Nature-lovers might be surprised to know that they can seek out birds, animals and outdoor activities on a cruise vacation. From small expedition ships staffed with naturalists and expedition leaders to bigger ships with wilderness or wildlife-themed shore tours, passengers have a wealth of options to embrace the outdoors. But which destinations lend themselves to the best nature-based cruises?
From Antarctica with its penguins to the Arctic with its polar bears, cruisers are actually spoiled for choice. They can seek out closer-to-home Mexico or Alaska nature cruises or journey to exotic Africa for wildlife cruises. If you've got your binoculars, bird books and hiking boots all ready to go, here are some of the best cruise destinations for nature-lovers, by region.
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Leaping salmon! Soaring eagles! Grizzly bears! Actually, the list of what isn't in Alaska, naturally speaking, may very well be shorter than the list of what is. You can get intimate with a glacier, hiking across crevasses or creeping up to its face in a kayak. For those wanting to see or photograph marine wildlife, Alaska's waterways are home to many species of seals and sea lions, as well as its most popular leviathans -- humpback and killer whales.
Best Cruise Bet: Few cruise lines have as much experience in Alaska as Princess Cruises. Multiple ships offer seven- to 12-night sailings through the Inside Passage and/or Gulf of Alaska for pinnacle destinations like Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Bay.
While passengers have all the usual options ashore, they also gain access to some more unique ones, including an Animal Planet-branded whale tour in Juneau, in which cruisers can participate in hands-on science activities while out whale-watching on an authentic research vessel. Foodies will appreciate the Cook My Catch program, in which passengers can embark on salmon and halibut fishing excursions, and have their catch cooked to their liking back on the ship.
Also back onboard, Princess hosts unique activities such as sled dog meet-and-greets and National Park Service Ranger and naturalist talks.
Additionally, Princess offers cruise tours in Alaska that combine a stay on land at resorts like Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge with a cruise, so you can seamlessly spend several days exploring places like Denali National Park or the Kenai Fjords before or after your voyage.
Mexico's Sea of Cortez
The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, is considered to be one of the world's great fish traps. There, tidal currents bring in a multitude of marine life from the sea's confluence with the Pacific Ocean at Cabo San Lucas. As a result, there is a very long food chain, extending all the way from plankton to sperm whales.
Cruisers can expect to see whales and, perhaps, whale sharks, as well as giant manta rays. During the winter season, when the California gray whales come to the Sea of Cortez to calve (give birth), you'll be able to observe them up close from a Zodiac or panga boat. You can also snorkel around numerous reefs and islands and even dive with sea lions.
Best Cruise Bet: UnCruise Adventures combines a pampering small-ship experience with off-the-beaten-track ecotourism. Safari Endeavour carries 84 passengers, and its weeklong itineraries focus on the flora and fauna of the area, with many opportunities for wildlife spotting.
The "Baja's Bounty" itinerary here offers plenty of time to search for whales, dolphins and birds, such as boobies, pelicans and cormorants. Active days are spent kayaking, snorkeling, paddle-boarding, swimming, beachcombing and hiking, while back onboard, you can keep an eye out for sea lions and whales while you relax in the ship's hot tub.
Tiny Costa Rica may cover less than .03 percent of the earth's surface, but nearly 6 percent of the planet's plant and animal species call the Central American country home. A cruise here can take you to reserves like Tortuguero National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park, where you might spot monkeys, crocodiles, sloths, egrets and many other types of birds.
Landscapes range from mangrove swamps and volcanoes to waterfalls and cloud forests (like Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, home to trees that are more than 300 years old). And, when your camera's memory card is full, you'll have plenty of opportunities to chill out during beach landings.
Best Cruise Bet: Windstar Cruises' seven- to 11-night Costa Rica-inclusive itineraries (which typically also incorporate stops in neighboring Panama, as well as a Panama Canal transit) give passengers the time they need to explore many of Costa Rica's natural attractions -- from mangrove tours and cloud forest hikes to zipline adventures through the rainforest.
Back onboard, plush Windstar vessels (the 148-passenger Wind Star and 212-passenger Star Breeze primarily operate here) make it easy to get in the water thanks to their water sports platforms, offering complimentary access to kayaking, sailing, paddle-boarding and snorkeling. Windstar also brings a local naturalist onboard in Costa Rica to inform passengers about the ports of call.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos' most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, developed major portions of evolutionary theory by observing the adaptation of bird species here -- especially finches. Modern birders eagerly follow in his footsteps when they visit. Along the islands' shores reside numerous land-based and aquatic birds, including penguins, which share their habitat with seals and sea lions. Iguanas and giant tortoises roam the islands, while the waterways teem with marine life like sea turtles, manta rays and sharks.
Best Cruise Bet: Celebrity Cruises operates four expedition vessels, ranging in capacity from 16 to 100 passengers, with seven-night itineraries running round trip from Baltra Island in the Galapagos (pre- and post-cruise land-based extensions are additionally available in the Galapagos, Quito and/or Machu Picchu). Six itineraries feature excursions across 15 islands that come in low-, medium- and high-intensity varieties, so passengers of all interests and abilities can enjoy the islands at their level -- with plenty of options for wildlife viewing, naturally.
The line offers the best mix of traditional expedition cruising with the softer, more indulgent touches that come with Celebrity's own distinctive style (particularly in its culinary offerings, but also in onboard entertainment). And with all-inclusive pricing featured here, there's no reason you can't enjoy a dry martini while listening in rapt attention to a naturalist's lecture.
