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A polar bear padded down the glacier, sniffing the air and catching a waft of the barbecue on our ship, moored in one of Svalbard’s pristine bays.
She was no doubt hungry and we watched in awe as this majestic creature continued onto a shingle spit which turned into mother nature’s stage within an inlet laced by icy peaks and turquoise glaciers.
The polar bear’s coat of creamy yellow fur stood out against the white icy floes and a silence fell across our ship as we watched her every movement until she gave up her quest for food and slipped away into the still blue water. Gone – but a memory to cherish forever.
Non-stop chatter started to ripple across the ship as everyone rejoiced in the shared moment of animal magic.
Exploring the Arctic Circle
We had spent a few days in the Arctic Circle’s northern wilderness, visiting Longyearbyen and Ny-Alesund, but until that point had we been happy to see reindeer, an Arctic fox and Arctic terns – although they bombarded us from every direction.
There were red-triangle signs warning us to beware of polar bears but they had remained elusive. Perhaps our dog-sledding tours, with noisy, excitable huskies barking across the tundra had frightened them off.
But our luck had turned and on the return journey, crossing the Arctic Circle we began to see huge numbers of whales and porpoises; unprecedented numbers according to the ORCA wildlife charity team who were on board recording sightings from dawn to dusk.
Passengers joined them on deck and the team not only pointed out the mammals but explained their migratory and feeding habits to make the sailing an even richer experience.
Identifying sea mammals
We learned to identify sea mammals by their fins, flukes and ‘blows’.
The humpback whale with its small dorsal fin, black body and ‘bushy’ blow surfacing up to five times between deep dives and often raising its tail fluke on the final dive – to the sperm whale with a blowhole close to the front of its head creating a low, bushy blow to the left, while its wide triangular fluke rose high in the air before diving. We were quite the experts – and totally addicted.
During two days at sea, the ORCA team made a presentation on their sightings to a full audience of passengers, until a whale breached near the ship and the speaker was left without a listener.
He was clearly as delighted by the impromptu interruption.
The excitement rose again with double-figure sightings of blue whales – up to 80ft long and creating the most enormous blows of up to 10 metres. We were in whale ecstasy as we followed these mighty mammals as they fed.
Leknes, Lofoten Islands
On arrival in Leknes, in the remote Lofoten Islands in Norway, we took a RIB boat and were treated to sightings of sea eagles.
On the return coach ride we had a heart-in-mouth experience when a passenger started banging on the window and screaming what sounded like ‘Help, help, help!’. The driver put on the brakes and she carried on … Elk, elk, elk.
The creature made a wonderful pose on the side of the road but the driver was not amused. In a cool Norwegian accent, he requested: “In future, please say moose”. Everyone fell about laughing and grabbed their cameras, except the driver.
Things to see and do on a Norwegian cruise.
Iceland is another fabulous cruise destination for watching wildlife. From Akureyri, at the end of the island’s longest fjord, Eyjafjörour, sightings of humpbacks are fairly common.
Joining a RIB boat or whale watching vessel allows visitors to follow the whales and being so close to the giant mammals is truly breathtaking.
Faxafloi Bay offers the chance of spotting blue, fin, humpback, minke and sei whales. Here we learned the blue whale usually travels alone or in pairs and that it is only the younger whales that breach because the larger ones are too heavy.
They feed on krill (like a small shrimp) and can consume four tonnes or more each day.
On the volcanic land, dotted with waterfalls and geysers, cruise tours include the Arctic Fox Research Centre in Sudavik, riding on Icelandic ponies and boat excursions from Stykkishólmur to see puffins, cormorants, black guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars.
The Orca cruise experience.
Sailing south from the UK, along the coastline of France and Spain, can also bring exciting sea-life sightings. When the Bay of Biscay is calm it is likely you will see a number of common, striped and bottlenose dolphins.
Glossy black pilot whales can also be regularly seen; they move more slowly and can be further identified by a distinctive rounded dorsal fin.
In mid-summer, look out for larger whales which frequent the deep bay. Fin, sei and minke whales should be on the tick list and as you journey further south, Cuvier's beaked whales often show up.
