With the rise of explorer yachts, reaching far-flung corners of the globe is suddenly possible. Here’s where to add to your adventure bucket list if you're looking for the best destinations to visit on an explorer yacht expedition cruise.
Turn the clock back to the last century and the term “explorer yacht” didn’t really exist. There was a smattering of commercial vessels converted and fitted out to take intrepid owners to remote or difficult environments, but there weren’t really any private yachts specifically built to undertake expeditions. Then in 2003 came the launch of Octopus, the 126-metre prodigy built by Lürssen for diving enthusiast Paul Allen. Fast forward 18 years, and the world’s oceans are bristling with expedition yachts, triggering a dedicated Explorer Yachts Summit to be held at BOAT's International Festival of Yachting.
BOAT Pro data classifies 197 40-metre-plus superyachts as Explorer Class, but there are 32 more in build, with 28 due for launch in 2022. However you look at it, the growth is phenomenal. “It’s a 300 per cent increase over only a few years,” says EYOS Expeditions co-founder Ben Lyons, whose business has boomed alongside the growth in explorer yachts. “Fifteen years ago when the company started, the idea of taking a yacht to an expedition destination was seen as foolhardy and crazy. Now it’s the hot industry trend. As more and more people see the amazing experiences their friends are having, we are seeing more yachts being built for these locations.”
The boom we’ve seen in recent years has its roots in the search for authenticity. A growing cadre of yacht owners are no longer content to while away their summer days sipping cocktails at the quay in the French Riviera. “People want a more meaningful experience,” says Lyons. In the meantime, boatyards have raised their game to offer phenomenal luxury within a very capable explorer wrapper. “An explorer can also have a softer approach with a high-quality yacht finish,” explains Oceanco’s Emy Artolli, pointing to 91.5-metre Tranquility. “She is a true opulent explorer, but with Ice Class certification and extended range capability.”
EYOS Expeditions is one of the biggest integrated expedition organisers in the business, and has been behind some of the most iconic yachting adventures of the last few years – from the Five Deeps Expedition to Papua New Guinea and the Ross Ice Shelf. In a planning process that can take a year or more, EYOS will assess your boat’s suitability for your chosen destination and help the captain develop an itinerary.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is being thorough and honest,” says Lyons when I ask whether he has ever refused to take a client exploring. “There are times when you have to say to people, ‘That extreme destination is not achievable for your vessel.’ More often, we have to adjust the itinerary and the programme to fit within the vessel’s capabilities.” Then there are the permits and paperwork – an unseen symphony directed by the exploration team. The owner will ideally not be aware of the minutiae of this process, but it can be laborious.
“These locations can be under various different jurisdictions above and beyond what you’d think because of their remote nature – governing what you can do with black and grey water, provisions and getting fuel in,” says Kelvin Murray, director of EYOS’s expedition operations and undersea projects and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. “For a yacht used to cruising in a well-supplied area, this can be a challange, but we manage to make just about anything happen with a bit of creative thinking.”
Deepest explorer destinations
It is a truism to point out that we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about our own planet’s seabed. But it’s still astonishing to think that no human had been to the deepest point in each ocean until two years ago. Those milestones were passed by Victor Vescovo, funding his own 10-month expedition to reach the lowest point in the five oceans from the refitted 68-metre research vessel DSSV Pressure Drop.
“Eighty-plus per cent of the ocean floor is unmapped and unexplored, so there are wide-open areas to go,” Vescovo tells me. “As best we know, there are several huge ocean trenches that have never had a crewed descent to their bottoms before, like the Peru-Chile or Mid-American trenches. I would love to dive those. Perhaps they have unique features we have not seen anywhere else.”
The lowest point of the Peru-Chile Trench is believed to be 8,065 metres below sea level in the Richards Deep, but it is the scale which defies belief. At 5,900 kilometres long, the trench is twice the length of the Himalayas. It is a vast feature of the ocean floor and yet, it has been scarcely explored. The little-known Middle America Trench at the intersection of four tectonic plates off Honduras reaches a staggering depth of 6,669 metres.
In addition to distinctive features, there are plenty of unique creatures, too. Vescovo’s dive off Puerto Rico uncovered four suspected new species, including a hadal snailfish and a stalked ascidian – a gelatinous animal like a sea squirt. Another science-minded owner, Mark Dalio, has used his private Alucia research vessel to capture the first footage ever of a giant squid, and discovered five new species, including two corals in deep waters off Boston. He has just invested in refitting an even more capable vessel to intensify his marine science effort under the OceanX initiative.
