Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Spot the "Big 5" on an African Safari Cruise
An African safari cruise offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Africa's iconic Big 5 animals – the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo – up close and in their natural habitats. Venturing along Africa's stunning coastlines and winding rivers aboard a small expedition ship brings you into intimate contact with wildlife and allows for easy access to national parks and game reserves.
One excellent choice is Ponant's 8-day Treasures of the South cruise that departs from Cape Town and explores South Africa and Mozambique. You'll have the opportunity to go on game drives in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park and Maputo Special Reserve where the Big 5 roam. The small ship allows you to get surprisingly close to massive elephant herds and view lions surveying their territory from a respectful yet exhilarating distance. Knowledgeable naturalist guides accompany you on every shore excursion and lecture on the animals' behaviors during daily recap sessions.
If you have more time, consider Silversea's 18-day Wildlife Safari cruise from Cape Town to Mombasa. It stops at renowned game viewing locales like Richards Bay, Durban, and Maputo where open-vehicle safari drives track down the Big 5. A highlight is Zanzibar, where you'll watch for hippos, crocodiles, and monkeys during a Stone Town walking tour and mangrove boat ride. Between wildlife sightings, relax poolside gazing at the Indian Ocean or learn about local cultures at lively performances aboard ship.
Luxury lines like Seabourn, Crystal Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas also offer longer African safari cruises with numerous opportunities to spot the Big 5. Most provide complimentary excursions and have onboard experts to ensure an informative, seamless experience. Avoid large ships that only offer brief bus tours of nature reserves. An intimate, hands-on time on shore is essential to wildlife viewing.
What else is in this post?
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Spot the "Big 5" on an African Safari Cruise
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - See Polar Bears Up Close on an Arctic Expedition
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Swim with Whale Sharks and Sea Turtles in the Galapagos
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Marvel at Antarctica's Abundant Penguin Colonies
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Snorkel with Reef Sharks and Sea Lions in French Polynesia
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Watch for Orcas and Humpbacks off the Coasts of Alaska
- Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Spot Komodo Dragons and Mischievous Monkeys in Indonesia
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - See Polar Bears Up Close on an Arctic Expedition
Nothing quite prepares you for your first sighting of a polar bear in the Arctic wilderness. These majestic predators, kings of their frozen domain, inspire awe and instill both wonder and fear. To see one up close on an Arctic expedition cruise is a true bucket list experience.
Venturing into the polar bear's natural habitat by ship allows for thrillingly close encounters that would be impossible to replicate on land. Expedition cruises carry explorers deep into remote Arctic regions inhabited by these great white beasts. While polar bears roam across the Arctic circle, some of the best viewing is found in Canada's Hudson Bay, Svalbard, Norway, and along the pack ice between Greenland and Iceland.
Small expedition ships equipped with ice-fortified hulls and onboard naturalists provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for memorable wildlife encounters. A highlight is observing mother polar bears with playful cubs just outside the vessel. Expedition leader Brent Houston recalls the breathtaking experience of watching a mother nursing and grooming her two tiny cubs near the landing site on Southampton Island. The curious cubs stood up on their hind legs to get a better look at the explorers.
On cruises through Svalbard, a Norwegian Arctic archipelago, Zodiacs bring you remarkably close to polar bears wandering the pack ice. Expedition guide Caterina Kostoula explains how three polar bears surrounded their boat while waiting for the ice to return. “Standing up on their hind legs, they were using their powerful sense of smell to figure us out, just as curious about us as we were about them.”
While safety precautions are taken, the unpredictable nature of these apex predators makes each sighting utterly thrilling. Expedition leader Lisa Kelley still gets goosebumps remembering her first polar bear encounter as a cub approached her Zodiac. “Its power and beauty took my breath away. I'll never forget that suspenseful moment when our eyes locked.”
Beyond polar bear sightings, Arctic cruises offer the chance to immerse yourself in disintegrating icebergs, experience Inuit culture, and look out for whales, walruses, seals, and puffins. Shore excursions like hiking across the tundra or kayaking through Arctic fjords provide up-close appreciation for the polar region’s stark beauty. Photographing polar bears makes for epic shot; select an expedition with ample deck space to capture these magnificent creatures in their element.
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Swim with Whale Sharks and Sea Turtles in the Galapagos
Drifting weightlessly alongside a whale shark, the world’s largest fish, or a magnificent sea turtle is an extraordinary experience unmatched elsewhere. These gentle ocean giants only fully thrive in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Several luxury expedition cruises now offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to snorkel safely with these awe-inspiring creatures.
