• William Gray

21 of the World's Best Wildlife Cruise Destinations

Expedition cruise ship in the Galapagos Islands with marine iguanas

North America

1. Alaska & British Columbia

Cracks in crazy paving. That’s what they look like on a nautical chart. Except the paving slabs are hundreds of forested islands, wedged against the mainland of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska – and the cracks form a coastal highway stretching 1,600km north from Seattle to the old gold rush town of Skagway. The Inside Passage is firmly etched on cruise liner itineraries, but travel by small ship or local ferry and you’ll see more and often spend less. Highlights in BC include Vancouver Island, the Great Bear Rainforest and Queen Charlotte Islands – realm of bear and orca, and the heartland for cultures like the Haida and Tlingit. In Southeast Alaska, ships visit Ketchikan, Juneau and the fabled Glacier Bay. Frederick Sound is a good place to keep watch for humpback whales.

When to go: May to August

Embarkation ports: Seattle, Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Juneau, Ketchikan

2. Arctic Canada

Small ship expeditions in the Canadian territories of Nunavut and Nunavik promise encounters with walrus, polar bear, narwhal and other Arctic wildlife, as well as a fascinating insight into Inuit culture. Cruises can often be combined with Labrador and the west coast of Greenland (see below).

When to go: August to September

Embarkation ports: Iqaluit

3. Greenland

Iceberg-strewn bays, Arctic wildlife and insights into Inuit and Viking cultures all feature on Greenland cruises. The east coast can be combined with both Iceland and Svalbard.

When to go: August to September

Embarkation ports: Kangerlussuaq, Reykjavik, Longyearbyen

Latin America & Antarctica

4. Baja California

Cruises in the Sea of Cortez ripple with the anticipation of whale sightings. Blue, humpback, fin and sperm whale are just some of the species likely to be seen, while cruise itineraries also include kayaking, snorkelling with sea lions and excursions into Baja’s desert interior.

When to go: Year round

Embarkation ports: La Paz

5. Caribbean

There’s a huge choice of cruise options available in the Caribbean. When it comes to watching wildlife and getting off the beaten track, however, the choice between a 3,000-passenger mega-ship and a skippered yacht is a no-brainer.

When to go:December to June

Embarkation ports: Various islands

6. Galápagos Islands

Land-based trips are possible on the island of Santa Cruz, but only by cruising around the Galápagos can you fully appreciate the archipelago’s wonderful wildlife. Each island has a special lure, from the petrel-hunting owls of Genovesa to the waved albatross of Española. Although the wildlife is totally unfazed by human presence, small- to medium-sized vessels help to minimise human impact.

When to go: Year round

Embarkation ports: Baltra

7. Amazon River

The best boats for cruises on the Amazon are small with shallow draughts, enabling you to probe wildlife-rich backwaters, lagoons and flooded forest.

When to go: March to October

Embarkation ports: Manaus

8. Tierra del Fuego

Cruceros Australis operates small ship cruises through the Straits of Magellan and Beagle Channel, visiting Cape Horn, penguin rookeries and Patagonian glaciers.

When to go: September to April

Embarkation ports: Punta Arenas, Ushuaia

9. Falkland Islands

Sometimes combined with a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula (and South Georgia), the Falklands also make an excellent land-based destination. Cruise ship passengers often visit the penguin colonies at Bluff Cove or Volunteer Point.

When to go: October to March

Embarkation ports: Ushuaia, Port Stanley

10. South Georgia

Worth pushing the boat out for, a visit to this wild, mountainous island adds considerably to the duration and expense of an Antarctic cruise, but the wildlife is legendary. You’ll see colonies of 200,000 king penguins, as well as wandering albatross, giant petrel and fur seal.

When to go: November to March

Embarkation ports: Ushuaia

11. Antarctic Peninsula

The classic voyage to the Great White Continent crosses Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands and ice-choked bays of the Antarctic Peninsula and Weddell Sea. Typically a 10-day cruise, highlights include orca, humpback and minke whales, leopard, crabeater and fur seals, large rookeries of chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie penguins and the opportunity to go kayaking, diving or camping out on the ice.

When to go: November to March

Embarkation ports: Ushuaia


12. Scottish islands

Set sail for the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides and farflung St Kilda, exploring one of Europe’s richest areas for cetaceans and seabirds.

When to go: April to September

Embarkation ports: Oban

13. Norwegian Fjords

Wildlife hotspots in this popular cruise destination include the Vesterålen Islands (for sperm whales) and the Lofoten Islands (for sea eagles).

When to go: May to September

Embarkation ports: Bergen, Kirkenes

14. Svalbard

Voyage around the Arctic wilderness of Spitsbergen, venturing ashore in zodiacs to view glaciers, seabird cliffs, and walrus haul-outs. Svalbard cruises are always supercharged with the possibility of a polar bear encounter. The coastal scenery is a spectacular procession of mountains, while Ny-Ålesund offers a fascinating insight into an Arctic research station.

When to go: May to October

Embarkation ports: Longyearbyen


15. Indian Ocean

Liveaboard diving cruises operate in the Red Sea, Seychelles, Maldives and Mozambique Channel.

When to go: Year round

Embarkation ports: Various


16. Kamchatka Peninsula

Spot bears, seabirds and cetaceans against a mesmerising backdrop of volcanoes, and explore the little-visited Kuril and Commander Islands.

When to go: June to July

Embarkation ports: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy

17. Southeast Asia

Adventure dive cruises are available in the Philippines, while sailing cruises venture to Indonesia’s Komodo Island.

When to go: Year round

Embarkation ports: Various

Australasia & Antarctica

18. North Australia

Cruises operate around the Kimberley and Queensland coast, with some venturing across the Coral Sea to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Vessels range from luxury launches to sailing yachts and expedition ships.

When to go: Kimberley: May to September; Queensland: April to November

Embarkation ports: Cairns, Darwin

19. Fiji & South Pacific

Tui Tai cruises island-hop around Vanua Levu, Rabi, Taveuni and the Ringgold Atolls, with plenty of time for hiking, snorkelling and kayaking.

When to go: Year round

Embarkation ports: Natewa Bay

20. New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands

A staggering number of breeding seabirds converge on these remote, blustery outposts each southern summer, transforming them into one of the world’s greatest wildife spectacles. Macquarie Island has 850,000 pairs of royal penguin, 218,000 pairs of king penguin and 150,000 southern elephant seals; Campbell Island has a colony of 7,500 pairs of southern royal albatross, while 340-ha Snares Island has two million sooty shearwaters, plus albatrosses, petrels, prions and crested penguins.

When to go: November to December

Embarkation ports: Invercargill

21. East Antarctica

Sail beyond the Sub-Antarctic Islands (above) to reach the East Antarctic Coast where abundant wildlife includes snow petrels and emperor penguins at Dumont d’Urville. Venturing further south, Ross Sea is the historic gateway of many Antarctic explorers, as well as the breeding ground for millions of Adélie and emperor penguins. Highlights of this ultimate Antarctic voyage include Cape Adare, the Ross Ice Shelf and Mt Erebus and Shackleton’s hut.

When to go: January to early March

Embarkation ports: Invercargill


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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.