In a surprising collaboration, Viking, a renowned luxury cruise line, has joined forces with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to embark on scientific research cruises across the Great Lakes region.
Over the past three years, Viking crews, NOAA researchers, and passengers paying between $6,000 and $38,000 have been navigating the waters of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario on specially designed ships while conducting vital climate studies.
Unlike typical leisure cruises, these voyages prioritize scientific exploration. Bryan Mroczka, the science director of the partnership and a physical scientist at NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, explained, "They're not casual cruises as you would normally think, where everyone's sitting by the pool having a drink and stuff like that.
There are science lectures all day, and people are engaged, hands-on with some of these science experiments where they can safely do so." This unique collaboration offers mutual benefits to both Viking and NOAA. It allows Viking to enter the increasingly competitive Great Lakes cruise industry, allowing the company to market "citizen-based science" expeditions to affluent and environmentally conscious travelers.
Meanwhile, the Viking ships serve as floating research laboratories for NOAA and its Great Lakes laboratory for ongoing scientific investigations.
Progress and Communication Coordination
Although the partnership is still a work in progress, Mroczka expressed satisfaction with the results thus far.
He manages the venture through the Great Lakes lab in Michigan, one of seven operated by NOAA. Mroczka's responsibilities involve facilitating communication between NOAA researchers and Viking, ensuring they have the necessary resources to conduct their studies effectively.
While Viking officials declined to comment on the partnership, a press release from the company in May stated that the agreement would enable Viking to "further develop the scientific enrichment program for its Great Lakes voyages." Nevertheless, there are challenges to navigate, particularly due to maritime regulations that govern transportation involving an international vessel within the United States.
The two Viking ships, based in Switzerland, must adhere to the Jones Act, which requires cargo and passengers transported between U.S. ports to be ferried by an American crew on an American ship. Mroczka acknowledged that multiple legal barriers have slowed progress and stated, "We've been working very hard to figure out ways to work with these laws and still be able to get the science that we need." The two Viking ships offer various routes, including the "Niagara and the Great Lakes" tour.
This eight-day excursion takes passengers from Toronto to Niagara Falls, Point Pelee, Detroit, Alpena's Thunder Bay, and Mackinac Island and concludes in Milwaukee. Last year marked the launch of the partnership, with the vessel Octantis being the sole Viking ship sailing the Great Lakes.
In May of this year, the Viking Polaris joined, effectively doubling the capacity for experiments and data collection. Each ship can accommodate up to 378 guests in 189 staterooms. The research primarily focuses on measuring the impact of climate change on the Great Lakes.
The researchers employ weather balloons that transmit data to the National Weather Service, aiding in forecast models. Unlike traditional weather balloons that remain stationary, the location of the ship causes the information from these weather balloons to change as the vessel travels.
Stephanie Gandulla, the resource protection coordinator for the Thunder Bay Marine National Sanctuary in Alpena, attested to the benefits derived from the Polaris and Octantis cruise ships docking at the sanctuary. The Thunder Bay sanctuary was established, in part, to preserve a collection of shipwrecks in the area through the National Historic Preservation Act.
Gandulla believes that if the partnership between NOAA and Viking continues, the ships will contribute to the sanctuary's efforts in mapping the lake floor and potentially identifying additional shipwrecks. Mroczka stated that the agreement between NOAA and Viking is scheduled to last until 2025, but he emphasized that this does not necessarily indicate its termination.
While future projects are being considered, the focus remains on the current research initiatives. Mroczka concluded optimistically, stating, "This partnership is moving forward, and it's got a bright future."