Dalio used a Triton submarine with an operating floor of 1,000 metres, while Vescovo also had his own submersible, DSV Limiting Factor, built for the job by Triton. Director James Cameron dived to 10,908-metre depth in the c in 2012 using another custom-built submersible, designed by Australian diving legend Ron Allum. Fortunately, Triton now offers its most capable sub as a series model, and if you don’t fancy waiting to have one built, you can always charter a yacht with its own submersible.
Highest explorer destinations
Most of the world’s highest mountains are well inland and inaccessible by yacht, but there are some intriguing exceptions. Higher latitudes in particular offer some world-class climbing straight off the boat, notably the sea-cliffs of Greenland and North Baffin Island. Just north west of Cape Farewell on Greenland’s southern tip is the redoubtable Thumbnail climb, for instance, rising to 1,490 metres straight out of the icy waters of the fjord.
“I like the fact that it’s pretty much as far away from everything as you could ever get,” says expedition leader Cecila Vanman. “It’s a true wilderness – a place where you can still walk up a valley and down the other side of a mountain and see something that very, very few other people have ever seen.”
Serial explorer Victor Vescovo took a different tack with the first full ascent of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. At 4,207 metres above sea level, the summit is challenging enough, but geologists consider that the mountain actually begins 5,116 metres below the waves. Launching from his vessel Pressure Drop, Vescovo took a submersible to the seabed, reascended, then paddled ashore in a kayak, took to a bike to reach the mountain’s base station at 2,743 metres up and climbed the rest of the way on foot.
Antarctica also offers skiing and climbing opportunities in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. In fact, any trip to the South Pole would involve a 3,000-metre ascent, and some mountain ranges have peaks over 4,500 metres. “The ice over the Pole is approximately 2,700 metres thick, so the rock of the continent below is almost at sea level,” says Murray.
But it is not so much the height that counts here. A favourite of Murray’s is Mount Scott on the Antarctic Peninsula, which feels very alpine, although it rises to just 880 metres. “On a clear day you can see well up towards the islands of Gerlache Strait to the north, and Crystal Sound to the south,” he says. “Clients gain a different perspective at sea or deck level and the clear, pollution-free skies give a breathtaking panorama. Point being, you don’t have to go super-high to have an extraordinary experience.”
The continent’s unique climate is drier than a desert in some places, meaning climbs are mysteriously ice-free. Not so the world’s southernmost active volcano, Mount Erebus, which towers 3,794 metres above Ross Island. Despite the lava lake in its crater, its flanks are covered with snow and ice caves form around its numerous fumaroles.
A helicopter is a real asset here, getting you to the base of a climb or into the heart of a wilderness to explore. But it also serves another purpose, as adventurer and guide Richard White explains. While the roar of two 500kW turboshaft engines can send many animals running for cover, it is great for watching large, solitary animals. “My best experience with wildlife helicopters so far has been whale watching,” he says. “Seeing a whale from a boat is like looking at an iceberg – the majority is below the surface. Getting up high and looking down, the whole animal, nose to tail, is revealed and gives a completely different sense of it. Our understanding of some species, such as narwhal and beluga, have been transformed by viewing from above.”
White says he aims to heighten the experience of simply viewing an animal into something far more dynamic. “To find an animal actively hunting or to witness a kill elevates a more typical sighting, which can still be very special, into something fascinating and relatively rarely seen.”
Farthest explorer destinations
When it comes to remoteness, chief among the top spots is the Antarctic Peninsula, also known as Graham Land in the UK. Resembling a long arm reaching north from the South Pole, it is actually a string of bedrock islands covered by ice and scored with deep channels, which make it a varied and exciting landscape to explore. Its proximity to the inhabited areas of Tierra del Fuego is handy for provisioning and joining ship.
“The Antarctic Peninsula is the hottest destination,” says Lyons with a smile. “We’ll have seven yachts down there this Austral summer.” At the bottom of the world, there are penguins galore – seals and other seabirds, too, and cold-water diving for the hardy. But the scenery is the greatest pull. With chiselled mountain peaks, glaciers, frozen lakes and rocky outcrops, the landscape is awe-inspiring and also offers unparalleled skiing opportunities.
