See animals like penguins on wildlife expedition cruises. Credit: Shutterstock

Why a wildlife expedition cruise should be at the top of your bucket-list

Author: Nicole Carmichael

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On a wildlife expedition cruise you’ll see some of the world’s best-loved (and most elusive) animals in their natural habitat, says Nicole Carmichael

When it comes to bucket list holidays, wildlife expeditions usually top the charts.

Whether it’s king penguins in Antarctica, pink dolphins on the Amazon or blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos, animal encounters are the dream – and for cruisers with a wanderlust and a healthy budget, an expedition cruise is the perfect way to achieve it.

Especially as you’ll be accompanied by a host of onboard experts to help you understand the incredible creatures you’ll be seeing in their natural habitats.

Recent years have seen a huge boom in this type of cruising and there are lots of options out there. So when the world is your oyster, where to go first?

Observe giant tortoises in the Galapagos. Credit: Shutterstock

The Galapagos

Top of the tree for wildlife lovers – from Charles Darwin onwards – this cluster of Pacific islands has more unique endemic species than anywhere else on earth, including the blue-footed booby, the marine iguana, the Galapagos penguin and the giant tortoise (five feet long and surprisingly nippy on its feet).

Who to book with

For six-star service: Silversea, National Geographic

For small-group expeditions: Rainforest Cruises, Ecoventura, G Adventures

For families: Celebrity Cruises

Get onboard

Rainforest Cruises seven-night Itinerary cruise aboard catamaran Elite, round trip from San Cristobal via the islands of North Seymour, Isabela, Rabida, Bartholomew and Lobos, departing December 9, 2023, from £7,433.


The White Continent is home to a cornucopia of penguin varieties including emperor, king, Adélie and chinstrap, plus snow petrels, killer whales and the wandering albatross.

Summer temperatures aren’t too cold, and expedition lines supply their guests with gear for excursions (check with your chosen line which items you need to provide yourself).

Who to book with

For specialist expeditions: Quark Expeditions, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Aurora Expeditions

For cultural immersion: Viking Expeditions

For six-star service: Scenic, whose ultra-luxury 200-guest "Discovery Yacht" Scenic Eclipse will sail to Antarctica in November 2023.

Get onboard

Quark Expeditions 15-night ‘South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari’ cruise aboard Ocean Adventurer, round trip from Ushuaia, departing February 5, 2024, from £13,032.

Go on an expedition cruise to see all kinds of wildlife, like king penguins. Credit: Shutterstock


The northernmost US state offers humpback and grey whales, orcas and bald eagles. You can also see bears (black, brown, grizzly, Kodiak and polar), as well as moose, wolves and caribou. But be warned – a grizzly’s nose beats a bloodhound’s and it can smell prey – ie you – from miles away. So listen to those safety briefings and stick with your tour party.

Who to book with

For immersive itineraries: Lindblad Expeditions

For onboard experience: Ponant

Best on a budget: Norwegian Cruise Line

For maximum time on excursions: Oceania

For all-inclusive luxury: Regent Seven Seas

Get onboard

Lindblad seven-night ‘Great Bear Rainforest’ cruise aboard NG Venture, from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert, departing September 18, 2023, from £4,597.

Visit Alaska to see polar bears in their natural habitat. Credit: Shutterstock

The Arctic

Witnessing a polar bear in the wild is the biggest draw to the Arctic, but you may also be lucky enough to see walruses, Arctic foxes or Arctic hares, which can run at up to 40 mph.

This is also the only place where you can see the narwhal – known as the unicorn of the sea – and the beluga whale, with its distinctive bulbous forehead.

Who to book with

For photography expeditions: Exodus, Poseidon Adventures

For advanced expedition ships: Silversea Expeditions

For more affordable cruises: Hurtigruten

For a small-ship experience: PolarQuest

Get onboard

Hurtigruten nine-night ‘Circumnavigating Spitsbergen – In the Realm of the Polar Bear’ cruise aboard MS Spitsbergen, round trip from Oslo via Longyearbyen, departing June 15, 2023, from £6,587.

With some luck, you might be able to see animals like the arctic fox in the Arctic. Credit: Shutterstock

The Amazon

The world’s largest rainforest and the mighty river that runs through it contain more than a third of the world’s animal species, with a new one discovered on average every three years.

What you’ll see depends on whether you visit in the wet season (December to May) or the dry season (June to November), but could include pink river dolphins, red-bellied piranhas and the fearsome black caiman – a six-metre crocodile.

You may even be lucky enough to spot the endangered jaguar or the Amazonian manatee, which is thought be the inspiration for the legendary mermaid.

Who to book with

Best for Peruvian Amazon adventure: Uniworld

Best for Brazilian Amazon adventure: Azamara

Best for small-ship luxury: Delfin

Best for specialist information: Aqua Expeditions

Best onboard experience: Seabourn

Get onboard

Aqua Expeditions seven-night ‘Amazon Expedition’ cruise aboard Aria Amazon, round trip from Iquitos (Peru) via the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, departing January 26, 2024, from £5,315.

Discover the Amazon Rainforest on an expedition cruise. Credit: Shutterstock

Five reasons to love wildlife expedition cruising...

1. You’ll get all the amenities of a regular high-end cruise (fine food, fantastic service and a comfy bed after all your day’s adventures) but expedition ships with Zodiac boats can get you much closer to animals in the wild.

2. Unlike normal cruises, expedition itineraries are flexible, so the crew can take you wherever the best sightings are expected that day. If whales are sighted, for example, the captain may change course to observe them.

3. Smaller ships and fewer passengers make for a much more immersive experience. There will be more excursions than on a regular cruise, and with fewer passengers, you’ll get more time with the onboard experts.

4. Animals are shy of humans, so why would they stick around when a huge ship is heading their way, with thousands of passengers on board? A small, stealthy expedition ship won’t spook them. Follow your guides’ instructions to the letter and the wildlife will behave as if you’re not even there.

5. Expedition lines are highly conscious of their ecological footprint, and they all adhere to a strict set of rules when sailing in Antarctica and the Arctic. In areas such as the Galapagos and the Amazon, they work with local communities.

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