7 Best Wildlife Cruises Around the World

Admire eye-popping animals aboard these small-ship cruises, each designed with sustainability in mind.
7 Best Wildlife Cruises Around the World Hurtigruten Uniworld  More
Martin Johnsen/Hurtigruten

There’s a reason animal lovers flock to the open water—and a wildlife cruise provides the perfect vantage point.

Like a safari by sea, wildlife cruises let travelers admire animals in their natural habitats. Sometimes, it’s a top-deck dolphin spotting. Other times, it’s observing a distant polar bear. It’s about more than just one animal sighting, though. The best wildlife cruises include multiple unscripted fauna encounters—something I learned on a recent Galapagos eco-cruise with World Expeditions.

In just one week at sea, we snorkeled with sea turtles and sea lions, watched a blue-footed booby mating dance, visited a Galapagos giant tortoise breeding and rehabilitation center, and sat awestruck as a pint-sized Galapagos penguin mouth-fed her crying baby on the volcanic Bartolomé Island shore. Distant manta rays leaping during the ship’s sunset repositioning were a jaw-dropping cherry on top.

Sharing waterways with wildlife is awe-inspiring, but it comes with an important responsibility: protecting these pristine ecosystems. The cruise industry has a notoriously large carbon footprint, but it’s slowly responding to travelers’ growing sustainability demands. In 2022, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) shared new eco-initiatives, including a push for net-zero carbon cruising by 2050. The industry still has a long way to go, but some trailblazing brands have made impressive sustainability strides. Take Norwegian adventure company Hurtigruten, which launched the first hybrid electric-powered cruise ship in 2019. It aims to launch a zero-emission ship by 2030.

From eco-conscious Arctic voyages to small-ship Galapagos trips expeditions, here are seven of the world’s best overnight wildlife cruises—including the species you’ll see, and measures the operator has in place to protect them.

All listings featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you book something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

​​Watch whales, polar bears, and musk oxen in the Arctic

Iceland, Greenland, and Canada — The Northwest Passage with Hurtigruten

A seal in lounges on an iceberg in Greenland

Andrea Klaussner/Hurtigruten

Arctic fauna abounds throughout the northwest passage, a sea trail that links the Pacific and Atlantic via the Canadian Arctic. A 19-day northwest passage cruise with Hurtigruten covers a portion of this wild expanse, as well as the coasts of Greenland and Iceland. From Hurtigruten’s 318-person MS Fram expedition vessel, you could spot musk ox, caribou, minke and humpback whales, and, if you’re lucky, the elusive polar bear. The trip’s excursions include RIB boat rides, hiking, and citizen science programs.

The trip’s vessel, MS Fram, promises relaxation and enrichment. There’s a science center to learn about Arctic geology, the ship’s gym to get a sweat in between excursions, or hot tubs to watch for wildlife while unwinding. The recently updated boat features two restaurants plus an outdoor barbecue. The 125 cabins and suites include four classes, from polar inside to top-deck expedition suites with sweeping window views.

While any travel to remote regions like the Arctic leaves a carbon footprint, cruising with Hurtigruten is perhaps the best responsible-travel option. The brand supports give-back projects globally, including programs that provide safe spaces for vulnerable children in Greenland. It was also the first company to ditch non-essential single-use plastic in 2018.

Admire rare species in the mighty Amazon

Peruvian Amazon — Peruvian Rivers & Rainforest Discovery with Uniworld

Uniworld Aria Amazon

Uniworld River Cruises

Imagine gliding alongside pink dolphins in the Amazon River or eavesdropping on critter calls on a night safari in the jungle. These are among the many experiences on Uniworld’s Peruvian Amazon wildlife cruise. The 11-day trip winds from Iquitos, the Amazon’s largest city, to the Ucayali and Marañón rivers, where the powerful Amazon River begins. Excursions feature a host of bucket-list wildlife experiences, including jungle hikes and skiff-boat rides. 

The trip’s 16-stateroom ship promises an intimate Amazon experience, with floor-to-ceiling windows, ensuite bathrooms and walk-in showers, spacious lounge areas, an observation deck, and a top-level hot tub. Families or groups can enjoy four interconnecting suites, while fully air-conditioned accommodations are a welcome treat. Five-star chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino whips up Peruvian delights in the vessel’s bright and airy dining area.

In recent years, Uniworld has made major sustainable wildlife cruising strides. It’s the first river cruise line to share its sustainability objectives and its progress toward those goals. Eco-friendly initiatives include reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2025 and incorporating at least one give-back experience per trip. The river-cruise brand also follows a strict animal welfare policy.

Follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — Galapagos on Solaris by World Expeditions

 Solaris by World Expeditions on Galapagos 

Nigel Leadbitter/World Expeditions

Marine Iguanas on the Galapagos Islands

World Expeditions

The Galapagos Islands are a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts. On a seven-day naturalist-led Galapagos cruise with outfitter World Expeditions, you’ll become immersed in the rare flora and fauna, with the brand’s signature adventure twist. Guests can snorkel among sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays; hike by sunbathing sea lions; and visit the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Protection and Growing Centre.

On board, travelers can enjoy a rooftop deck for lounging, a dining area for buffet breakfast and lunch, and a plated dinner. The first-class Solaris yacht features a mix of queen-bed and single-bed cabins; all come with ocean views and private bathrooms. Travelers access the Galapagos for land-based outings via small RIB boats, with several hours on shore with two land stops per day.

