ONBOARD VIKING OCANTIS — Atlantic Canada welcomed its first cruise ship since pre-pandemic times last Friday in the Charlottetown harbour. But the Viking Octantis is no ordinary cruise ship.
Like the rest of Viking’s fleet, there are no casinos, no butlers, no formal nights and no umbrella drinks. But there is an onboard PCR testing lab, a science lab, an in-ship marina and even two submarines—along with Viking’s trademark Nordic design and understated elegance.
With the launch of Viking’s expedition offerings earlier this year, the new Polar Class Viking Octantis set out from the Antarctic to New York City, weaving through the Caribbean along the way, before heading to the North American Great Lakes region for the summer.
Later this year, an identical expedition ship, Viking Polaris, will be launched, as well as two new ocean ships, new longships in Europe and new purpose-built vessels for the Nile, Mekong and Mississippi rivers.
Torstein Hagen, the chairman of Viking Cruises, made a surprise appearance during the sailing between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and New York City, where he gave an overview of the company’s plans in The Aula, a panoramic auditorium inspired by the University of Oslo’s ceremonial hall (and the former venue for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony). A 4k laser-projected screen retracts to expose floor-to-ceiling windows and 270-degree views.
“Our ocean business has been phenomenally successful,” said Hagen. Viking now has six ships in its ocean fleet, with five additional ships under construction and options for another four. “I think it’s very clear that with COVID people want to be on smaller ships.”
At the start of 2022, all 80 longships in Viking’s river fleet were operational after gearing up during 2021. A few things have changed since then. “We have five ships in Russia and one ship in Ukraine, so they will not operate this year,” said Hagen.
Originally Viking Octantis was to be named upon its arrival in New York City by her ceremonial godmother, Liv Arnesen, the world-renowned Norwegian explorer—the first woman in the world to ski solo to the South Pole in 1994. But Hagen said the timing didn’t seem right with world events, including the Brooklyn subway shooting and the ongoing war in Ukraine, so the ceremony will be held at a later date.
There’s more to come this year, with a new Mekong ship slated for delivery in August that takes its inspiration from traditional Mekong vessels. Two new ships will also sail on the Nile this year (Viking Osiris) and next (Viking Aton), each with a capacity of 82 guests. And Viking will enter new waters this year with the Viking Mississippi, with capacity for 384 guests, which Hagen says will be a “game changer” on the Mississippi River.
New for 2023, the repositioning of Viking Octantis from Antarctica to the Great Lakes will take place via the West Coast of South America and the Panama Canal (rather than the current Caribbean itinerary), with new “Chilean Fjords and Patagonia Explorer” and “Panama & Scenic South America” itineraries.
Both Polar Class ships host 378 guests in 189 staterooms, all of which feature a Nordic balcony—a sunroom that converts into an al fresco viewing platform with an observation shelf for binoculars. In addition to familiar ocean spaces—such as the Explorers’ Lounge, The Living Room and The Nordic Spa—the expedition ships feature new unique spaces.
The Hangar, for example, houses a fleet of polar-tested kayaks, military-grade zodiacs, two 12-seater convertible Special Operations Boats (SOBs) and two six-guest submarines with 270-degree spherical windows. It also features an industry-first in-ship marina that makes it easy to embark and disembark while sheltered from the elements.
There’s also The Science Lab, developed in partnership with the University of Cambridge and Akvaplan-Niva, designed to support various research activities—and where guests can learn from and work alongside resident scientists.
For example, in the Caribbean, Dr. Brandi Revels, an isotope geochemist, showed guests how to identify and count microplastics in ocean water samples. On another occasion, guests watched as researchers launched a weather balloon into the air, as part of Viking’s partnership with the National Weather Service (Viking is the first civilian ship sanctioned as a launch site for weather balloons).
It’s “not pretend” for the benefit of guests, said Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, science and sustainability manager of expedition operations. Rather, Viking is adding to the collection of worldwide weather data—900 balloons are sent up each day—and every data point counts. “We’re often in places that most people don’t go,” he said, “like the Antarctic.”
The Viking Expedition Team include 36 experts, including field research scientists, general naturalists, kayak guides, submarine pilots and specialists in areas such as ornithology, geology and higher predator biology. On shore, guests can assist in fieldwork or interact through experiential activities, such as monitoring birds to help identify migratory patterns.
Travel agents with clients who are apprehensive about cruising during the pandemic can point to Viking’s full-scale PCR labs installed on board its ocean and expedition ships (as well as dedicated shoreside labs for longships in Europe). The Viking Health & Safety Program requires all guests and crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to receive up to daily saliva PCR tests—from the comfort of their stateroom.
Viking Octantis (named after Octantis, the South Star in the Antarctic) is now en route to the Great Lakes, an exploration of the historic waterways of all five Great Lakes, from the granite islands of Georgian Bay to the dense boreal forests that line Lake Superior.