No matter which itinerary you select for an Amazon River cruise, you'll trek through the jungle, visit local villages and put your binoculars to good use looking for pink dolphins, sloths, birds of all sorts (including toucans) and monkeys. Piranha fishing is also a popular activity. A highlight of Brazil-based itineraries is the "Meeting of the Waters," where the black waters and tan waters of two different Amazon River tributaries meet up and run side by side without mixing.
Best Cruise Bet: Cruise lines -- big and small -- make it easy to explore the Amazon these days. But, if you want an authentic journey down one of the world's most majestic rivers, consider sailing a smaller ship like Aqua Expeditions' 32-passenger Aria Amazon. The luxury line offers three-, four- and seven-night itineraries on a lesser-explored Peruvian stretch of the river.
Activities, led by naturalist guides, feature excursions on skiffs, canoes, kayaks and foot. Passengers can explore the varied wildlife, including birds, along the Amazon and its tributaries and neighboring rivers, as well as in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
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Antarctica and the waters that surround it are a nature-lover's dream, harboring many species of seals, whales and birds (including penguins and albatrosses). Hiking opportunities present themselves on Deception Island, Neko Bay and Fortuna Bay. The most awe-inspiring scenes may be enormous, tabular icebergs floating away -- or even breaking off -- from frozen ice shelves.
Best Cruise Bet: Some of the plushest and most technologically advanced ships sailing to Antarctica are part of the French-based Ponant fleet; the seasoned line has sailed some 400 polar expeditions over the last 30 years. They feature four ships in Antarctica (more than any other operator): Le Boreal, L'Austral, Le Lyrial and Le Soleal -- each catering to 264 passengers. The line offers a variety of 10- to 16-night voyages, running from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Montevideo, Uruguay.
On daily Zodiac expeditions, you can expect to see penguins, whales and seals, along with an incredible array of seabirds, like albatross and giant petrels. Onboard naturalists accompany you to research stations and former whaling stations to provide some context to life as it exists on the White Continent.
Ponant stands out for its special themed itineraries, such as an "Antarctica and Climate Change" journey, joined by New York Times science writers who lead panel discussions and lectures on the topic. These immersive journeys afford greater context to passengers once they set out to explore the destination on excursions.
The Arctic is the Land of the Midnight Sun and, yes, that means that during the summer months, the sun is still out at midnight (and later still). The region's remoteness is enough of a draw for some people. Others put this destination on their bucket lists because they want the opportunity to view polar bears, walruses, whales, arctic fox, reindeer and migratory birds. The opportunity for athletic pursuits -- hiking, caving, kayaking and dogsledding -- is also an intoxicating lure.
Best Cruise Bet: Hurtigruten's expedition-style voyages to the Arctic are ideal for those who aren't looking for luxurious digs but instead are more intent on seeing nature's wonders. The line's nine-night "Circumnavigating Svalbard -- In the Realm of the Polar Bear" itinerary (on the 318-passenger MS Fram or 335-passenger MS Spitsbergen) aims to take passengers well above the 80th parallel, bringing the ship closer than 600 nautical miles to the Geographic North Pole.
With a focus on Svalbard, Spitsbergen and the High Arctic, the voyage offers plenty of expedition landings, hikes and the opportunity to kayak, too.
No surprises here -- Africa's natural treasure is its wildlife. South Africa and Kenya are the two main areas for cruise-based safaris and cruisetours. Look for the Big Five -- lions, rhinos, leopards, buffalo and elephants -- as well as giraffes, zebras and all sorts of birds. Madagascar, meanwhile, is a haven for birders and anyone interested in seeing a wild lemur.
Best Cruise Bet: Silversea ships offer Southern Africa-immersive cruises rife with nature and wildlife in exotic destinations, via six- to 14-night itineraries. Voyages visit ports in Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa, as well as isles like Madagascar and Mozambique. Passengers can opt for mid-cruise safaris, especially in ports with overnight calls, or arrange for pre- or post-cruise stays that include animal-viewing experiences.
Australia and New Zealand
Wildlife abounds in Australia and New Zealand, on land and at sea, and North Americans will find the scenery and creatures quite different from those at home. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. Snorkelers and divers will easily spot any of the 1,500-plus species of fish that live there, in addition to hundreds of coral species, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, stingrays and giant clams. Look for Queensland itineraries that include time at the reef.
Tasmania is the setting for much biodiversity; about 40 percent of the Australian state is composed of national parks, while the namesake Tasmanian devil can be found here, too. New Zealand itineraries, which are often round trip affairs out of Australian ports, typically incorporate sea days to explore Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound, as well as land visits to compelling nature-rich ports of call like Akaroa and the Bay of Islands.
Best Cruise Bet: Royal Caribbean International has made a true commitment to sailing Australia and New Zealand in recent years. From affordable two-, three- and four-night sampler cruises to longer 12- to 18-night itineraries out of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Auckland, the cruise line has something that will work for just about everyone.
An emphasis is placed on shore excursions that get you close to nature. One popular excursion, for instance, is to a purpose-built reef vessel, moored on the Great Barrier Reef. This tour offers time for swimming and snorkeling or you can opt to view the reef via scuba diving.
Other tours in Cairns include a scenic railway ride through the Kuranda rainforest, or in Tasmania, to the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary to see rescued native wildlife like Tasmanian devils, kangaroo and koalas. In New Zealand, set out for a swim alongside Hector's dolphins in Akaroa Harbour, or dip into caves lit up with glowworms in the Bay of Islands region.