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What Is a Zodiac Boat on an Expedition Cruise?

What Is a Zodiac Boat on an Expedition Cruise?

A Zodiac boat is an inflatable, rigid-bottomed boat used to transport expedition cruise passengers away from the ship.

If you’re planning to take a small-ship or expedition cruise, you’ll likely notice that many of your excursions involve something called a Zodiac.

You might be familiar with tender boats on mainstream cruise ships—they’re the smaller boats that transport passengers to and from the ship when docking isn’t possible.

But Zodiacs are a bit different, and are often an essential part of any expedition or adventure cruise. Here’s everything you need to know about Zodiacs on a cruise.

What exactly is a Zodiac boat (and what do they look like)?

A Zodiac boat is a small vessel with a hard bottom and inflatable pontoons. Zodiacs used on expedition cruises are usually between 6 and 8 meters (20-26 feet) long and will fit between 8 and 16 people.

An overhead view of one of Silversea Expeditions’ Zodiac boats (image courtesy of Silversea)

Zodiacs are powered by an outboard engine, and have a shallow draft for maneuverability in shallow water.

Why do expedition cruise ships use Zodiacs?

Expedition cruise lines use Zodiac boats to allow passengers up-close access to nature on their sailings. Expedition ships are generally much smaller than mainstream cruise ships, allowing them to visit places where larger vessels just can’t go. However, most areas these ships visit don’t have piers to disembark guests.

That’s where Zodiacs come in! Using a Zodiac, a small group of passengers and an expedition guide can easily get off the ship and motor over to dry land for a day of exploration. The small boats’ shallow drafts allow them to maneuver and land just about anywhere!

A Zodiac from Seabourn Venture gives passengers a close-up view of a glacier in Greenland (image courtesy of Seabourn)

But Zodiacs aren’t just used to move guests to and from shore. Adventure guides also take small groups of passengers out on scenic cruises to spot wildlife in the water and along its shores.

Seeing whales, dolphins, and sea lions from the deck of a small cruise ship is fantastic, but seeing them up close from a small boat is another experience altogether.

On my expedition cruise in Alaska, our guide followed a pod of humpback whales in our Zodiac until we were just feet away from them breaching and fluking!

Why are these inflatable boats called Zodiacs?

This type of boat was invented in the 1930s by Pierre Debroutelle, an engineer for Zodiac Nautic, then a part of French company Zodiac. The airship and aviation company was originally looking to produce boats for the naval aviation industry.

However, the small vessels became popular with pleasure boaters in the 1960s, and achieved worldwide recognition when explorer Jacques Cousteau used them on his adventures.

A UnCruise Adventures Zodiac on a wildlife-spotting adventure in Alaska

Although Zodiac is technically a brand name, the term is often used to describe any inflatable pontoon-style boat—even if it’s made by another company.

How do you get in and out of a Zodiac?

When entering a Zodiac from your cruise ship, the crew will be on hand to help you in. They’ll use a “sailor’s grip” (each grasping the other’s wrist) to assist you from the ship’s platform into the smaller boat.

Most expedition cruise lines have a mandatory safety briefing before any guests take a Zodiac excursion, so you’ll feel comfortable with the process.

When cruise passengers exit a Zodiac, there are two types of landings: wet landings and dry landings. A dry landing is when the watercraft is able to pull up to a dock to let passengers step off. But dry landings are a rarity on expedition cruises!

You’ll likely encounter far more wet landings, where you’ll need to swing your legs over the side and step off the boat into shallow water. Tall, waterproof rubber boots are key here, and many expedition cruise lines will provide a pair for you to borrow.

Where do you sit on a Zodiac boat?

To maximize seating space on the Zodiac, your expedition guide will have you sit on the inflated pontoons around the edge of the boat, with your feet on the rigid floor. This might sound a bit scary, but the wide, inflatable tubes are very stable, and it’s a comfortable ride!

Passengers sit on the perimeter of Zodiac boats. This Zodiac is heading back to Viking Octantis in Antarctica (image courtesy of Viking Expeditions)

You’ll be wearing a life jacket, of course, and your Zodiac will have a rope tethered around its perimeter for you to hang on to.

Are Zodiac boats safe?

Although there isn’t any marine craft in the world that’s 100% safe, Zodiacs are famous for being nearly unsinkable!

An UnCruise Adventures guide pointing out marine life from a Zodiac expedition in Sitka, Alaska’s Halleck Harbor.

The boat’s pontoons feature several compartments, separated by waterproof partitions. This allows the boat to stay afloat, even if one of the compartments is compromised.

Zodiacs are so trusted that they’re used by over 80 military forces around the world, including the US military, as special operations boats.

Which cruise lines use Zodiacs?

Most expedition or adventure cruise lines use Zodiacs (or very similar vessels) on their expedition ships. But your crew might call their expedition landing craft by a different name!

Viking Expeditions, as an example, calls their rigid inflatable boats “Special Operations Boats”. UnCruise Adventures calls them “skiffs”.

An UnCruise Adventures Zodiac boat waiting for passengers to return from shore

Here’s a list of cruise lines that use Zodiacs on their expedition cruises:

  • Abercrombie & Kent
  • Alaskan Dream Cruises
  • G Adventures
  • Hurtigruten
  • Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic
  • Ponant Expeditions
  • Poseidon Expeditions
  • Quark Expeditions
  • Scenic Eclipse
  • Seabourn Expeditions
  • Silversea Expeditions
  • UnCruise Adventures
  • Viking Expeditions

FAQs about Zodiacs on expedition cruises

How big are Zodiacs on cruise ships?

Zodiac boats on cruise ships generally range from 20 to 26 ft. (6 to 8 m) long.

How many people fit in a cruise ship’s Zodiac boats?

Most cruise ship Zodiac boats will fit between 8 and 16 people, including a driver and guide.

Have you ever taken a Zodiac boat on an expedition cruise? Or do you have any questions about Zodiacs I haven’t answered in the post? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen


Wednesday 26th of July 2023

how do i get into the zodiac from the ship- -and get off it afterwards?

Carrie Ann

Friday 28th of July 2023

Hi Glenda, the crew will launch the zodiac, navigate it around to the side of the ship and secure it. There'll be a platform there for you to walk right from the ship to step into the zodiac (see the overhead pic I included in my post of a Silversea zodiac and a typical platform). Crew will help you in and out of the smaller boat. When you get to land, you'll either have a wet landing where you pivot on the side of the zodiac and slide off into shallow water (less than knee-high) or a dry landing where you pull up to a dock. Either way, crew members will help steady you by holding your wrist in a sailor's grip when you're getting on and off. Hope this helps, and enjoy your cruise!


Wednesday 15th of February 2023

Issues for non-swimmers?

I cannot swim and am nervous about getting in and out of zodiacs on an expedition cruise. Should I be concerned?

Carrie Ann

Wednesday 15th of February 2023

Hi Rima, even if you can't swim, you shouldn't have any issues getting in and out of the tenders. You'll put your lifejacket on before you board the tender from the ship, and (in my experience on expedition ships) the crew is very helpful in assisting passengers into the smaller boats. For "wet landings", the Zodiac will pull right up to the shore in very shallow water. I've never disembarked a tender where the water was higher than my wellie boots which come up a little below the knee. If you have any "dry landings", you'll pull up to a dock and the crew will help steady you as you get out.

If you're nervous about getting in and out of the zodiac on wet landings (you need to pivot on your bottom and swing your legs over the side of the pontoon), just ask the crew if they'll help steady you as you exit. Hope this helps, and let me know if you have any other zodiac questions!