Seven Seas Explorer cruise sails New Zealand's seas, but tour could come to halt if it fails biofouling standards again

A cruise ship boasted to be the most luxurious ever built is leaving Auckland on Thursday evening, stopping at ports around Aotearoa before heading to Sydney. 

The Seven Seas Explorer is bedecked with classical artwork, high-end dining and even suites with their own butler.

It's full steam ahead for cruise ships. After 2019's record year, it all ran aground during two-and-a-half years of COVID-19.

"All around it was disappointing. But we're back, you can see the smiles on everyone's faces as you joined the ship today. It's only positive going forward," said Regent Seven Sea Cruises' Lisa Pile. 

The Seven Seas Explorer's first two trips to Auckland were postponed due to the pandemic - but despite deadly COVID outbreaks on other cruise ships, Regent Seven Seas said demand now exceeds pre-pandemic highs. And all six of its ships are booked through 2025.

"Pent-up demand is absolutely there. I mean, New Zealand is a couple of months behind the Australian market because you opened later, but that New Zealand market has also come back with a vengeance," Pile told Newshub. 

The 110 waiters and 88 chefs are able to source local produce at every port of call for the ship's five restaurants.

"Port to port, we try to get local ingredients and fresh fish. I always go to the market," said senior executive chef Michael Meyepa. 

The Seven Seas Explorer is fitted out at the top of the range with a casino, theatre, gym, pool - you name it.

Prices for the 14-night trip to Sydney range from $20,000 to more than $100,000. And what do you get for that? Well, the most exclusive address at sea is up on the 14th floor. It's 400 square metres and has a 100 square metre balcony. You get your butler, private dining, sauna, and even a couple of Picasso paintings hanging by the door.

But however luxurious, the Seven Seas Explorer didn't comply with New Zealand biofouling standards last month because of excess levels of oysters on its hull, forcing a clean-up in Australia.

"We clean our hulls on a regular basis because we actually have a hydrodynamic propeller system. So we keep the hull very clean, so the hull for this particular visit was already cleaned in December," said Pile. 

But Biosecurity New Zealand said the first images of the clean-up the operators provided weren't up to scratch. 

A second set is being analysed tonight but if they don't comply, the ship won't be able to visit special marine areas like Fiordland during its visit.