Tourism to the Galapagos has more than quadrupled in the past two decades. While park officials enforce strict wildlife protection rules, including heavily regulated land visits, it’s important to keep your footprint as light as possible. A small-ship and carbon-offset trip, like this 16-passenger adventure, fits this criterion. The team also supports local communities by purchasing local fare, including seafood from local fishers and bread from an island baking cooperative.

Spot whales with Alaska’s only Indigenous-owned cruise line

Southeast Alaska — Ultimate Glacier Bay, Wilderness, and Wildlife with Alaskan Dream Cruises

People travel far and wide to enjoy the prolific fauna along Alaska’s Inside Passage, a wildlife-dense amalgam of fjords, glaciers, coastal towns, and an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands through the state’s panhandle. The best outfitter for taking it all in: Alaskan Dream Cruises, the country’s only Indigenous-owned cruise line.

If you’ve dreamed about whale watching in Alaska, sign up for the seven-night Glacier Bay expedition, where you’ll not only admire the enormous creatures but listen to them communicate via the shipboard hydrophones. The adventure starts in mountain-flanked Sitka and ends in Juneau. Excursions include kayaking among cliffs and alongside rainforests, skiff-boat rides along the whale-abundant Glacier Bay, and later to watch puffins, sea lions, and, if you’re lucky, bears. The vessel, Kruzof Explorer, includes six staterooms with windows and a main deck for wildlife scouting. This upcycled crab fishing boat has a central dining room and bar for gathering and plotting the next day’s activities.

Travelers can feel confident their trip supports the local community and ecosystem; Alaskan Dream Cruises runs small-ship outings (around 12 passengers per trip), offers no single-use plastics, and increasingly invests in solar panels for sustainable power.

Float among hippos, elephants, and crocodiles

Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana — Southern Africa Riverboat Safari with Natural Habitat Adventures

Fall asleep to the sound of hippos, wake up to the rustle of feeding elephants. The 11-day Natural Habitat Adventures riverboat adventure through southern Africa is a unique take on the African safari. It’s a hybrid boat-land expedition, with three nights on an upscale riverboat, followed by a week on a traditional land-based safari. While on the 14-person boat, you’ll explore Lake Kariba, which is packed with the region’s wildlife: hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and fish eagles. The land-based trip portion includes stops at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest protected area, and Victoria Falls.

In addition to daytime excursions, from boating to 4x4 safaris, guests will enjoy relaxation via upscale accommodations throughout the journey. Overnights include the Zimbabwean Dream riverboat, where all eight suites come with floor-to-ceiling windows and access to a top-deck pool and scenic restaurant; the regal, five-star Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe; baobab-flanked chalets at Namibia’s Kaza Safari Lodge; and waterhole-view Davison’s Camp in Zimbabwe’s remote Hwange National Park. 

Sustainability-wise, NatHab carbon offsets each traveler’s journey. It’s also the World Wildlife Fund’s travel partner, which means naturalist guides and WWF scientists work together to share education about the ecosystems you are admiring—and how to protect them.

Snorkel remote stretches of the world’s largest coral reef system

Great Barrier Reef, Australia — Citizen Science on the Great Barrier Reef with Coral Expeditions

A snorkeler from the Citizen Science on the Great Barrier Reef with Coral Expeditions cruise

Richard Woodgett/Coral Expeditions

A school of fish seen on a Great Barrier Reef cruise

Darren Jew/Coral Expeditions

Admire one of the world’s seven natural wonders and the colorful sea creatures that flock there on an overnight Great Barrier Reef cruise with local outfitter Coral Expeditions. Support wildlife with your visit on Coral Expeditions’ 14-night citizen science trip, which starts in Cairns and welcomes up to 72 guests. Citizen scientists snorkel to log marine species sightings; the shared reports aid local conservation groups with biodiversity monitoring. The ship stops at important wildlife conservation facilities, such as the Turtle Rehabilitation Center on Fitzroy Island or the Lizard Island Research Station, for narration about critical conservation projects.

In addition to the action-packed itinerary, travelers will enjoy a host of infotainment options on board the Coral Discoverer yacht: guest lectures, a reference library, and open bridge access. Accommodations range from standard porthole window rooms to private balconies in the staterooms. There’s a sundeck lounge, an alfresco bar, communal breakfast and lunch tables, and multicourse served dinners.

Coral Expeditions is ecotourism certified by EcoTourism Australia; it’s also part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Eye on the Reef monitoring program. The outfitter cut polycarbonate plastics and provides SPF 50 reef-safe-certified sunscreen to all guests.

Meet the ocean’s colossal creatures in Mexico’s “little Galapagos”

Socorro Island, Mexico — Nautilus Belle Amie with Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI)

Socorro Island, located nearly 400 miles off Mexico’s western coast, is known as Mexico’s “little Galapagos.” A 10-night dive adventure on a liveaboard boat with the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) is a chance to see Socorro’s manta rays, humpback whales, dolphins, and whale sharks. Your trip aboard the 17-cabin Nautilus Belle Amie commences in Cabo San Lucas. You’ll have multiple dive and snorkel options per day (dive gear included), as well as night outings to admire the sea life in a different light. 

The ship welcomes up to 32 guests, with cabins ranging from twin staterooms (lower deck) to superior suites (wheelhouse deck). Guests can relax and mingle in the salon and main deck dining area. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style; dinners are plated buffet or family style. The ship’s top-level hot tub is the perfect spot to warm up after dives or snorkels. 

PADI, the world’s largest dive organization, sets the standard for responsible underwater adventures. It enforces strict rules for marine life interactions, including never touching an animal. The PADI AWARE nonprofit also contributes to marine science and ocean cleanups, with up to two million pieces of trash removed from the ocean to date.