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What’s the Difference between a Cruise Ship and an Expedition Vessel in Galapagos?

What’s the Difference between a Cruise Ship and an Expedition Vessel in Galapagos?

First things first: there are no cruise ships operating in Galapagos. Why, you might ask? Under the Galapagos National Park Rules, cruise ships are simply too massive to be able to circulate in a sustainable manner within the Galapagos archipelago. As a result, cruise ships are unauthorized vessels in the enchanted isles.

cruise ship size galapagos

Enter the Expedition Vessel, a smaller (but by no means less extravagant!) version of the cruise ship. Passenger boats circulating throughout the Galapagos Islands must fall under this category if they wish to abide by the regulations put forth by the Galapagos National Park. But other than size, what’s the fundamental difference between the two?

expedition vessel size galapagos

The Cruise Ship: A Bustling Behemoth

Modern cruise ships have come a long way since the days of yore. Over 6,500 passengers can be carried aboard a single cruise ship nowadays, and these come equipped to the brim with numerous amenities such as casinos, fitness centers, spas, cinemas and sometimes even fully-equipped theaters for shows and performances. In addition, cruise ships come equipped with swimming pools, hot tubs, clubs, libraries, numerous restaurants and bars, and nightclubs. Cruise ships, in essence, are more akin to floating cities than anything else. They’ve even been described as “balcony-laden floating condominiums.”

cruise ship galapagos

The Harmony of the Seas cruise ship. Photo courtesy of: kees-torn/Wikipedia

More than size, what makes a cruise ship a cruise ship is that it is focused on itself and all the internal workings and activities that are available on board. A cruise ship tends to be entirely ship-focused, so to speak. It provides a contained “experience bubble” that floats over water. In fact, when cruise ships use educational activities or informative events, these are seen more as mere “enrichment” aspects of the bigger, more city-like experience on board. Lessons and informative lectures are not the main selling-point of the whole trip. As a result, such things are more like an “appetizer of knowledge” rather than what’s offered as the main course. Which brings us to the other side of the ocean-cruising coin….

Galapagos Expedition Vessel: The Key is in the Guides & Surrounding Experience

Expedition Vessels draw the line and differ completely from cruise ships due to two main things: a.) their emphasis on natural ecosystems and responsible tourism and b.) the presence of naturalist guides. A small note on size: expedition vessels are substantially smaller (in Galapagos, for instance, the maximum number of passengers allowed on an expedition vessel is 100 guests) than cruise ships, granting them the ability to get much, much closer to visitor sites and the local scenic wonders of an area.

galapagos expedition vessel size

Naturalist guides and expedition leaders aboard Galapagos Expedition Vessels all form part of an “expedition team.” Often times you’ll even have guest lecturers aboard that provide guests with a series of presentations on specific topics regarding the historical, natural, geological, biological and ecological aspects of the destination.

galapagos naturalist guide

Charming, knowledgeable, fun… what else could you ask for when it comes to a thorough exploration of the islands?

Expedition Vessels are also destination-focused, meaning they’ll take their guests out into the world around them. In fact, on Galapagos itineraries, guests spend the majority of their time off the vessel during the day, exploring the surrounding visitor sites that consist of iconic wildlife, otherworldly locations and/or delicate ecosystems. In total, these excursions can last anywhere between 6-8 hours, with breaks and lunch in-between.

galapagos expedition vessel wildlife

The World of the Galapagos (right outside!) awaits all of our guests!

This also entails the use of skiffs or dinghy’s (often referred to as pangas in Galapagos) that are able to quickly and easily transport guests to the different sites. Such transfers always involve either wet or dry landings. The former consists of taking a slight, thigh-high plunge into the water before stepping ashore; the latter involves virtually zero levels of wetness.

galapagos skiff dinghy

Adventure and exploration aside, what more is there to highlight about expedition vessels? Probably the fact that, in spite of the smaller size and a reduced quantity of amenities, you’re still getting a ridiculously luxurious experience. Case in point: the Santa Cruz II Galapagos cruise. Our Galapagos Expedition Vessel features all of the comforts, hotel services, gourmet meals, safety protocols and professional captaining found on cruise ships, and then some (i.e. on-shore excursions with extremely professional, nature savvy guides).

amenities galapagos expedition vessel

Certain itineraries aboard expedition vessels in the Galapagos are structured and designed to help maximize the wildlife and terrestrial viewing experience of our guests. The Santa Cruz II Galapagos cruise happens have it for all its itineraries in the Galapagos.

sunset galapagos expedition vessel

Expedition Vessels: The only way to experience the Galapagos with a proper dose of exploration and adventure.

Christopher Klassen

With parents that worked for the U.S. Foreign Service up until he graduated from high school, Chris was raised to have the heart of a nomad throughout his life. He has resided in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador throughout his years, and just recently spent the past four up in Canada finishing his Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy & English at the University of British Columbia.

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