NOAA-Viking Public Private Partnership, a Win-win for Research

Tom Ewing

There was important cruise news in January: Viking – a premier European ocean and river cruise company - will offer two new “destination-focused travel experiences,” starting in 2022.  One set of cruises becomes Viking’s first foray in the inland North American market, in this case the Great Lakes.  Another set of cruises will head to the Arctic and Antarctica.  Viking is building two new vessels: the Viking Octantis and the Viking Polaris, under construction now in Norway, by Fincantieri’s VARD.

In a press release Viking writes that it has created “the thinking person’s expedition.”  Indeed, Viking has partnered with the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, whose scientists will undertake fieldwork on board.  Beyond the cruise partnership opportunities, Viking has also endowed a professorship at the Institute and is helping to fund graduate studies.  Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology is a partner.  And, so is NOAA - the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For maritime research, Viking’s new offerings are striking.  Ditto for people who track cruise industry developments.  In past years, industry officials have been anticipating Viking’s entry into North America.  The company’s reputation is such that its investments and presence send strong signals, across the industry, about the health and vibrancy of the cruise business.

Viking’s Great Lakes news may have a familiar ring.  That could be because in late 2018 Viking was reportedly close to concluding the steps needed for new Mississippi River cruises (see Marine News, January 2019).  Unfinished though, were critical moves for Viking, based in Switzerland, to comply with strict US carriage laws, in this case the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA), which controls the coastwise transportation of passengers between U.S. ports.  The PVSA is to passenger service what the Jones Act is to freight.  The two laws are sometimes referenced interchangeably.  Each requires that vessels used in US coastwise commerce are American owned and American built.  The Jones Act additionally requires American crews.  Exemptions don’t come easy.

In 2019, for its Mississippi effort, Viking was reportedly seeking a “charter agreement,” for operations, with a US company.  It was supposedly working with an American firm in New Orleans to build new vessels.

That work has not paid off, at least yet.  A Viking representative did say, via email, that Viking is “actively working with our partners to launch on the Mississippi River, but at this point in time we do not have any details to share.”

Now come the Great Lakes cruises.  Not completely in the US, but the ships’ itineraries include US territory, and Canadian.  One can’t help but ask: does this comport with PVSA mandates?  The vessels are not American made.  They are not American owned.  By those measures they could not operate on the Mississippi.  But what about in international waters, i.e., the Great Lakes?  The key factor, according to Viking, seems to be that the vessels will not transport passengers between US ports.

When asked about PVSA issues a Viking spokesman wrote in an email:

“Viking operates in full compliance with the PVSA.  None of the itineraries has both embarkation and disembarkation in U.S. ports.  The voyages begin either in the U.S. (Milwaukee or New York City) and end in Canada (Thunder Bay or Toronto), or the reverse. Viking operates similar U.S.-Canada itineraries. (Its) Viking Star has two planned sailings in September 2020, which operates between New York and Montreal, also stopping in Quebec City, Saguenay, Gaspé, Halifax and Boston.”

On the Mississippi, Viking’s itinerary would stay within the US; hence the need for American built / American owned vessels.  In contrast, the Great Lakes cruises are considered foreign cruises, a Viking spokesman explained.

For its part, NOAA is eager to start its Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Viking, which will last five years.  NOAA has at least one other such partnership. In 2019, for instance, NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) installed and tested autonomous carbon-dioxide-measuring instruments aboard the Celebrity cruise ship Flora, when it sails to the Galapagos Islands.

“We are very excited about the ways that our scientists can expand their research in the Great Lakes with sensors and testing aboard the new (Viking) ship,” said Deborah Lee, director of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “We also welcome the chance to help people learn about the richness and maritime heritage of the Great Lakes as well as the environmental challenges it faces.”

NOAA’s new partnership aligns with its Ships of Opportunity (SOPs) or Volunteer Observing Ships (VOSs).  A “fleet,” if you will, of non-research ships providing unique and valuable opportunities to collect maritime data.  Otherwise known as win-win.

Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 14,  Mar 2020

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