Viking Octantis is the largest Cruise Ship to sail in the Great Lakes and to dock in the City of Toronto. Since hearing about the potential for a cruise ship from a major cruise line to sail within the Great Lakes, I was excited to experience what it was like to have a cruise ship visit my city.
As a Torontonian, I’ve never been able to experience the joy of having some of the worlds most notable ships tie up in my back yard, unlike those in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale do. Until now.
I had the rare opportunity to sail aboard Viking Octantis, and she is truly not what I expected. She’s an ship that’s full of surprises and she feels larger than she actually is. Viking Octantis more than a cruise ship; she is an expedition ship that aims to analyze and improve the places she visits through science.
Having spent 7 days aboard her, sailing from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay, here are the top 5 things to know about the largest ship currently sailing the Great Lakes.
Small Ship with Big Ship Amenities
She's the largest passenger ship to ever dock in Toronto. However by modern standards she's classified as a smaller ship, sitting at about 30,150 GT. For comparison a midsize modern cruise ship would be between about 80,000 GT and 110,000 GT. Modern ships are jam-packed with features but how many of them do you actually use? Octantis has everything you need including an amazing spa (keep reading, I'll tell you more!). Viking managed to fit in a theatre as well, known as the Aula, in addition to a gorgeous terrace (Finse Terrace) at the back of the ship that leads to some stunning views. The Aula is a stunning venue with a screen that stores itself on the ceiling, and drops down to cover the rear windows. The venue features three walls of windows so you can see out while enjoying various enrichment talks from onboard speakers.
Expedition Ship NOT a Cruise Ship
Although much of her superstructure facilitates the hotel operation, a large portion of her aft is dedicated exclusively to her expedition equipment - called “The Hangar”. This includes two special operations boats (they call them SOB's) that are the exact same models used by the Norwegian Military, capable of reaching over 100km/h, two submarines and a large fleet of zodiacs. The SOB's can be released directly from the ship's aft, so passengers embark directly from the Hangar. The submarines carry six passengers plus the pilot, which does get pretty tight. It was an amazing experience but I wouldn't reccomend it to anyone that is claustrophobic. At the same time, these submarines are mapping out the lake's floor - I can only imagine what one could see when these are used in the polar regions. This is in addition to constantly analyzing the water she sails in for Microplastics and reporting that in real time to NIVA (Norwegian Institute for Water Research).
Registered Weather Baloon Launch Station
The ship is one of the only commercial ships that is also a registered Weather Ballon launch station. Viking selected a number of partners for the scientific portion of Octantis, including the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This resulted in 36-person expert teams for each expedition. The chief scientist of the ship, Dr. Daniel Moore, walked us through the process of launching a weather balloon from the top deck of Viking Octantis on the morning of Frazer Bay, near Manatoulin Island. Fun fact, the GPS device attached to the balloon is disposable, and will biodegrade over the course of two years. The 68 grams of "waste" is in the name of science!
The balloon helps give scientists a unique look at the wind direction, pressure and temperature as the balloon climbs. This particular launch was special as it was their highest ever recorded at over 30km or 100,000ft in height.
Nordic Spa onboard beats out ships that are 5X her size
The spa on Octantis rivals that of just about any ship I've ever sailed upon, including those that are 5X her size. There's no fuss, no fees, you just walk in and enjoy. There is an indoor pool, bucket shower, snow gotto (actual snow, yes!) and an outdoor hot tub that's attached. Plus there's access to heated beds on the opposite side. The gym is directly across and features high-end equipment that's always clean. They also have water bottles for you to take - a nice touch if you forget yours.
I did partake in a Swedish massage that was extremely well done. I loved there there were no cheesy sales pitches - just grace and elegance.
You can ride two yellow submarines, fittingly named John and Paul
I took a dive with John. Others took a dive with Paul. The two yellow submarines are Octantis' most unique features. We headed out on a dive of Lake Huron, and despite there being a lack of marine life, it was pretty darn cool!
When we were boarding and about to dive, it was pretty choppy on the surface, causing the sub to move quite a bit. If you're prone to motion sickness, I'd recommend a Dramamine or Gravol prior to partaking - but don't let that deter you - this is a once in a lifetime experience and I am so happy I did it. Once you get down, it is completely calm - no movement whatsoever. The submarines are able to dive hundreds of meters and help local ports by mapping out portions of the lake's floor. I can imagine that in the polar regions, this experience is heightened by a completely different ecosystem below the surface.
What surprised me about this ship was how open and airy she is. Every single space on this ship is thoughtfully designed. Every single crew member carries themselves with grace and calmness. The destinations speak for themselves, and Octantis compliments them with her plethora of equipment and scientific research.
Please watch the below video of the entire cruise; it's well worth it. Until then, safe travels!