Admire the allure of a lion, if you're lucky enough. Credit: Adobe

Why a cruise is the best way to see unrivalled wildlife – from the 'big five' to the giant tortoise

Author: Brendan Sainsbury

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If you’ve always dreamed of seeing Africa’s ‘big five’, Alaska’s mysterious spirit bears or the giant tortoise that lends its name to the Galapagos, here’s where to experience animal magic on your next cruise, says Brendan Sainsbury

Wildlife likes to be where people aren’t – so if you long to star in your very own Attenborough documentary, a cruise could be the holiday of your dreams.

While your ship is alone in the vastness of the ocean, you’re perfectly placed to encounter whales, porpoises and other wonders of the deep.

Sailing along the coast gives you a grandstand view of seabirds, and most wildlife cruises offer low-impact excursions via kayak or inflatable Zodiac boats, so you can discover elusive land species in their natural habitat.

If that whets your appetite, here’s our selection of wildlife-spotting itineraries from around the globe.

The animal on everyone’s radar is the bear. Not just any old bear, but the Alaskan brown or Kodiak bear. Credit: Adobe

North America

Once the domain of Arctic adventurers and 19th century gold prospectors, Alaska has opened to cruise travellers in recent decades, giving the rest of us a chance to embrace this once impenetrable wilderness and its vast food chain of fauna.

The animal on everyone’s radar is the bear. Not just any old bear, but the Alaskan brown or Kodiak bear – the world’s largest ursine creature – whose weight can approach 700kg. That’s around three times as much as a black bear, and equal to 10 average humans.

Alaska’s extensive cruising infrastructure means brown bears are fairly easy to spot from a safe distance. The ultimate haven is Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaskan Peninsula, where you can observe armies of the beasts, up to 50 strong, catching leaping salmon in their jaws at Brooks Falls.

Erin Reynolds, an Adobe engineer from Anchorage, Alaska, says, “I got 10m from a group of 10 brown bears at Brook Falls. They were humongous. Last summer was cool so there wasn’t much salmon but they still caught a few. I also saw two bears in a face-off till one backed away.”

Spirit bears, a white subspecies of the black bear, are harder to spot, and unique to the mist-cloaked islands of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Sometimes causing confusion with polar bears, their distinctive white fur is the result of a recessive gene. The beauty of these elusive animals is central to the mythology of the First Nations’ people – but there are thought to be only 400 in the wild, so seeing one is a rare treat.

Lindblad Expeditions’ seven-night Voyage to Great Bear Rainforest cruise aboard National Geographic Venture, from Ketchikan to Seattle via Prince Rupert and the Great Bear Rainforest, departs on 2 September 2024, from £4,639.

These good- natured ‘toothed whales’ have a distinct pink hue and feast on catfish and piranhas. Credit: Adobe

South America

Endemic species have evolved and thrived in isolation on the Galapagos, the incredible volcanic archipelago off the west coast of Ecuador, where local variations between similar species inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Ships that visit are limited in size to protect this fragile ecosystem, with the largest taking no more than 100 guests and smaller vessels accommodating as few as 12.

The islands are famed for their giant tortoises – galápagos in Spanish – which outweigh grizzly bears and can live for more than 100 years. Santa Cruz is the best island to view these reptilian behemoths, and it’s home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which runs a captive breeding programme.

Further south, leave the high seas behind and grab a berth on an even smaller vessel plying the Peruvian Amazon and its tributaries, where you can see endangered pink dolphins. Smaller and more evasive than their saltwater relatives, these good- natured ‘toothed whales’ have a distinct pink hue and feast on catfish and piranhas as they navigate the world’s mightiest river.

Wendy Ann, a teaching assistant from Folkestone, Kent, went to the Amazon with Our Whole Village, a female- founded responsible travel agency. “We got within touching distance of 50 pink dolphins and saw more, splashing in the distance,” she says. “Our guide said fishermen break their beaks to prevent them from stealing the men’s catch, so Our Whole Village educates them not to and provides the dolphins with food in a reserve that they’re free to swim out of.”

Amazon cruise vessels hug the riverbank, allowing peek-a-boo views of jungle-clad land, where a supporting cast of sloths, squirrel monkeys and psychedelically coloured birds await. Expect intimate four to 22-suite ships with facilities akin to those of a boutique hotel.

