ABOARD THE VIKING OCTANTIS -- Two military-grade boats capable of being dropped out of a plane midair. Two yellow submarines named John and Paul. A wet and dry science lab analyzing samples of microplastics found in Lake Michigan. A dozen birds of the Great Lakes made of felt.
These were just a few of the tools and toys I found on the Viking Octantis, Viking's first expedition ship, during a tour with Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, a scruffy-faced marine scientist and the line's head of science and sustainability.
For the last three years, he's obsessed over this ship and how it can marry science and research into its mission, especially amid anxiety over climate change, pollution and microplastics, he said. This ship has the equipment, three permanent scientists onboard and the time to contribute to research in partnership with institutions like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
"This is the closest most will get to being on a working research vessel," Stanwell-Smith said.
People who sail on Viking have an "extraordinary" appetite for science, he said, measured by the popularity of science activities and feedback from guests. For instance, when the ship releases a weather balloon 16 miles into the stratosphere at 7 a.m., about half the passengers are on deck to witness it. The Octantis is one of 103 weather-balloon launch stations worldwide and the first doing so as a civilian ship.
Even the cabin balconies on the 378-passenger Octantis are geared toward science and nature. Instead of traditional balconies with chairs that Stanwell-Smith said would sit empty and covered in snow in Antarctica, passengers can stand in their cabin in pajamas, roll down the large window to about chest high and use professional-grade binoculars (available in each cabin) to look for wildlife like whales or birds.
Speaking of birds, the life-size, felt birds of the region give guests an anatomically correct depiction of bald eagles or a wandering albatross (with a wingspan of up to 11 feet!).
In the water, submarines explore the depths of the ocean and the shallower depths of the Great Lakes. During one dive, 300 feet deep in Antarctica, guests watched as a rare giant phantom jellyfish pass by.
Viking guests are scientifically literate, Stanwell-Smith said, and as the line introduces its second expedition vessel and two oceangoing ships, he said to expect to see science play a growing role.