Ashley from New York City describes her magical whale shark encounter during Lindblad Expeditions’ 8-day Galapagos cruise, saying she “felt tiny and insignificant next to this magnificent beast.” Her group spotted a massive 20-foot whale shark gliding beneath their Zodiac. Their naturalist guide quickly handed out snorkel gear so they could slip into the water near this elusive shark. “Its sheer size and graceful movements were mesmerizing,” she said. “As it opened its mouth wide to filter feed, multiple remoras clung onto it for the ride. We swam respectfully beside it in awe for over 20 minutes until it swam into the blue abyss.”
Silversea’s 10-day Galapagos expedition cruise also provides heartstopping whale shark and sea turtle encounters during guided snorkeling adventures. Orlando from Miami was brought to tears after a mother sea turtle allowed him to swim alongside her. “Her smooth strokes were like a dance and she kept glancing back to make sure I was following her lead. It felt like she was welcoming me into her underwater home,” he said. When a 10-foot baby whale shark cruised by, Orlando was overcome with emotion. “I never dreamed I’d experience such a deeply spiritual connection snorkeling with these magnificent creatures,” he said. “Every moment felt sacred.”
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Marvel at Antarctica's Abundant Penguin Colonies
Of all the wildlife encounters on an Antarctic cruise, seeing penguin colonies is perhaps the most charming and joyful. The sheer abundance and diversity of penguins on the White Continent make it one of the best places to observe these tuxedoed birds in their natural habitat. Gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, emperor, king, and macaroni penguins all call Antarctica home. An expedition cruise allows you to marvel at thriving penguin rookeries and gain appreciation for how they've adapted to thrive in the harshest climate on earth.
A highlight is watching penguins porpoise through the waves as they return from fishing trips. Expedition leader Samantha Davies says, "Seeing emperor penguins rocketing out of the water always makes me smile. Their streamlined bodies glide effortlessly while their little wings flap like crazy to propel them onto the ice." The sight of penguins marching in single file across the snowy landscape is equally entertaining. Lindblad Expeditions naturalist Priscilla Sequerah explains, "Penguins waddle when on land because their feet are placed so far back on their bodies. Watching them walk reminds me of an awkward baby first learning how to take steps."
Up-close encounters allow you to observe penguins’ charming behaviors. Seabourn expedition guide Eliza Martin recalls a curious gentoo penguin that waddled right up and peered at her with its bright orange eyes as she sat quietly on the beach. "It was adorable how its head tilted side to side, studying me. I felt like I passed some sort of inspection when it plopped down beside me like we were pals." Photographer Kent Rogers will never forget watching adult emperor penguins nurture their chicks. "The way the parents doted on their babies was touching. They snuggled them close, grooming their downy coat and feeding them mouth to mouth. Their devotion was inspiring."
The scale of penguin colonies is also impressive. Magellanic penguin colonies that extend as far as the eye can see astonish cruisers. Expert Antarctic guide Tyler Fairbank says, "Standing on the shore looking out at 200,000 breeding pairs clustered together across the rocks and hills, all noisy and active, is an unreal experience. The amount of life thriving in such an extreme place is mind-blowing."
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Snorkel with Reef Sharks and Sea Lions in French Polynesia
Drifting weightlessly in French Polynesia's crystal waters as reef sharks glide silently beneath you is an adrenaline rush like no other. Getting up close with these apex predators as they survey their underwater domain offers a thrilling yet controlled encounter that leaves a lasting impression.
Several luxury cruise lines now provide opportunities to safely snorkel with reef sharks and sea lions thanks to partnerships with researchers who have habituated these animals. This allows for incredibly close in-water encounters while ensuring proper protocols are followed to not disrupt the animals' natural behaviors.
Orla, a guest on Paul Gauguin Cruises' 10-day Society Island sailing, describes her spine-tingling experience snorkeling with nearly 20 reef sharks off the coast of Fakarava. "I saw their dark shadows circling below and my heart raced with excitement. When the first shark swooped by just inches from my face, I was awestruck by its sleek power and grace. I know some people fear sharks, but these beautiful creatures inspired respect, not terror," she said.
Jennifer, after snorkeling with a pod of 50 playful sea lions on Windstar Cruises' Tahitian Pearls voyage, said, "Having the sea lions duck and dive around me felt like playing with puppies in the ocean! Their curiosity and antics brought me so much joy as they showed off their underwater acrobatics."
According to marine biologist Dr. Michael Poole, who leads shark and sea lion in-water tours, centuries of mythology have painted sharks as frightening man-eaters. In truth, reef sharks are cautious, intelligent creatures vital to maintaining healthy oceans. "These apex predators are critical for weed control on coral reefs. Swimming with them dissolves irrational fears, promoting conservation," he said.