Get onboard

Celebrity Cruises’ 10-night Quito & Galapagos Northern Loop cruise aboard Celebrity Xploration, return from Quito via the Galapagos Islands, departs on 22 August 2024, from £6,105.

It’s hard to forget your first sighting of an African elephant. Credit: Adobe


Ships aren’t the first means of travel that comes to mind if you want to see Africa’s ‘big five’ – the buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino – but safaris can easily be added to itineraries at ports around the continent’s southern and eastern coasts.

It’s hard to forget your first sighting of an African elephant, the world’s largest land animal, whose towering size is matched by a surprising grace.

Ships rounding South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope offer the best opportunities to join land excursions to game parks such as the family- owned Kariega Private Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth – a prime viewing spot for free-roaming two-and-a-half metre tall elephants and other big five mammals.

Less well known – but no less enchanting – is the giant sunbird of Sao Tomé island – part of the Portuguese- speaking archipelago of Sao Tomé and Principe that lies 250km off the west coast of Gabon.

This vulnerable bird’s ‘giant’ prefix is somewhat misleading, since it measures a mere 20cm from head to tail and is deemed ‘large’ only in relation to other sunbirds.

To see this elusive creature with its scythe- shaped beak – and more than 100 other tropical species – pick a cruise with excursions to this little-known African country’s mountainous interior.

Get onboard

Silversea’s 15-night Cape Town to Cape Town cruise aboard Silver Spirit, via Luderitz, Walvis Bay, Port Elizabeth, East London, Richards Bay and Durban, departs on 23 January 2025, from £5,550

The Komodo dragon is a carnivorous reptile endemic to a quartet of islands in Indonesia. Credit: Adobe


Once hunted for meat and oil but now more commonly admired from a ship or inflatable Zodiac, whales are an important barometer of ocean health.

Humpback whales can measure 17m and weigh 40 tons, and the sight of one erupting out of the water like a misfired torpedo reminds awestruck observers of their own speck-like existence on planet Earth. In spring, humpbacks migrate south from the Arctic to breed in tropical waters.

A good place to see them is Zamami Island in the Kerama archipelago near Okinawa, Japan, between January and April.

Mythical dragons have added colour to many legends, from the pages of Beowulf to the fiery climax
of the fantasy drama Game of Thrones.

Rather more real and only slightly less frightening is the Komodo dragon, a carnivorous reptile endemic to a quartet of islands in Indonesia.

Larger than a caiman but smaller than a crocodile, these non-fire-breathing lizards feast on deer and, occasionally, humans. See one without fear in Komodo National Park, a wildlife-rich archipelago close to Bali and Flores.

Get onboard

Ponant’s seven-night Japanese Subtropical Islands cruise aboard Le Jacques-Cartier, from Keelung (Taiwan) via Ishigaki, Taketomi Island, Iriomote Island, Kumejima, Iheyajima and Kagoshima, departs on 13 April 2024, from £4,960.

One of the most impressive wildlife spectacles at sea is the albatross. Credit: Adobe


A guided expedition cruise will arm you with enough knowledge to identify many of the birds soaring above your ship. All you have to do is look up.

One of the most impressive wildlife spectacles at sea is the albatross, gliding serenely through
the ‘furious fifties’ winds, south of New Zealand.

Long revered by sailors, this magnificent creature has the longest wingspan of any bird and is an endurance champion, able to travel staggering distances with minimum effort.

There’s all manner of albatross varieties in the Southern Ocean, from royal to wandering to black-browed. The birds are also the main attraction at Taiaroa Head near Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, the world’s only mainland albatross colony.

With a screech like a banshee, and needle-sharp canines that can bite through steel wire, Tasmanian devils resemble demonic rats. While they may not be Mother Nature’s cuddliest creatures, they’re rightly admired for their fearsome jaws, which have the strongest power-to-size bite of any animal.

Endangered today, these fascinating critters – with distinctive marsupial pouches in which to carry their young – exist only on the island of Tasmania. While it’s possible to observe them in the wild, these nocturnal animals are easier to see in protected havens such as the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart.

Get onboard

Holland America Line’s 14-night South Australia Discovery Holiday aboard Noordam, return from Sydney via Adelaide, Kangaroo Island, Hobart, Port Arthur, Melbourne and Eden, departs on 21 December 2025, from £2,969.

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