Published October 10, 2018
Seeing marine life in the wild is a view into another world.
Marine wildlife cruises allow groups to see the massive scale of a whale, make eye contact with a seal or watch a sky full of puffins. Coastal destinations sometimes specialize in species common in the area, though most wildlife cruises look for a variety of creatures.
Sometimes, cruise passengers even see land animals like wild ponies that often congregate along the coast. Other times, onboard guides know where local pods of dolphins frequent for guaranteed wildlife-viewing opportunities.
To catch a glimpse of fascinating coastal creatures, groups can try one of these wildlife-watching cruises.
Humpback Whale Cruises
Humpback whales grow to an average of 45 feet long, and seeing such a massive creature in person is an awe-inspiring experience. These whales frequently breach the water with common above-water behaviors such as tail slaps, leaps and group lunge feedings.
In the late 1980s, there were only about 400 humpback whales in Monterey. Since then, the local humpback population has grown to 2,200. Although the species migrates to Mexico during the winter, humpbacks live in Monterey Bay from spring through late fall.
Although Monterey whale-watching cruises focus mostly on the humpback whales, participants also commonly spy blue whales, gray whales, minke whales and, occasionally, sperm whales. Monterey Bay became known as the whale-watching capital of the world because of its large and deep submarine canyon close to the shore. The underwater canyon’s proximity allows short trips from the harbor to view whales year-round.
Groups can have their own whale encounters onboard a cruise with Discovery Whale Watch or Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The latter company offers charters aboard catamarans holding 149, 70 or 47 passengers. The tour staff includes photographers and drone operators to provide guests with souvenir photos and videos of their experience. The three-hour tours allow plenty of time to spot whales and watch them interact with the boat and each other.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Though not as large as other ocean creatures, seals charm travelers with their expressive brown eyes, fluffy fur and playful demeanors. Wildlife cruises in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, showcase the local seal population. Sometimes thousands of harbor and gray seals swim and lay out along the shore at Monomoy Island, a barrier island and wildlife refuge off the coast of Chatham.
Guests can glide through narrow channels into isolated lagoons where these seals rest between feedings. Naturalists narrate tours with information on the various Cape Cod seal species and how the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 helped local populations of seals recover from near extinction. Narrators also keep an eye out for whales, schools of fish, seabirds and the occasional great white shark.
Monomoy Island Excursions accommodates up to 35 people on its 43-foot catamaran for a tour of the island and the nearby scenic Wychemere Harbor and Stage Harbor. During the 90-minute tours, guides not only watch for wildlife but also tell stories of the island and the historic Monomoy Lighthouse.
Other cruises venture out to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Five species of seals, along with humpback whales, minke whales and fin whales, feed at the sanctuary.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Though people are always curious about the bottlenose dolphin in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the dolphins are often just as curious about the people. Bottlenose dolphins exhibit considerable intelligence, such as using tools like marine sponges to forage for food. This intelligence makes seeing the underwater mammals even more compelling during dolphin-watching cruises in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area.
Cruises reveal the area’s diverse ecosystems, from evergreen forests and pine savannas to dune habitats and salt marshes. Friendly dolphins put on a show for passengers with playful behavior.
Since Gulf of Mexico bottlenose dolphins rarely travel more than 10 miles during their entire life, guides from cruise companies like Cetacean Cruises have named many of the dolphins in their area. Cetacean Cruises follows a pod of between 30 and 50 dolphins with two to three calves each year.
Nature cruises of between one and two hours get up-close to resident dolphins. The longer cruise weaves its way through hidden creeks and back bays for likely encounters with ospreys, herons, bald eagles and alligators.
Sail Wild Hearts also offers dolphin cruses in its 49-passenger boats. The company also offers sunset cruises and private charters. During the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration times, groups can combine an air show with a dolphin cruise.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
It’s a story fit for a romance novel: After spending months alone at sea, puffins return to their nesting spot in search of their one chosen mate. Puffins mate for life, so the spring nesting time is a reunion for mated pairs, which stick together for 20 years, practically their entire lifespan.
What these 15-inch-tall birds lack in size, they overcome with striking, colorful beaks and impressive numbers. The birds live on rookery islands through the summer to nest and tend their young. Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska, shelters several puffin coastal colonies, which groups can view on a wildlife cruise.
These cruises highlight the puffins, as well as other seabirds including black-legged kittiwakes, murres, oystercatchers and cormorants. Since Alaska offers some of the country’s most abundant wildlife populations, tours also commonly spot humpback whales, orca whales, Stellar sea lions, sea otters and even black bears. Even without wildlife sightings, cruises float past stunning scenery with towering glaciers and snow-capped mountains.
Major Marine Tours offers five cruise options that visit bird rookeries and other wildlife-viewing areas. The cruises range in duration. The 3.5- or 5-hour Kenai Fjords Wildlife Cruises stay within Resurrection Bay for calmer waters. Onboard naturalist narrators share facts about Alaska’s wildlife, history and geology. The longer cruise features a lunch of Alaska salmon and prime rib.
The company’s three longer cruises also venture outside the bay for more wildlife-viewing opportunities. All vessels include tabled seating in heated cabins as well as outside viewing space.
Orca Whale Cruises
San Juan Islands, Washington
Onboard naturalists that narrate whale tours in the San Juan Islands know the local orca whales so well that when they see one, they can often name the whale’s mother and grandmother. The San Juan Islands lie on the northern border of Washington in the Salish Sea. Unlike choppy ocean waters, the waters near the islands stay relatively calm allowing groups to easily view the year-round orca whale residents.
The thrill of spotting a pod of 25-foot-long orcas in the quiet Salish Sea draws guests from around the world to local whale-watching cruises. While scanning for whales, onboard naturalists relate interesting information about whale behavior and the difference between the fish-eating southern resident orcas and the mammal-eating transient orcas. The southern resident orcas are on the endangered species list, so tours also stick to responsible wildlife-viewing practices and urge passengers to help protect these giant creatures.
During a typical cruise, groups can also watch sea lions sunning themselves on rocks, bald eagles in treetops and cormorants nesting on bluffs. Minke whales, humpback whales, porpoises, river otters and seabirds also live in the area.
When not staring at the water, groups can bask in the surrounding beauty of the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Range.
Wild Pony Cruises
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
According to legend, a shipwrecked Spanish galleon released wild horses onto Assateague Island years before Europeans colonized Virginia. Marguerite Henry detailed this story and the subsequent feral island ponies in her famous children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague,” which helped popularize the wild horse herds.
These herds still reside on Assateague Island, a barrier island between Chincoteague Island and the Atlantic Ocean. Residents and tourists stay on historic Chincoteague Island, since Assateague Island is protected by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge protects not only the ponies but also abundant migrating and permanent waterfowl.
Cruises depart from Chincoteague Island for up-close views of the ponies as well as bald eagles, herons, white-tailed deer and sika elks. The Assateague Lighthouse and surrounding wilderness create gorgeous vistas during the boat tours.
Groups can cruise in the channel between the islands to access areas of Assateague Island where many of the ponies live. Daisey’s Island Cruises offer larger vessels for pony viewing.
To control the horse population, local “saltwater cowboys” round up a sampling of the healthy horses and swim them across the island channel for auction on Pony Penning Day. The July festival started in 1925 and draws crowds that reach 40,000.