Great Lakes Viking Cruises
ABOARD THE OCTANIS — The Viking Octantis’ journey through the Great Lakes revealed beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the rocky Maine-like coastline of Ontario’s Georgian Bay and its thousands of islands.
The pollen was so thick from a pine forest along Frazer Bay that from a distance it looked like it was raining on the waterway.
But the cruise ship wasn’t the only place that offered enchanting views.
The Octantis has a fleet of smaller vessels which allowed for closer inspection. They included two-deck boats, 15 kayaks, 17 inflatable boats and two submarines.
The smaller boats sometimes raced on the water, which was an adventure in itself. For the passengers seated up front, it was a wet adventure, especially when 35-knot winds tore up the waves.
Marilyn Hagie, 79, a retired education teacher from Windsor, Colorado, was drenched as her inflatable boat returned from a visit to Killarney, Ontario.
“I’m going to start taking it personally,” she told the pilot.
The interiors of the two six-seater submarines were much drier. Georgian Bay is normally clearer than the Great Lakes but, alas, after dropping 65 feet to the bottom of the waterway, the green water was too murky to see anything.
On the one hand, passengers were disappointed by the lack of visibility. On the other, they had just boarded a submarine.
Viking had to wait to reach Canadian waters before releasing his fleet. U.S. law prohibits foreign ships from deploying them, which may have been the reason the ship lingered three days in Georgian Bay.
Given the academic side of travel, it was not enough to enjoy nature. The passengers studied him.
And the best place to do that was the science lab. Yes, the cruise ship has a science lab full of microscopes and lab coats. It is used by Viking partner colleges and agencies to conduct research.
Passengers can chat with scientists and take part in the work, including examining microplastics that had been filtered from the water.
“It’s the closest thing to a working research vessel,” said Damon Stanwell-Smith, a marine biologist who is responsible for science and sustainability on the vessel.
On this voyage, the science extended to the upper deck.
Octantis’ research partner was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA has designated the ship as a weather balloon launch station, which would be a terrible name for a party boat.
It spoke to the type of people drawn to an educational cruise that morning; when the ship released a weather balloon at 6:45 a.m., 50 passengers showed up.
Damon Stanwell-Smith, a marine biologist who is responsible for science and sustainability, focused on the opportunities for Viking Octantis passengers.
After a countdown, a crew member lifted the balloon 5 feet from the windy deck. The latex orb carried transmitters that measured temperature, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure.
“Goodbye, little balloon,” a woman was heard saying as he walked away.
It would eventually burst after 16 miles, but not before some observers returned to the ship to see a computer that recorded the fluctuating data.
The Octantis has an 18-member expedition team from around the world whose specialties range from nature to kayaking to marine biology.
One member is from Michigan.
Loreen Niewenhuis of Traverse City is the ship’s Great Lakes Specialist. She wrote three books about them, including one about her 1,000 mile hike around Lake Michigan.
She has lectured on the Great Lakes to passengers but, like other members of the expedition team, she wears many hats. She helped with the weekly balloon launch, gave tours of the science lab, and worked as a guide for shore tours.
“I literally work the whole ship,” she said. “I move so much that I don’t need to train.”
Niewenhuis, 58, said she was unlikely to sample the ship’s finery. She has little downtime, and her schedule constantly changes as she switches roles with other team members.
For her, luxury on a luxury cruise is the possibility of sleeping until 7:30 a.m.
She said her biggest challenge was learning to navigate the ship in the first few weeks.
His favorite part is talking about the Great Lakes. It is a subject that those close to him know only too well.
“My family says, please go somewhere else and talk about the Great Lakes,” she said.
Despite the trip’s proximity to Michigan, Niewenhuis said she didn’t feel close to home. That’s because she flew to Toronto for the start of her 15-week stay aboard the floating school.
An exception will be when the Octantis passes through Isle Royale off Thunder Bay, Ontario. She knows her inhabitants well through her writing.
“When we pass by the island, I will greet all my moose and wolf friends,” she said.
Georgian Bay on Lake Ontario is one of the places the Octanis, a Viking cruise ship, passes through on its tour of the Great Lakes.
Pleasure boats ply the blue waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Ontario.