‘Ho-hum! Another orca whale!” said nobody ever. Wildlife lovers go a little crazy in Alaska, where the daily creature feature might include whales, bears, bald eagles, seals, and sea lions. Our favorite Alaska wildlife watching moment: observing sea otters crack clams on their bellies. If Mom Nature offers up anything cuter than that, we’ve never seen it. (Sorry, cat videos on YouTube!) If gorgeous natural settings teeming with wildlife ring your travel chimes, here’s a tip: a small-ship cruise is a great way to go. While cruising, we’ve watched gray whales cavort with their newborns in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, swum with hammerhead sharks and sea lions in the Galapagos (the sea lions were much more aggressive than the sharks), and hiked alongside sloths and squirrel monkeys in Costa Rica’s rain forest — just for starters.
“In many of these destinations, a small ship or expedition cruise can bring you to parts of the region that are inaccessible by land, so you can literally get that up-close-and-personal wildlife watching experience,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com). Many of these ships are designed specifically for the regions they’re visiting, she notes. Zodiacs and special viewing docks — even small submarines and helicopters on some newer ships — allow in-depth exploration. Plus, “they’re focused on visiting responsibly,” McDaniel says, using hybrid engines, technology that eliminates the need for anchors in delicate regions, and eco-friendly amenities like water-filling stations (to eliminate the need for plastic bottles), and reef-safe soaps and sunscreens. On board, expert naturalists, guides, and scientists enrich the voyage.
If your #travelgoals include amazing animal encounters, focus your binoculars on these cruises. If we haven’t included your coveted destination or spirit animal, not to worry; there’s so much to say, we’ll revisit this topic in a future story.
Galapagos archipelago, Ecuador
Part of the Republic of Ecuador, the volcanic archipelago of the Galapagos is one of the world’s prime destinations for wildlife watching. Giant tortoises (weighing up to 500 pounds), marine iguanas, red- and blue-footed boobies, and spotted eagle rays are among the residents here. According to the Galapagos Conservancy, about 20 percent of marine life in the Galapagos is endemic, found no place else on Earth.
Celebrity Cruises (www.celebritycruises.com) offers trips out of Quito, Ecuador, on three ships, ranging in size from 16 to 50 double cabins. Just this year, the company launched the all-suite Celebrity Flora, a 100-passenger vessel especially designed for touring the ecologically delicate Galapagos — it incorporates anchorless technology and low emissions. Certified naturalists from the Galapagos National Park travel with you, giving lectures and chatting casually about local flora and fauna. The trip is all-inclusive, with two daily, guided excursions and shore landings included, along with snorkeling gear, wetsuits, and other supplies you’ll need to explore this incredible landscape. Snorkeling alongside hammerhead sharks and sea lions is an experience you won’t soon forget. Shipboard cuisine features local produce and fish.
Trips run year-round. Celebrity Flora, from $8,999; Celebrity Xpedition, from $6,149.
The Amazon region holds the richest and most varied collection of life on Earth, including myriad species of birds and insects, plus monkeys, sloths, jaguars, anteaters, giant river otters, agoutis, and even pink dolphins. (Pink dolphins!) Of course, there’s a crazy amount of plant life, from giant bromeliads to the tiniest orchids.
On a trip aboard the M/Y Tucano, run by Jamestown, R.I.-based Naturetours (www.naturetours.com), you’ll go deep into the rain forest. This nine-cabin expedition vessel is the only boat permitted to go into the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in Amazonas, Brazil, hugging the shorelines of the Rio Negro and Amazon rivers. The landscape includes several kinds of rain forest, grasslands, and deserted beaches. Choose between a six-night “Heart of the Amazon” journey, and a four-night trip that features the essential Amazon experience. On these cruises, you can go superactive, kayaking in streams, going on night hikes and jungle walks, and even piranha fishing, or take a mellower approach, opting to spend lots of time watching the scenery from the top deck. To minimize the impact of visiting one of the world’s last great wilderness areas, the company changes up its itinerary and uses solar, electric, and thermal power. Guides are local, as is the food; count on a memorable experience.
Trips run from January through May; four-night trips from $1,750; six-night trips from $3,150.
Most people think a safari involves hours in vans, plowing over dusty, rutted roads. Not so on a trip aboard AmaWaterways’s Zambezi Queen (www.amawaterways.com). On its seven-to-16-night tours, guests spend four nights cruising the Chobe River aboard the all-suite 28-passenger Zambezi Queen. The top-level deck is a great vantage point for observing elephants splashing in the water, lions roaming the plains, and other animal life as they gather at the river. “During the dry season (March through November) when inland water sources disappear, migratory animals head towards the Chobe River,” says Todd Ney of AmaWaterways. “Guests can expect to encounter elephants, zebras, lions, giraffes, rhinos, crocodiles, hippos, monkeys, baboons, and more than 450 species of birds all within a short stretch of this magnificent river.” The Chobe River region is the most densely populated area in the world for elephants and has the largest zebra migration found anywhere, Ney says.
Guests visit Chobe National Park, Botswana’s most biologically diverse park, as well as Victoria Falls. The longest trip includes seven nights at Tanzania luxury lodges in Arusha, Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and the Serengeti. New this year: Guests can add four nights in Rwanda, to see mountain gorillas and golden monkeys at Kigali and Volcanoes National Park.
Trips are offered year-round; from $9,299.
So what if you’ve gotta wear ski jackets in June? You’ll forgive the chill as you witness unforgettable images, like an Alaska brown bear pulling a salmon from a river. Add mountains and glaciers to the mix, and voila! Dream destination. “Cruising Alaska is an ideal way to see an abundance of wildlife,” says Sarah Leonard, CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “The majority of Alaska cruises sail through the Inside Passage, which includes Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and Tongass National Forest, America’s largest national forest. This area has the highest density of black bears in the world and one of the highest for brown bears. Alaska also has the largest population of bald eagles in the world,” Leonard says.
No two trips are the same on UnCruise Adventures (www.uncruise.com) ; guided by wildlife and weather, its tour operators skip the ports and anchor off remote areas of Alaska. Guests spend their days bushwhacking, kayaking, or a combination of both (they call it “whack and yak”) and taking skiff tours to see birds and have DIY glacial (a.k.a. mud) facials. Trips range from seven to 14 nights. One we like: “Whales, Wildlife & Glaciers,” a weeklong journey that sails from Sitka to Juneau aboard the 86-passenger Safari Endeavor. A fun feature: hot tubs on deck. What could be finer, after a day playing outside, than a frothy soak on the deck of your home-away-from-home? Seafood served onboard is sourced from local fishermen, crabbers, and clam/oyster farmers.
Trips run April-October. “Whales, Wildlife & Glaciers” is available June-August. From $4,795.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.