The best animal spotting cruises
For some travellers, their main motivation for taking a cruise is to experience the amazing wildlife that the world’s oceans and islands have to offer.
1. Stingrays and manta rays
Some cruises will offer excursions to see local wildlife while at port, with passengers able to enjoy trips to see stingrays – which frequent shallow sandy areas – up close. It’s also not uncommon for passengers to see large rays such as manta rays while at sea or as their ship leaves port. If you’re keen to swim with rays, try a cruise that takes in the Caribbean’s Cayman Islands or to the tropical islands of Fiji. There, from May to October, the stingless and gentle manta rays gather in the warm tropical waters to feed on – and be cleaned by – plankton.
2. Flying fish
They may sound too fantastical to be real but flying fish do exist and many cruise passengers report seeing them. Despite their name, they can’t really fly, but they are equipped with large wing-like pectoral fins that enable them to propel their bodies out of the water and glide for distances up to 200m – more if they use the updrafts from waves. Some types of flying fish also have a second set of ‘wing’ fins and most have a long tail they can dip into the water to help prolong ‘flight’. You’ll find them in deep tropical open ocean waters, rather than close to port. Ranging in size from 14-46cm, they can be hard to spot, but if you keep an eye out, you may just see one.
(Note: While flying is a quirky evolutionary safeguard that keeps the fish out of reach of predators such as marlin and tuna, they need to watch out for hungry birds while gliding.)
If you’re keen to watch these giants of the oceans in their natural habitat, there’s no better place than Antarctica. From November to March a handful of specialist cruising companies offer Antarctic expeditions departing from Argentina or New Zealand. Antarctic waters are home to eight species of whales: fin, humpback, minke, orca, sei, southern right, sperm and the largest mammal ever known to live, the rare blue whale. But you’ll also get a chance to view other wildlife, such as Adélie penguins, elephant seals, sea lions and albatross.
4. Galápagos Iguana
The Galápagos Islands are situated in the Pacific Ocean, just under 1000km from Ecuador. The islands are home to a selection of unique animals, including the marine iguana and giant tortoise. Often described as a ‘living museum and showcase of evolution’, access to the 127 islands, islets and rocks in the Galápagos archipelago (19 are relatively large and only four are inhabited) is limited to smaller cruise ships of 100 passengers or fewer.
Birdwatchers will be particularly interested in Darwin’s finches, named after British naturalist Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution was influenced by the adaptable little birds he noticed during his visit to the area in 1835.
You’re most likely to see dolphins when entering or leaving port, rather than in the open sea. These playful, highly intelligent mammals will often follow the wake of a ship (the disturbance it causes as it cuts through the water). Many cruises passengers report seeing dusky or Clymene dolphins on cruises in Mexican waters, but for cruises in the Pacific Ocean’s Southern Hemisphere waters, you’re more likely to spot bottlenose dolphins, identifiable by their short-rounded snouts. Dolphins love temperate waters. Head to the rear of the ship and hang out on the promenade deck for the best chance of catching sight of them.
6. Sea Turtles and Tropical Fish
Scuba diving and snorkelling are both available on cruises visiting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, with ships permitted to drop anchor in designated areas in the Whitsunday Islands region. Here, passengers can enjoy the beauty of the marine park, which is home to 1625 types of fish, including 1400 coral reef species; 450 kinds of hard coral; more than 3000 species of molluscs including clams and tritons; and more than 100 kinds of jellyfish. You may also spot sea turtles, reef sharks and many seabirds.
New Zealand’s majestic Fiordland National Park is a World Heritage Site situated on the south-western corner of the South Island, where you’ll find Milford, Dusky and Doubtful Sounds. The local wildlife includes the delightful Fiordland crested penguin (aka the tawaki), a tall and portly breed of penguin with crests of yellow feathers on their heads. This rare bird is the only forest-nesting penguin. Cruise passengers should also be on the lookout for little blue penguins and bottlenose dolphins, as well as fur seals and their pups sunning themselves on the rocks.