With new competition coming in the expedition cruise niche, existing lines are looking to burnish their brands with unusual amenities and unique ways of exploring the natural environment
One of the more distinctive efforts is being planned by Ponant, the French luxury expedition specialist, which has unveiled details of novel underwater lounges being designed for its next four ships.
The multisensory lounges will be located beneath the waterline on the four Explorer-class ships, the first of which will be called Le Laperouse and will begin sailing about a year from now.
The lounges, to be called Blue Eye, will feature two large observation windows, one on each side of the ship, shaped like a whale's eye.
The Blue Eye lounge will have submarine-like windows shaped like whale’s eyes, inspired by Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
In addition, Ponant said, wall-mounted digital screens will project images filmed live by three underwater cameras strategically placed to capture spectacles.
The lounge will include a sound system that will use hydrophones, a type of microphone designed to capture underwater sounds, able to pick up audio of sea life within a 3-mile radius of the vessel.
"Body listening sofas" will discreetly vibrate in unison with the streaming aquatic acoustics, Ponant said.
Underwater floodlights will run most of the length of the ship, illuminating the view from the Blue Eye.
Ponant released renderings showing the futuristic-looking lounges bathed in dim blue light, with curving white contemporary sofas tiered in banks around the observation portals. A carpeted staircase leads down from an upper deck, partly screened by a white, amoeba-shaped bulkhead.
The designer for the Blue Eye is Jacques Rougerie, a French architect who specializes in underwater habitats and aquatic centers.
Navin Sawhney, CEO of the Americas for Ponant, said some of the inspiration for the Blue Eye was taken from the Jules Verne science fiction novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," in which the fictional Capt. Nemo pilots a submarine called the Nautilus. Illustrated versions of the novel show a whale's eye observation window.
In addition, "The entire design of this lounge draws from the inspiration of the ocean," Sawhney said.
A rendering of Le Laperouse, expected to debut in the summer of 2018 with a maiden voyage in Iceland.
The Blue Eye will be approximately 800 square feet in size, with windows of about 20 square feet each, Sawhney said. "It will hold very comfortably 50 people, 40 of whom might be seated," he said. "Another 10 might be walking around or [standing], looking through the window." That means the lounge will have the capacity to accommodate more than a quarter of the guests on a 184-passenger Explorer-class vessel.
While several other expedition lines have adopted submarines to offer submerged observation, Sawhney said of Ponant's solution, "You are underwater, so you don't really need another submarine to take you into it."
The sound system also differentiates the Blue Eye from a silent submarine. Ponant said the sound system was developed by Michel Redolfi, a contemporary music composer and sound design expert.
The first ships to receive a Blue Eye will be Le Laperouse and Le Champlain, to be delivered in 2018. They will be followed by two more Explorer-class ships, Le Bourgainville and Le Dumont-d'Urville, in 2019.
While unusual, the Blue Eye will not be unprecedented. The 350-passenger Radisson Diamond, one of the original ships operated by the predecessor to Regent Seven Seas Cruises, also featured an underwater viewing area.
Le Laperouse will make its maiden voyage in Iceland, where passengers might see a variety of ocean denizens, ranging from sea turtles, porpoises, seals and dolphins to orcas and several other species of whales.
Sawhney said the development of the Blue Eye is in keeping with the mission of Ponant, which he described as "to take people farther, where others do not go."
He added: "That comes through very well in the creation of this lounge, because what we are trying to do here is in essence to place our guest in the destination as much as we possibly can."