Pioneering spirit meets industry-leading expedition cruising

By Helen Hayes 9 October 2023
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Heritage Expeditions was founded by the Russ family in 1984, and with the baton now passed to the second generation, the expedition cruise company is going from strength to strength.

When you have created something, a business, in a field that you love, success often follows. And when that business is in the world of expedition cruising, the ability to inspire travellers to be equally as passionate about the natural world and the destinations visited is incredibly satisfying. At the root of it all is a pioneering spirit…and that is exactly what Heritage Expeditions shares with every single one of its guests.

Founded by Rodney and Shirley Russ in 1984, Heritage Expeditions are the pioneers in authentic small ship expedition cruising and is still family-owned and operated with Rodney and Shirley’s sons, Aaron and Nathan, taking over in 2018.

The idea for Heritage Expeditions came from two endangered birds. Aaron Russ takes up the story: “Rodney was actively involved in a number of world-first conservation initiatives saving endangered species from extinction including the Chatham Island Black Robin and Kakapo. It was this work in remote wilderness areas with endangered species that informed the ethos of Heritage Expeditions. Instead of locking these incredible places away, why not share them and their stories with like-minded adventurous travellers and create an army of ambassadors for these incredible places, their wilderness and wildlife?”

Aaron Russ has been an integral part of the business from a young age. “My first expedition when I was five years old and I have been regularly sailing on Heritage Expeditions voyages since I was 10, when I would join during school holidays. I began Zodiac driving and guiding on voyages to the Subantarctic Islands and Antarctica towards the end of my time at high school, so I have been an expedition guide for over 25 years now,” he said.

Zodiac cruising Musgrave Inlet at the Subantarctic Auckland Islands. Image credit: A. Fergus

Aaron and Nathan are proud to continue their parents’ legacy with Aaron saying:

“While we have introduced new destinations including Japan, Philippines, Indonesia and the Kimberley our voyages are still based on authentic expedition cruising, exploring wild and remote places most people will never visit and providing incredible wildlife encounters and cultural exchanges. Our voyages are still very much conservation-based adventures which share the natural world and create ambassadors for the special places, wilderness, wildlife and cultures we visit to ensure their ongoing protection.”

Versatile voyages

Being New Zealand’s pioneering and only small ship conservation-based expedition cruise company, Heritage Expeditions explores some of the most unique and remote islands, coasts and shorelines on Earth with intrepid travellers aboard their luxurious, purpose-built 140-guest flagship Heritage Adventurer and 18-guest expedition yacht Heritage Explorer on voyages ranging from 4-29 days.

Each expedition is meticulously planned and led by a team of botanists, ornithologists, naturalists and experts in their field, ensuring guests maximise every opportunity to learn, discover and experience as much as possible, while minimising the impact of their visit.

Going south

Heritage Expeditions is currently the only expedition cruise company sailing into the Ross Sea – the heart of Antarctica – from New Zealand. Russ said: “As its name suggests, our ‘In the Wake of Scott & Shackleton’ voyage follows in the footsteps of these heroic explorers and is the ultimate in bucket list travel. Due to impenetrable pack ice guests can only visit during January and February, sailing through the roaring 40s, furious 50s and screaming 60s crossing the Antarctic Circle and into the silent 70s and the realm of 24-hour daylight.

Cape Adare, East Antarctica. Image credit: Richard Young

“Guests travel with our team of expert biologists, geologists and historians as we spend 12 days exploring the Ross Ice Shelf, Zodiac cruise icebergs, visit research stations, observe whales and seals, visit some of Antarctica’s largest penguin colonies, walk on the ice with Emperor Penguins and step inside the preserved historic huts of Scott and Shackleton. This voyage also includes the wildlife havens of New Zealand and Australia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Subantarctic Islands which break up our voyage down to and back from the ice.

“Heritage Expeditions’ longstanding relationships with government agencies, conservation programmes and remote tribes and villages ensures guests have access to areas and experiences off limits to other operators. We have a fleet of 14 Zodiacs on Heritage Adventurer and two on Heritage Explorer ensuring each guest is able to join every excursion,” Russ states.

While many expeditioners are familiar with Antarctica, the Subantarctic Islands are lesser known. “Remote, rugged and UNESCO World Heritage listed, New Zealand and Australia’s Subantarctic Islands are internationally-renowned wildlife havens where nesting albatross, sea lion pups, elephant seals, thousands of penguins and supersized alien flowers known as ‘megaherbs’ combine to offer an experience straight out of a David Attenborough documentary,” Russ said.

Take The Snares for example. “This imposing clutch of inhospitable, ancient, fractured granite islands are home to 2.7 million pairs of nesting seabirds, including some 60,000 endemic Snares crested penguins. Here our guests do a Zodiac cruise along the islands’ jagged towering cliffs, complete with New Zealand/Hooker’s sea lion escorts, spotting nesting Buller’s albatross and exploring sea caves alongside New Zealand fur seals.

The Auckland Islands, (way south of the South Island), are the largest of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands with the richest flora, the largest number of subantarctic invertebrates and some of the rarest birds on earth. Russ enthuses: “We see endangered hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), explore flame-tipped rata forests, observe life and near-death play out at a New Zealand/Hooker’s sea lion breeding colony on Sandy Bay and hike up South West Cape and take in the flurry of avian activity below at the white-capped albatross colony.”

A Hooker’s sea lion breeding colony on Sandy Bay, Enderby Island. Image credit: T. Kraakman

“On Campbell Island, wade waist-deep through fields of flowering megaherbs and visit the Southern Royal albatross colony where nesting couples affectionately groom and rowdy juveniles engaged in the raucous dating game known as ‘gamming’. Over on Australia’s Macquarie Island, the only place in the world where Royal penguins breed, visit this raucous ‘Penguin City’ and Zodiac cruise one of the world’s largest King penguin colonies, nesting along with Southern Elephant seals and weaners (older elephant seal pups).”

Macquarie Island and its surrounding marine park (colloquially known as Macca) are so important, the Australian Government recently tripled the size of the park to a staggering 475,465 sq km.

Citizens of the world

Each Heritage Expeditions voyage contributes to conservation through experiential learning with opportunities to take part in authentic citizen science initiatives and provides funds for research and management. This can range from collecting air-flask samples for GNS Science to further their research into the Southern Ocean’s role as the “world’s largest carbon sink and the impact this is having on the ocean and planet, through to collecting penguin bones, eggshells, and testing ocean samples.

“Being a company founded by biologists and adventurers, citizen science has always played an active role in our voyages and continues to be a part of Heritage Expeditions legacy. We are incredibly privileged to visit the wild and remote places we do and being able to both support the scientific community and give guests the opportunity to actively engage in authentic scientific research is all part of joining a Heritage Expeditions voyage,” Russ concluded.

Heritage Expeditions has an open bridge policy on all its voyages. Image credit: Dana Brown

As genuine ambassadors of conservation, combined with a true pioneering spirit, you are guaranteed the adventure of a lifetime with Heritage Expeditions.

For more information call 1800 143 585 or email [email protected]

This article is brought to you by Heritage Expeditions.

Explore the world’s best-kept secrets with the pioneers of authentic small ship expedition cruising Heritage Expeditions.