Orion Expedition Cruises (OEC) is a former Australian-based luxury expedition cruise line that operated the German-built 103 m, 4000 gross tonne MV Orion in Australasian and Antarctic waters.
Founded by Australian businesswoman Sarina Bratton in early 2004, Orion Expedition Cruises began cruising operations in March 2005 with the repositioning cruise of the MV Orion from Papeete, Tahiti in French Polynesia to Sydney, Australia via the Cook Islands, Samoa, New Caledonia, Fiji and Lord Howe Island. OEC operated Australian-based expedition cruises in areas as diverse as the Antarctic continent to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
On 20 May 2008, Bratton, then Managing Director, announced the purchase of the company by US private equity firm KSL Capital Partners, and Cruise Ferry Master Fund (CFMF), a division of German shipping bank DVB.
On 5 March 2013 it was announced that OEC had been acquired by US-based small ship operator Lindblad Expeditions, which owns five ships and charters a further five and operates cruises to a variety of destinations. CFMF also holds a 60% interest in Lindblad Expeditions.
The concept behind the formation of the operation was to bring a new flavour of locally based luxury expedition-style cruising to Australia.
In 2005 OEC made history by being the first cruise line to take a ship into the newly independent nation of East Timor. Visiting the capital Dili and the nation's second largest center Baucau, guests of the Orion were some of the first tourists to be part of organized travel in the country. OEC planned to continue and expand their operations in East Timor in 2006, but the company's plans were suspended when the fledgling nation became unstable just a few weeks before the Orion was due to dock in Dili in June 2006. The Indonesian port of Kupang in West Timor replaced Dili in OEC's itinerary.
The company offered expedition cruises to Antarctica from the Australian island of Tasmania and the New Zealand port of Bluff, in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia from the port of Darwin, to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands from the ports of Cairns and Rabaul as well as occasional cruises along the east coast of Australia focusing on the Great Barrier Reef and some cruising around Tasmania.
Following OEC's acquisition by Lindblad Expeditions in March 2013, it was announced that cruises to Orion's destination mainstays of Indonesia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and the Kimberleys would continue. In March 2014 itineraries to more easterly and remote Pacific islands were added. Orion was to be equipped with an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV), capacity for up to 24 scuba divers and oceangoing kayaks, with cruises to be accompanied by a National Geographic photographer.
In a statement in January 2015, Lindblad surprised the industry by announcing that Orion would be based in Europe for the northern summer from 2016, ceasing Southern Hemisphere winter operations.
The luxury expedition ship MV Orion, the backbone of OEC, has been described by the Berlitz Guide to Cruising as "the latest in the quest to build the perfect expedition vessel". Owned by the Marshall Islands registered company Explorer Maritime and leased under a long-term agreement by OEC, the vessel was previously operated, albeit for a short time, by US-based cruise operator Travel Dynamics International (TDI). TDI had operated the vessel in the Antarctic and the Arctic and many points in between before handing the vessel over to OEC in the Tahitian port of Papeete in March 2005.
The MV Orion will be renamed the National Geographic Orion from March 2014, and join Lindblad Expeditions owned National Geographic Endeavour, MS National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Islander, National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion, along with their chartered vessels Delfin II, Jahan, Lord of the Glens, Oceanic Discoverer and Sea Cloud.
Sarina Bratton had over 25 years experience in the travel industry before founding OEC and in that time held positions including Vice President and General Manager Asia Pacific for Cunard Line, founder and Managing Director of Norwegian Capricorn Line and held both Australian Federal and State Government Board appointments including an appointment to the board of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).
In 2006 Sarina was the winner of the Veuve Clicquot Australian Business Woman of the Year Award for being the first female founder of a cruise line and in 2008 was the New South Wales state winner of the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year.