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Into the wild

Glowing seas, penguins & ‘white wilderness’: What it’s like working on an expedition cruise ship

Noble Caledonia has been rated the best ocean cruise line for 2023 – Sailawaze interviewed their expedition cruising pro to unearth the magic that can be found while sailing with the luxury brand.

Words by Harriet Mallinson

Noble Caledonia offers small ship and expedition cruises all over the world from Svalbard to the Seychelles, visiting destinations many big cruise ships can never venture to and bringing like-minded travelers together.

The line – which includes everything from Wi-Fi to excursions in the headline fare – has been crowned the best ocean cruise line for 2023 by consumer company Which?. To celebrate the high ranking we’ve taken a deep dive into what the brand offers.

South African-born Pamela le Noury, Head of Expedition Operations at Noble Caledonia, has worked for the cruise line since 2008, starting out as a marine guide and boat driver before taking on the challenges of being an expedition leader.

We caught up with Pamela [below] to discover the wonders untold of expedition cruising – and the meal you should never miss.

“I could barely sleep at night I was just so excited about where we were going to turn up each day,” Pamela says of working at sea full-time with Noble Caledonia.

“I was at sea more than eight months a year for a decade, specialising in wilderness destinations such as the polar regions and the Indian Ocean. It has been incredible to see the world this way, across more than 115 countries and all the splendid regions of this planet.”

For this intrepid traveler it’s Antarctica and the Indian Ocean which hold the most appeal. “The polar regions draw you back, the big white wilderness gets in your soul,” she enthuses.

“It’s not the penguins (which are, of course, the best invention ever), it’s the grandeur, the silence, the scale of this pristine space that clears your mind. People just stand on deck in awe day after day.”

Madagascar and Seychelles are the Indian Ocean must-visits. “They just have this incredible combination of people and wildlife,” Pamela explains. “Africa seems to change people’s perspective on their own worlds and Madagascar [below] is utterly unique.”

This gorgeous corner of the globe also throws up some truly otherworldly experiences. Pamela recalls a night onboard Noble Caledonia ship Island Sky in the northern Indian Ocean.

“There’s a lot of phosphorescence in the water which makes the water glow and any movement, such as our wave and bow wave, will activate [it and make it] really sparkle.

“On this occasion a big pod of common dolphins came over to bow ride… [but] at night… you couldn’t see [them], you just saw what looked like a sparkling torpedo heading directly for us, at speed, and then ride along our bow.

“You could hear [the dolphins] breathe but could only see the phosphorescent trail they were creating. More and more charged over, the sea was glowing with these sparkling trails of spinning dolphins alongside the ship… It was so surreal and unforgettable.”

Humpback whales are another marine love of Pamela’s. “I will never tire of seeing those enormous charismatic giants,” she explains. “We see them all over, from the Kimberley with tiny calves to gorging themselves in South Orkney islands and lunge feeding in Greenland. I’ve [even] had them spy hop [when a whale sticks its head out of the water] next to my zodiac”.

Birdwatching is rewarding and fun too. Indeed often one might start off on a hunt for a bird but end up spotting something else altogether. “[Birdwatching] will place you in the most unique situations where you actually come across other creatures that you’d otherwise never have,” says Pamela.

“It makes you so much more observant of sights and sounds in nature. Some of my best wildlife sightings and wilderness adventures of the last few years have been while looking for a bird.”

Unsurprisingly Pamela has had some pretty novel experiences during her time roaming the high seas. She remembers an occasion in Greenland when she befriended a local who fed her narwhal soup without her realising it, alongside a platter of narwhal pectoral fin slices!

Strange tales of meat-eating abound in the history of expeditions of course. “There are many incredible historic expeditions that we hear about on our own journeys,” she expands, “and something that always strikes me… is the sacrifices they had to make.

“Some… would be completely unacceptable today, for example eating your sled dogs all the way to the south pole as your meal plan.”

Nevertheless, Pamela insists, it’s vital to know these stories and appreciate how far we have come in the globetrotting industry. “We travel on the shoulders of the explorers of the past,” she says.

With this in mind, if you’re heading out on your first expedition cruise it’s important to come with an open mind and prepare for the unexpected.

“There will likely be changes and surprises,” shares Pamela. “[Atmospheric conditions] can negatively affect the voyage more than a destination cruise. [For instance], rough weather means you can’t use the zodiacs so you may have to cancel or… change destinations. You will be pushed out of your comfort zone a bit.”

Noble Caledonia’s small ships mean guests “are never in a huge group, you are among friends,” elaborates Pamela [below]. “It’s a very special way to explore wilderness areas that would either be impossible or very uncomfortable to attempt on your own.”

Although expedition ships have comes a long way from the “rough and ready ex-Russian ice-breakers with shared bathrooms” of yore, passengers shouldn’t expect “all the ‘bells and whistles’ of a big ship”.

Noble Caledonia vessels are “well-appointed… boutique floating hotels with large cabins and lovely lounges,” but no casinos, pools, kids clubs and the like.

“On small ships you can, and are, always looking out to sea,” explains Pamela. “If we see a whale we’ll announce it and everyone will be able to get to a window immediately. The focus is outside the ship, get people ashore and be exploring.”

That said, you can always expect “a hearty meal and a comfortable bed,” when your day’s adventures are done. Pamela’s top tip? Make it back for the scones at 4pm tea time – “do not miss that.”

Set Sail

Wonders of Madagascar & the Seychelles with Noble Caledonia

Duration: 14 nights

Where: Port Louis, Mauritius | Reunion Island | Toamasina, Madagascar | Nosy Mangabe & Masoala National Park | Diego Suarez | Aldabra Islands, Seychelles | Alphonse | Aride & Praslin, Inner Seychelles | Mahé, Seychelles

Ship: MS Island Sky

Find out more
Book Cruise
Published 06.10.23