For animal aficionados, there may be no better reason to take a cruise than to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Whether it’s spotting a humpback whale blowing off steam or laying eyes on a colony of adorable penguins, glimpsing animals can be an adrenaline rush. Here are six itineraries that provide up-close encounters of the wild kind:
1. Best for Tropical Fish
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The undersea world of French Polynesia is among the most vibrant on earth. The hundreds of islands, motus (tiny sandy islets), atolls, reefs, and teal-green lagoons are what’s left of the extinct volcanoes that once dominated the region. Snorkel through crystal-clear water and ogle giant purple and green clamshells, fuchsia sea anemones with undulating appendages, and schools of tropical fish in electrifying colors. Fearless divers are equally as thrilled with frequent shark sightings.
Options: Paul Gauguin Cruises’ 332-passenger Paul Gauguin sails in the South Pacific year-round on seven- to 14-night cruises. Other lines pass through during world cruises or Pacific Ocean crossings.
2. Best for Sea Lions and Iguanas
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Famous for its tame animals and the scientists who studied them there a century ago, the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are a haven for nature lovers. On guided hikes, walk among 3- to 5-foot-long spiny-backed iguanas and waddling blue-footed booby birds. Sea lion pups lounge on the islands’ beaches, often letting humans get within inches of them.
Options: Lindblad Expeditions has two ships while Celebrity Cruises and Silversea Cruises each have one small ship in the Galapagos year-round on mostly seven-night sailings from the island of Baltra, while lines like Avalon Waterways offer 10 or 15 day cruises through the island chain.
3. Best for Seals and Whales
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A desolate place of ice and snow that’s literally at the end of the earth manages to harbor some pretty hearty — and adorable — wildlife, from Adelie penguins to colonies of lounging elephant and crabeater seals, as well as whales, from Orca to blue, humpback, minke, southern right, and sperm whales. Dozens of bird species make a seasonal migration to Antarctica to feed, from huge albatross to skuas, known as the pirates of the sea because they steal food from other birds, often in midflight.
Options: Between November and March, a handful of cruise lines with small, agile ships sporting ice-hardened hulls sail to the south pole on 10-night — and sometimes longer — voyages round trip from Argentina, including Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea, Companie du Ponant Yacht Cruises, Hurtigruten, and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. A few other lines, including Crystal Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line, skirt the edge of Antarctica.
4. Best for Sea Turtles and Penguins
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Off the coast of Cairns, Australia, you’ll find giant clams, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales of the Great Barrier Reef, while further south in New Zealand, the wildlife ranges from whale watching off the coast of Kaikoura to ogling yellow-eyed penguins at the seaside Penguin Place reserve near Dunedin. Cruise through the fjords at the tip of South Island to look for bottle-nosed dolphins or seals lazing on the rocks, and of course, New Zealand’s rolling green farmland is covered with thousands of grazing sheep, which they say, easily outnumber the humans.
Options: Between November and April, several cruise lines do a season of 12-to 14-night cruises mostly between Sydney and Auckland, and sometimes round trip from Sydney, including Holland America Line, Celebrity, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Crystal, and Seabourn.
5. Best for Humpbacks, Bears, and Bald Eagles
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Lean against your ship’s railing long enough, and you’ll see the spray of humpback whales shooting into the air, and often the flick of their winglike tails as well. For closer-up encounters, sign up for whale-watching excursions to places like Auke Bay, near Juneau. On shore, bald eagles are easily spotted, and so are southeast Alaska’s five different varieties of plump salmon. To see a bear, your best bet is an excursion to a popular bear hangout, such as Neets Bay in Tongass National Forest or the Mendenhall Glacier area near Juneau — look for them near rivers, where they like to feed on salmon.
Options: Dozens of cruise lines visit southeast Alaska in the summer, from Princess and Holland America to Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, sailing mostly seven-night cruises round trip from Vancouver, Seattle, or San Francisco.
6. Best for Big Five Game Animals
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A few ships cruise along the coast of Africa and offer optional luxury game safaris in places like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, where you can see the big five — lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros — and lots more, from giraffes to zebras. The excursions typically last two to three nights and require a flight from Durban or Cape Town (fly out of one port and into another a few days later), or tagged on to the end of the voyage.
Options: A handful of cruise lines, including Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Cunard Line, Holland America, and Princess, visit African ports as part of longer two-, three-, and four-week — or longer — cruises; you can often pick a segment of the full sailing. Crystal offers several annual cruises to Africa that include optional animal-focused excursions, like tracking rare silverback mountain gorillas in Uganda or getting a closeup look at the endangered black rhino in South Africa.