You will need two helicopters in this part of the world – one to fly you in and the other as back-up for search and rescue. “There is no SAR or infrastructure in Antarctica. It’s not a playground,” says Murray. What’s more, permits to travel there may place limits on what you can do. “It’s the only continent dedicated to peace and science. Activities there are required by law to help you appreciate the aesthetic of the place, so jet skis are not permitted.”
The Northwest Passage and the Canadian Arctic also offer phenomenal remote cruising in an environment that, retreating ice notwithstanding, humans have done little to alter. There is excellent fishing and the opportunity to spot polar bears, Arctic foxes, musk oxen, wolves, as well as whales, belugas and narwhals. Expect to see plenty of ice, from mighty glaciers to vast icebergs and loose pack ice. There’s the opportunity to get up close to all of it, and even to set foot on icebergs. As few as 300 boats of any kind are thought to have navigated this tricky, ice-choked branching waterway. “It’s iconic and people want to say ‘My yacht has done this,’ but it is becoming more challenging in terms of permissions,” says Murray.
It’s not all about sub-zero climates, though. A well fitted-out explorer can find plenty of adventure in the Pacific Ocean, exploring wild islands and diving the world’s clearest waters, teeming with life. There are parts of Indonesia, Melanesia and Micronesia that are so far off the beaten track that the only visitors they see are the occasional supply boats. “We often view the globe by looking from our centralised European perspective, but if you spin the planet it reveals a blue marble of ocean,” says Murray. “Out in the middle of the Pacific you can feel truly far from home ground, especially if you have sailed there.”
Fabled destinations such as the Pitcairn Islands and Easter Island are thousands of kilometres from the next inhabited place and, in the case of Pitcairn, the only access is by boat. “These are really isolated places and don’t have the resources or facilities to cater for the needs of a superyacht,” Murray explains. “But then of course, that is a reason to visit – it’s truly off the beaten track.”
A large number of isolated atolls are completely uninhabited, such as Kiribati’s Millennium Atoll. With almost no human intervention to this day, it is reckoned to be as close to a pristine habitat as you can find. “Like some of the remote diving atolls in the South Pacific, it offers exceptional diving, and is totally unspoilt with no infrastructure,” says Murray.
But the jewel in the crown here is Papua New Guinea. This huge island and its waters are home to five per cent of the planet’s species, with what is without a doubt the finest snorkelling and diving the world has to offer. The country also hosts some 5,000 different communities speaking 850 distinct languages and has very little infrastructure. This makes it ideal for exploring by yacht, particularly if you have a helicopter on board.
An EYOS itinerary might begin in the ruins of Rabaul, a town destroyed by the Tavurvur volcano in 1994 and is now said to resemble Pompeii. Then it would move on via some of Papua New Guinea’s unspoiled diving sites to Baia, where the hidden springs and waterfalls of the interior are only accessible by aircraft. There are the cultural performances of the Witu islanders, whose spectacular masks and customs remain largely untouched by the outside world. Vibrant-coloured corals and white sand beaches abound at Kimbe Bay and the islands of New Ireland and New Hanover. And a lucky few have a chance to stay among the people of the Western Highlands, who knew nothing of the outside world until the 1930s, and their way of life has remained largely unchanged for millennia.
The islands of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge are also extremely remote and rarely visited, although there are permanent inhabitants. Tristan da Cunha is perhaps the most interesting, with an array of fine hiking, interesting wildlife and diving in the kelp forests among seals, rays and sharks. “It’s a five- to six-day steam from Cape Town,” says Murray. “It is a rather surreal combination of volcanic sub-tropical island and British influences, complete with red post boxes, and the superintendent wears a police uniform.”
In some ways, the location of these places is becoming secondary, according to EYOS. The next big expeditions may be more about scientific accomplishment than fulfilling a purely personal goal. “We have seen our clients become so engaged with ‘bigger picture’ impact and having the opportunity to give something back to humankind,” says Murray. “I can envision large-scale voyages covering multi-disciplinary sciences, where the notion of citizen science is dramatically upscaled.”
This feature is taken from the September 2021 issue of BOAT International. To buy tickets for the Explorer Yachts Summit, click the button below.shop now