WILDLIFE CRUISES

Few types of wildlife travel tingle with a greater sense of discovery or anticipation than an expedition cruise to some remote corner of the world’s oceans. A fleeting glimpse of an albatross riding the rollercoaster of a Southern Ocean swell; crouching quietly at the edge of a 100,000-strong penguin colony; meeting the gaze of a marine iguana that shows no fear of humans; hearing the sigh of breath as a whale surfaces, shattering reflections in some pristine bay... these are the kinds of moments that make wildlife cruises so special. And so addictive.

There is something of Darwin, Cousteau and Shackleton in all modern-day expedition voyagers – even if we’re used to more comfortable accommodation and rely on expert  naturalist guides. From polar icebreakers to Amazon riverboats, wildlife cruise vessels follow in the wake of some of the most historically important voyages ever undertaken. Crossing the equator, reaching 80N or stepping ashore on Antarctica will always be milestones on these trips, but ultimately it’s the wildlife and wild places that lure us there.

 

Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia promise a heady cocktail of ice, mountains and penguins galore, while High Arctic regions like Svalbard and Baffin Island offer a polar extreme of ice bears, walruses and equally astonishing scenery.

 

In the tropics, the Amazon and Galápagos provide two very different wildlife cruise experiences – one a river journey, gleaning precious glimpses of secretive jungle wildlife; the other an oceanic island odyssey, tiptoeing around brazen colonies of seabirds, sea lions and marine iguanas.

 

Less well known, but just as rewarding to wannabe-Darwins, are wildlife cruises in Indonesia (sailing to the land of Komodo dragons), Baja California’s Sea of Cortez (a whale-watcher’s paradise) and the Coral Sea (visiting the reefs and rainforests of Queensland and Papua New Guinea).

 

Mark Twain’s misquoted, but impassioned plea ("...throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.") will strike a chord with any wildlife cruise-goer. Just remember to add ‘treasure’ and ‘preserve’. The places you'll be visiting are some of the most ecologically vulnerable on earth.

Wildlife Cruises Q&As

What is the wildlife cruise 'code of conduct'?


• Do not touch or feed wildlife. If it appears to be agitated, then you are too close. Take binoculars and use them for close views, particularly of animals that are breeding.
• Use filtered drinking water from the ship, rather than purchase disposable water bottles.
• Watch where you are walking. Even pebble beaches can be nesting sites for plovers, terns and oystercatchers, while burrows are used by puffins, penguins and shearwaters. Also try to avoid trampling delicate plant life in dune or tundra areas. Keep to established trails and follow your guide’s directions.
• Try to reduce the amount of packaging you take onboard with you. All non-recyclable items should be taken home.
• Do not leave behind litter or food scraps or throw anything overboard.
• Consider picking up one piece of rubbish from any beach you land on.
• Do not paint names or graffiti on rocks.
• Leave everything as you found it. Do not take souvenirs of rocks, fossils, bones, eggs or feathers.
• During close encounters with wildlife, remain quiet and avoid using flash when taking photographs.
• Do everything possible to avoid introducing alien species to island ecosystems. This can include anything from discarded fruit seeds to insects inadvertently carried in luggage.




How do you identify seabirds?


A new species of storm petrel was identified off the coast of Chile as recently as 2011. Closely related to the white-vented storm petrel ( Oceanites gracilis) shown here, it was the first new seabird discovery in 55 years. It’s perhaps not surprising that these ocean wanderers can elude birdwatchers for so long. Not only do they cover vast areas of sea, but reliable identification is made notoriously difficult by brief sightings, bad weather, rough seas and the often similar markings of various pelagic species. Use the following checklist to sort out your prions from your petrels: Size: Compare the size of the bird you’re trying to identify with other seabirds in the area. Bill shape: Is it tube-nosed (as in albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters), slender and hooked (as in frigatebirds and cormorants) or long and dagger-like (as in gannets and boobies)? Plumage: This is where identification gets tricky. Most seabirds are black (or grey) and white. However, look closely at the cap, eye band, collar, rump and tail – variations in markings on these areas will help you narrow down the species. Flight: Is the bird soaring like an albatross on long, stiff wings, banking above the waves like a shearwater, dancing on the surface like a storm petrel, plunge-diving like a gannet, skipping along with short sharp wingbeats like a tern, fussing behind your ship like a gull or chasing other seabirds like a frigatebird?




What's a day on a wildlife cruise like?