Cruise ship captains, who are always mindful not to be on the loudspeaker every five minutes, will often break the rules to announce wildlife sightings – especially if a sperm whale is deep-diving for prey.
It is important to get up with the early birds for a greater chance to view seabirds – and it’s rewarding to be on the top deck, with a cup of tea in hand, as the sun comes up over the horizon.
It’s another joy of cruising while making friends with like-minded passengers, sharing sightings and learning from experienced birdwatchers.
Many ships have binoculars on board or you can take your own, especially when sailing on a no-fly cruise because there no luggage restrictions.
Gannets migrating to the north coast of Africa, shearwaters and Sabine’s gulls can all be seen and even the Audouin's gull, which frequents the Mediterranean and the western coast of Saharan Africa.
It has a typical gull colouring of black, white and grey, but a distinctive scarlet bill and dark eye.
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In this warm all-year destination, the name fits the place as the Canary Islands are full of exciting birdlife.
Blue canaries, the endemic blue chaffinch, Bolle's pigeon and Laurel pigeon are best seen during a visit to Tenerife, as well as pipits and curlews.
Petrels and shearwaters are often seen in La Gomera, as well as the kinglet and sparrowhawk, while on the island of Lanzarote look up for the Eleonora’s falcon.
The crystal clear waters of the Canaries are home to short-finned pilot whales and many bottlenose dolphins, so it is always worth booking a boat trip, perhaps from the south coast of Tenerife or La Palma.
Bryde's whale and Blainville's beaked whales can also be found in La Palma's waters, while on land the La Palma giant lizard, which disappeared for nearly 500 years, has been recently re-discovered.
Adventure seekers who love to scuba dive or dabble in underwater photography will also find the Canary Islands’ waters alive with shark, ray, moray eel , grouper, sea urchin and starfish while various species of migratory turtles have been spotted such as the loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherback.
Further south, sailing to the remote Cape Verde islands, 300 miles from West Africa, the wildlife and birdscape changes with Zino’s,
Madeiran and white-faced storm petrels flying by the ship. Keep your eyes peeled for the Magnificent frigatebird; this red-chested, fork-tailed agile flier snatches food off the surface of the ocean and steals food from other birds!
Ospreys can also be seen flying low around the anchorage in Mindelo on the island of São Vicente and they do not seem to worried by the presence of people.
Only a handful of birds are endemic to the archipelago including the Cape Verde swift, Cape Verde warbler and Iago sparrow. The grey-headed kingfisher is often seen and it has adapted to the lack of inland water to dine on insects.
Its name understates its beauty – a huge scarlet beak, white chest with black, chestnut and blue plumage make it a striking bird and it can often be seen, perched on overhead wires along the roadside. Keep your camera at hand.
These tropical islands remain an ever-popular winter cruise destination and visitors can get close to sealife while snorkelling among in the crystal clear waters.
Watch for turtles swimming in the Tobago Cays at the Tobago Cays Marine Park and in Martinique, Barbados, Grenada and Bequia, among others, swim among a jewel-box of coral and tropical fish.
Most cruise ships arrange tours on accredited boats with experts on board, so dive in and explore a wonderful underwater world.
In the deep seas between the East Caribbean islands of St Vincent and Bequia several species of whale, including humpbacks, sperm and pilot have been recorded.
The best time to see them is between the months of December to April and you are likely to enjoy an escort of flying fish.
Cruising the Caribbean - the top reasons to take a Caribbean cruise.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries on the planet, due in large part to its geographic position between the North and South American continents.
It is separated by Nicaragua and Panama with a neotropical climate that has encouraged more than 500,000 species to make it their home.
The island is renowned for its pristine sandy beaches where turtles come ashore to breed, smouldering volcanoes and rainforest.
From a cruise ship, there’s time to take full-day trip from Puerto Limon to the Tortuguero canals to see sloths and howler monkeys in the treetops and tapirs and ocelots on the ground.
A walk in the rainforest offers the chance to see brightly coloured frogs and iguanas, parakeets, macaws and hummingbirds. It is also a habitat for more than 1,000 species of butterflies including the shimmering blue morpho.
The king of the rainforest, the jaguar, is almost certain to elude you as it is nocturnal and incredibly secretive but you never know ... animal magic is never far away on a cruise holiday.