, but mainly America and Canada. Those that book the cruise can witness scientists conducting research projects based on the different destinations that are a part of the itinerary as well as experience excursions.

Viking Head of Science and Sustainability Damon Stanwell-Smith said the cruise delivers science as a “ship of opportunity.”

“Every time we have … 400 guests on board, we have 400 more people who understand what nourishes the Great Lakes,” he said. “[They] better understand the mission of the sanctuary and more broadly understand communities [in terms of conservation] and so on.”

One of the Viking vessel's key partnerships is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s sanctuary.

Stanwell-Smith said they work in support of NOAA’s mission to protect and conserve around the world, and when they are ported in Alpena, it is much easier to be even more aligned and help one another with their research.

Stephanie Gandulla, Resource Protection Coordinator and Maritime Archaeologist for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said the partnership with Viking has been valuable to the sanctuary.

“NOAA’s partnership with Viking Expeditions really has great potential to not only expand our Great Lakes research capabilities but also connect to a new, global audience,” she said.

The agreement to collaborate began in 2020 which is also when the ships were being designed and built. The vessels were officially completed in 2022.

When traveling to any community, Stanwell-Smith said the expeditions make sure they tend to the needs of the area rather than docking and disappearing without generating revenues.

Specific to Alpena, guests are welcome to the sanctuary to learn more about the Great Lakes, explore the breweries, wineries and take part in excursions. Stanwell-Smith said most guests on board haven’t been to the Great Lakes, and Alpena is an incredibly popular destination.

“It's good for our economy,” he said. “It's good for our environment … and we sincerely put immense amounts of effort into understanding how we can interface with every single community.”

Stanwell-Smith said revenue from guests on board enables research into water conservation, microplastics, water motion and air quality.

“I've been a marine biologist for over 30 years now,” he said. “And I spent more time prior to working at Viking chasing money rather than science because you have to feed the mouths of all the younger scientists that are on your charge. That is the life of being a professional scientist.

“And a paradigm whereby enthusiastic guests (are able to make) that happen -- you can spend your time actually thinking about science instead of thinking about where the money is going to come from.”

When at the sanctuary or in other parts of the waters, the expedition vessels conduct research based on the shared interests of their destinations. When recently docked in Alpena, the Octantis focused on multi-beam sonars to better understand shipwrecks and the seabed before taking off to their next location – Canada.

Located in Lake Superior is the Gunilda Wreck from 1911. According to Shipwreck Explorers, the owner of the ship had decided not to hire a pilot to navigate and the vessel eventually hit rocks. The crew safely made it to shore leaving the ship behind. The owner decided against paying for the retrieval of Gunilda.

Although guests will not be taking part firsthand in the research being conducted on the ships, they are still able to learn just as much as the scientists.

“We're on the same journey as our guests, learning and building up familiarity,” Stanwell-Smith said. “Which has been wonderful. I mean, it's been a real joy in the last few years, which is I think we've all needed after the pandemic.”

Stanwell-Smith used a restaurant metaphor to explain.

“If you go into the kitchens of a good restaurant, you don't have the chefs lining up and saying ‘Tada!’” he said. “They're busy kind of cooking things and shouting at each other and doing their thing and what comes out is very nice.

“What we're doing with our guests is saying look, you’re not going to go behind the scenes and everyone's gonna line up and say hello. They're busy doing their thing. And you learn what it's like and you can experience what it's like, what active research looks like, including failure.”

Stanwell-Smith said even when they fail, they don't avoid talking about it, it is all apart of the process which guests get to witness.

“It is a sincere understanding of how the day to day life of the scientists that work in any research facility on a personal environment,” he said.

The Viking expedition ships Polaris and Octantis were both designed to have a silent and simple atmosphere. Stanwell-Smith said they do not identify as a luxury brand.

“We don't have a PA system blaring out, everything's done through push notifications on smartphones,” he said. “We have a world class exploratory library … Everything is just quiet, chill.”

In a world that is competing for money and attention, Stanwell-Smith said he thinks the Viking expedition ships are on the right trajectory as an escape from that world.

“I'd be delighted if this model becomes more normalized,” he said. “That's a good thing for us all because more information and more scientific evidence helps us make more informed decisions. Those informed decisions hopefully protect us better from the world of change that we're in right now.”

The Polaris and Octantis can be expected to return to Alpena July 13 and July 17.