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What to Expect: Zodiac Cruising

Zodiac boats are integral to our expeditions—allowing us to reach rugged shores, explore hidden inlets, greet penguin colonies, and navigate ice floes with ease. Naturalist Adrienne Bosworth shares everything you need to know about these trusty vessels, including how to embark and disembark and what type of gear you’ll need.

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What kind of boat is a Zodiac?

Durable, stable, and fun, a Zodiac is a smallish rubber boat—usually between 13 and 30 feet—that can act as a tender to deliver people safely to rugged shorelines or a comfortable cruiser when taking the scenic route. The key qualities of a Zodiac are its rigid hull and inflatable pontoons, which double as seating or luxurious recliners (rigorously tested by Lindblad Expeditions field staff). Because they are nigh-impossible to sink, maneuverable, and adept at nosing up to treacherous terrain, these boats have developed avid followings within military, commercial, and recreational boating spheres.

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Small and nimble, our Zodiacs enable us to land safely virtually anywhere in the world. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Why is a Zodiac cruise an integral part of an expedition?

People travel with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic to get close to and learn about new ecosystems. Although the ship itself makes a stellar platform from which to view vast expanses of coastline and whales at sunset, it is by design detached from the palpable pleasure of immediate sea level. Without the addition of Zodiacs, our expeditions would be limited in their immersive capacity, unable to put people directly on the water or on shore in remote locations lacking human infrastructure.

Zodiacs allow the expedition team to facilitate diverse excursions, from landings at Antarctic penguin colonies to slow, silent drifts through mangroves peering at spider monkeys.

Naturalist Adrienne Bosworth

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An idyllic way to cap off an active day, sunset cruises often deliver spectacular photo ops like this. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Is a Zodiac the same thing as an expedition landing craft?

Just like Bandaid and Chapstick, Zodiac is actually a brand name that has come to colloquially represent an entire genre of boats. Founded at the turn of the 20th century as a pioneer of French aviation technology, Zodiac was the first company to manufacture such durable and functional inflatable boats. Although they were great at making planes, the inflatable boat became their most popular product; it was novel in an era that mostly saw fragile, cumbersome wooden or metal crafts.

Often you will see the term “expedition landing craft” used rather interchangeably with the name Zodiac. That slippage comes from the fact that Zodiac is technically a brand name, and thus refers to a specific lineup of “expedition landing crafts.” By referring to the type of vessel instead of the brand, people are being less specific about the origin of the vessel in question.

What distances do we typically cover in a Zodiac?

Generally, we are doing one of two things in our Zodiacs: going to shore or going cruising. When we are headed to shore, our Bridge team will position the ship as close as possible to the landing site in order to expedite the journey to shore and maximize our time there. We are rarely more than a half mile from shore, and usually much closer. This metric can change depending on conditions—some areas have extreme tides or particularly shallow waterways that force us to anchor farther away and undertake longer (but worthwhile) transits. These are opportunities to get a little extra wind in your hair.

When we are Zodiac cruising, our distances can be longer—sometimes several miles—but we are adjusting our timing so that distance is spread over the course of an hour or more. There is ample entertainment on these cruises, both from the antics of the local wildlife and the Lindblad-National Geographic natural history staff.

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A snorkeling platform placed between two Zodiacs creates a quick and easy way to enter and exit tropical waters. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

How many people does a standard Zodiac accommodate?

The Zodiacs that Lindblad uses are 19 ft long, and we limit our loading capacity to 12 people plus a driver. This upper limit is rarely reached however; we strive to give guests as much room as possible for elbows and long-lensed cameras. Rest assured, there is always a staff member crunching the numbers, determining how many Zodiacs we have available in relation to the number of guests onboard.

Who drives the Zodiac? Do they need special training?

Both natural history staff and deck team members serve as drivers for these crafts. Lindblad has an in-house certification program, and in addition many drivers have lengthy lists of credentials from entities such as the US Coast Guard or Royal Yachting Association. Our Zodiacs are outfitted with outboard engines common to recreational boating, but regardless of familiarity we put our drivers through training and certification with an experienced Lindblad team member before waving them off into the wild blue.

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Our field staff always heads ashore before guests in order to prep each landing and ensure it is safe for exploration. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Do I have to wear a life jacket in a Zodiac? Is there any other special gear I need?

Zodiacs are trusty vessels, but they are exposed to the elements and very near to what can be frigid water. Life jackets and waterproof gear (for your body and/or your expensive electronics) are essential. Our protocols require the provided lifejackets be donned properly before you step off the ship, and there is always staff or crew present to assist with pesky straps and buckles as you get your gear ready.

Is Zodiac cruising safe?

With Lindblad Expeditions, Zodiac operations are quite safe. Our boats are steadfastly buoyant, our drivers are experienced and communicative about conditions, our engines well-maintained, and our ship is only a radio call away.

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At the start of any expedition, you'll learn the 'sailor's grip' which provides support when getting on or off a Zodiac. Photo: Oivind Haug

How do I get on and off the Zodiac? Do I have to get in the water?

With Zodiacs there are two ways to get onto a beach: a dry landing and a wet landing. A dry landing is when a Zodiac is able to come alongside a dock or pier, where people can step off in a stately manner without splashing about in the surf. Surprise, this is a rare occurrence on most of our trips; the remote beaches of our planet are (usually) blissfully free from human construction. Wet landings are part of the Zodiac experience and become routine as you travel with Lindblad. Drivers will beach the craft at the waterline and team members will help you swing your legs over the side of the pontoon and plop your feet daintily into the calf-deep water. For this reason, rubber boots are as essential as rubber boats to our cold-weather itineraries.

Is it hard to get in and out of a Zodiac?

We meet any mobility challenge with more helping hands, and I have seen many people who can hardly walk easily make the transfer from Zodiac to shore, a flock of naturalists and crew members at their side. That said, someone who climbs stairs and rises with only several groans from bed each morning will likely navigate Zodiac ins and outs with ease.

Does wildlife ever enter the Zodiac?

Our drivers follow overlapping sets of regulations and best practices to give wildlife whatever space they need; the wildlife sometimes fails to return the favor. Occasionally, curious penguins or seals assume that the Zodiacs are simply misshapen icebergs or rocks and decide to flop on board. I’ve mostly seen this happen when boats are empty of guests and the sun-warmed pontoons are wide open for lounging. Once they commandeer a vessel, these animals tend to rule like tyrants, demanding canapés and vesper martinis!

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Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

What is it like to be on a Zodiac cruise?

It is hard to be grumpy at the waterline. Light breezes, salt spray, no screens humming or phones ringing. Each Zodiac is its own entity and being onboard for a cruise means that for an hour or two, you are experiencing something different from most of your fellow travelers. You have an interpretive program that is tailored at every turn to what you spotthe plants, trees, the weather, the sea life. You can speed up and slow down, touch and document. You can ask questions without your guide being pulled away to another task. Being on a Zodiac cruise is one of the most versatile and intimately educational experiences Lindblad offers, and even those who have been out on countless cruises cannot predict what will unfold.

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Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Can you share one of your most memorable moments in a Zodiac?

Seeing humpback whales breach from the bow of a ship with champagne in hand is sublime. But watching the breach of a humpback whale arch above you from the pontoon of a small rubber boat is truly humbling and supernatural and salty; memories of moments like that crystalize in erratic tableaus of buffeting air and the roaring hiss of water displaced from below and barnacle encrusted grey-blue skin. These fragments are much more important to me than photographs.


Main image: Dolphin with Zodiac, Sven Lindblad