• 0630: Wake-up call. Often, the ship will have spent the night relocating to a new island or point of interest. • 0700: Breakfast. • 0800: Disembark in zodiacs for morning landing. • 0815: Naturalist guides lead you on a short walk, stopping often to identify and photograph wildlife. • 1100: Opportunity for additional activities, such as snorkelling from the beach, sea kayaking or a zodiac ride along the coast looking for seabirds and whales, or admiring icebergs. • 1200: Return to ship. Rinse off your snorkelling gear and visit the natural history library to read up on wildlife you’ve seen. • 1230: Lunch. • 1330: The ship may navigate to a different site for the afternoon landing. There’s time to search for wildlife from the deck, watch a presentation from one of the guides or simply to relax. This would also be the format for days at sea. • 1530: Afternoon landing, guided walk and activities. • 1800: Return to ship. Evening drinks and briefing on following day’s schedule. • 1930: Dinner. • 2100: Natural history talk. • 2200: Time for a spot of star-gazing before bed or, if you are enjoying the long days of a polar summer, there will be enough daylight for spotting whales and seabirds. On some polar cruises, 24hr daylight means that some landings can be scheduled late at night.




What should I look for when choosing a wildlife cruise?


There are cruises and then there are expedition cruises, voyaging to far-flung places in small ships, exploring wildlife-rich islands in the company of expert guides and experiencing the thrill of an oceanic quest. Cruising is no longer the preserve of the ‘newly wed or nearly dead’. Apart from choosing where to go, there are several factors to consider when arranging a wildlife cruise. Cost is likely to be an important issue. A typical 10-day cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula will easily sink US$5,000 of your hard-earned savings (excluding flights to the embarkation port). However, don’t forget that expedition cruises are pretty much all-inclusive and enable you to reach remote places often impossible to visit in any other way. You can sometimes save money by travelling during an off -peak season and choosing a bigger boat. The downside to this, of course, is that you may miss the prime period for wildlife (or hit bad weather) and big ships inevitably mean more protracted logistics (and potential environmental impact) shuttling passengers back and forth to shore. Aim for an expedition vessel that carries up to around 150 passengers. Apart from sleeping, you probably won’t spend much time in your cabin, so look for other features, like natural history libraries, the ratio of guides to passengers and whether the ship carries sea kayaks or snorkelling gear. Finally, look carefully at the itinerary and weigh up the balance between landfalls and days at sea. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators has a list of environmentally responsible Antarctic cruise operators.




What ferry trips are good for wildlife spotting?


Inside Passage The Alaska Marine Highway and BC Ferries connect island communities throughout coastal British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. Keep watch for orcas, humpback whales, bald eagles and Stellar’s sea lions. Parks Canada naturalists join summer midday sailings between Vancouver and Victoria and Nanaimo. Isles of Scilly Travelling between Penzance, Cornwall, and St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles (a voyage of 2hrs 40 min), the Scillonian III often provides sightings of common dolphins, seabirds, grey seals and even basking sharks. An expert from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds accompanies Friday sailings. Bay of Biscay Brittany Ferries works with the Marine Conservation Society to help passengers spot whales, dolphins and seabirds on its Portsmouth-Santander route. Scottish Hebrides Caledonian MacBrayne plies routes throughout the Hebrides where you can see harbour porpoise, grey seal, dolphins, minke whale, orca, white-tailed sea eagle, gannets and other seabirds. Sunderbans Explore the mangrove maze of the Sunderbans in Bangladesh where a small fleet of podgy, bright orange paddleships, known as Rockets, ply the myriad channels between Dhaka and Khulna. With luck, you may catch a glimpse of a rare Ganges river dolphin. Cook Strait Linking North and South Island, the three-hour voyage between Wellington and Picton combines stunning scenery with a chance to spot whales, dolphins and fur seals.





Read the latest posts on Wildlife Cruises

HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER

When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife cruise, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.

Wildlife Cruises: Field Notes

EXPEDITION VOYAGING IN ANTARCTICA

The coast with the most – for many travellers, Antarctica is the ultimate expedition cruise destination. Getting misty-eyed over all that panoramic perfection is all well and good, but if you’re serious about wildlife you need to start focusing on details. Brown stains on distant snow-clad mountain slopes, for example, usually indicate large penguin rookeries (some are conspicuous enough to be visible from space). Check ice floes and bergs for seals and penguins hauled out to rest, and double-take any splash – it could be a leopard seal on the prowl, a whale surfacing or seabirds feeding.

GUIDING STAR: CATHY ITURRALDE DILLON

Most memorable wildlife encounter:  

Watching orcas playing with a huge sunfish for an hour.

Top tip for travellers on a wildlife cruise: 

Be prepared for unusual things to happen, like changing weather, rough seas and unpredictable wildlife.

Favourite animal:

Galápagos penguins are faithful and elegant, and amazingly fast swimmers.

What does responsible travel mean to you?

Our commitment to the Galápagos is to ensure that its natural resources are never damaged for future generations. We organise projects such as coastal clean-ups, recycling and diver training.

 

Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador

Wildlife Cruises: Anatomy of an Expedition Ship

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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.

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