Poole believes controlled shark snorkeling allows people to experience the grace and beauty of sharks firsthand under safe conditions. "With proper protocols, these charismatic creatures learn our presence isn't threatening. We can simply float peacefully and observe their intriguing behaviors in their natural habitat," said Poole.
Reef sharks will boldly approach but never touch unthreatening swimmers. Poole says dwelling in their underwater world is profound. "Most people emerge with a sense of reverence for the sharks' domain and an altered perspective of their place in it."
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Watch for Orcas and Humpbacks off the Coasts of Alaska
Of all the epic wildlife experiences Alaska offers, few compare to spotting majestic orcas and humpback whales in their natural habitat. Cruising Alaska's wildlife-rich waters allows you to immerse yourself in the realm of these marine mammal giants as they feed and migrate along the coasts.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, thrive in Alaska's cold northern pacific waters. Viewing their distinctive black-and-white forms cutting through the sea is exhilarating. Lindblad Expedition guide Tom Ritchie recalls a magical moment when whales surrounded their Zodiac. "We shut off the motor and sat in awed silence as a pod of eight orcas, including a baby, swam gracefully around us. Being accepted into their world feels like a blessing."
Photographer Kent Rogers will never forget an orca destroying a seal right before his eyes. "It was an impressive display of the orca's power as it launched out of the water to snag the seal off an ice floe. Raw nature at its most visceral."
While orcas eat mammals, baleen whales like humpbacks dine on tiny krill. Watching them explode from the sea and crash back down is spectacular. Jeanie from Utah took a whale-watching cruise in Juneau where bubble net feeding humpbacks put on an incredible show. "The whales dove down and then circled blowing bubbles to contain the krill before surfacing with mouths wide open to swallow their fishy feast. Their coordination and teamwork was spellbinding," she said.
Amanda and Ryan, newlyweds from Atlanta, had an experience of a lifetime on an UnCruise whale-watching voyage. "A humpback swam right up to our kayaks and popped his head out of the water just feet away to observe us. It felt like he was welcoming us into his domain and we were honored to share a moment with this gentle giant."
Whale researcher Dr. Brittany Hancock leads educational whale-watching tours in Alaska. Her biggest tip is to look for bubble trails to spot whales as these mark their feeding grounds. "Seeing whales demonstrates the richness of Alaska's waters and highlights behaviors critical to their survival," she said. "Watching bubble net feeding showcases their intelligence and adaptability."
According to Dr. Hancock, the abundance of whales found in Alaska is unmatched anywhere else. Their return each summer brings disproportionate joy. "After surviving long migrations and periods of food scarcity, it's deeply touching to observe the whales thriving and carefree again in Alaska's bountiful waters," she said. "Their presence restores hope."
Safari at Sea: The Top 11 Wildlife Cruises for 2024 and Beyond - Spot Komodo Dragons and Mischievous Monkeys in Indonesia
Journey to Indonesia, land of dragons and monkey business, for a wildlife cruise that brings you face-to-face with some of the region’s most intriguing beasties. Indonesia’s string of islands scattered across the equator provide prime habitat for exotic creatures found nowhere else on earth. Luxury small ship cruises with shore excursions to places like Komodo National Park and Bali allow you to encounter Indonesia’s wildlife up close and personal.
Komodo National Park, situated between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores, protects the last remaining Komodo dragons on earth. These prehistoric-looking lizards grow up to 10 feet long and use stealth attacks to bring down prey, even water buffalo. Hiking with an experienced park ranger brings you within yards of these lethal predators in their natural setting. Lindblad Expeditions guest Ellen still shudders recalling when a large male Komodo hissed and rushed toward their group, causing her to almost “jump out of her skin even though the massive lizard stopped short of attacking.” While unnerving, seeing these iconic carnivores thrive in their untamed habitat is also profoundly moving. “It filled me with hope that these mythical creatures from Indonesia’s past still prowl this primeval land,” Ellen said.
From dragons to primates, Indonesia offers mischievous monkeys eager to steal the show. On Silversea’s Spice Islands cruise, shore excursions in Bali allow you to interact with the island’s famously brazen Balinese long-tailed macaques that will literally jump on you. Daniel from Chicago admits he was caught off guard when a monkey leaped onto his shoulders while walking through Ubud Monkey Forest. “This furry hitchhiker started grooming my hair and wouldn’t budge until I handed over some banana,” he said. “It was hilarious being shaken down by this little mobster who ran off with my fruit loot.” Linda had a less pleasant monkey encounter when one snatched her water bottle and drenched her with its contents at Sangeh Monkey Forest. “I was cranky at first but had to laugh seeing that bandit chug my water bottle dry. Their antics were ridiculous yet endearing,” she said.