Cruising for naturalists

(this page will be updated – based on two recent cruises in late 2022. Check here for the update)


This section is motivated by our recent round trip cruise on a Holland America ship from Rotterdam to northern Norway.  Two earlier cruises on similar ships, along the Alaskan coast and from Montreal to Boston, also provided experience for material in this section.

Three cruises hardly makes us experienced “cruisers”, but the intent of this section is to provide naturalists with an idea of what can – and cannot, be realistically obtained from “conventional” cruise ship voyages.  We don’t pretend to describe the benefits of small ships – those ranging from dozens to perhaps a few hundred passengers.  These ships are often specifically focused on natural history objectives.  We would like to take such cruises, but their daily cost is about three times that of conventional cruise ships, or approximately $1000/day per person.  Such cruises are for people who have limited time and considerable financial means.   There are many advantages to such small ship cruises, but we don’t consider them in this section.  We focus here on large ship cruises – and what they can and cannot provide for the nature-focused traveler.

The MS Rotterdam in Alesund, Norway.  The ship is mid-size in the Holland America fleet at 237 m (about 777 ft) in length and with about 1400 passengers.
The MS Rotterdam in a Norwegian fjord, with tenders (here the Rotterdam’s own lifeboats) ferrying passengers to the shore.  On this ship there are only two large areas for public viewing from the stern – below the dining room and at the Lido deck – the area without roof at top.

Mid-size cruise ships of the Holland America line carry on the order of 1000-1500 passengers.  These are thus much larger than small “expedition” ships (50 to a few hundred passengers) that are associated with Lindblad or National Geographic for

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The National Geographic Sea Lion in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.  This is a nice example of an “expedition ship”.  It is carrying canoes/kayaks and zodiacs for exploration on the water.  Such ships have relatively few passengers and are best suited to nearshore activities in protected waters (not the open ocean).

example.   Large cruise ships can range from 2500 to more than 5000 passengers and when in port can saturate tourist services.   Cruise ships offer the entertainment that expedition ships cannot – nightly performances, a casino, shops, several restaurants and a host of nightly musical activities.  The larger the ship the greater the number of activities.  A concise summary of the pro’s and con’s of different cruise ship sizes can be found in this article.  A photo from the article is telling:

This image is from a cruise critic article about ship size.  A mid-sized Holland America ship in front of a newer, much larger cruise ship.  How do you as a naturalist want to travel?
Large cruise ships are floating cities.  These are not ideal for naturalists.
Popular ports can have four or more cruise ships in port at the same time.  To see anything natural you should plan your “escape” before starting your cruise with the aid of Google Earth or Google Maps.

Our overall philosophy, based on our cruises, is to use cruises to go to places that cannot feasibly be accessed by other means (like driving or flying).  You cannot drive to the front of a calving glacier, or down the middle of a fjord.  You cannot see some pelagic birds or marine mammals from the shoreline.  And you cannot see Antarctica by driving or flying there.  Only a ship allows for these experiences.  Use land-based exploration for most destinations that require more time for exploration, early morning or late afternoon wildlife viewing, or time for careful photography.  Cruise ship-based travel isn’t as well suited for these activities.

Advantages of mid-sized cruise ships for naturalists

Access to some ports that larger ships cannot access.  A few of the ports are unable to handle the really large cruise ships.

Faster on and off of the ships, especially when tendering.  If the port does not have suitable docks for larger ships, you will have to use small boats (often the lifeboats of your own cruise ship) to go ashore.  This procedure can take an hour or more to disembark most of the passengers.

Lower Promenade decks for observations in all directions.  Most ships are now made without walking decks that extend around the ship – a so-called lower promenade deck on Holland America ships.  Even the larger Holland America ships now lack these.  We think these are essential for 1) exercise and 2) observing the ocean, sea birds, marine mammals etc.  We spend much time on this deck, walking with binoculars, combining exercise (working off the meals) with opportunities for observing the ocean.

Lower promenade deck in afternoon sunlight.  While people walk here frequently at certain hours at other hours the promenade is nearly deserted.  Three and a half laps around this deck is 1 mile.  A good place for general ocean observations; there are something like five wide doors on each side (and two smaller doors on both the bow and stern ends) to access the promenade.  Rooms are along this deck as well – they have doors that open to the promenade.
At the stern of the promenade deck there is a wider viewing area that is covered.  This is less windy than the verandah deck viewing area at the front.  A good place to see birds that might be following the ship (looking for items churned up by the propellers.)
Verandah-deck immediately below the bridge.  This viewing point is lightly used because, from below, it requires climbing several stairs and opening heavy doors.  It can also be windy and cold.  But you can quickly move from side-to-side of the ship and look somewhat backwards as well as forward.
The verandah deck at the front is an excellent place to make time-lapse movies of the ship advancing along the fjord.  But even in very calm waters the ship does move so you need very frequent images to get a smooth animation.  This tripod arrangement, done to minimize blocking passengers coming later in the morning, also works well for photographing subjects along rock walls.  Note that with the wind of the ship’s motion, it can be quite cold in this exposed part of the ship.
Next time I will ask the Captain to lower the flag mast at the bow – it gets in the way!
A view of the verandah deck (where the people are) from the area of the bow.  You can get higher views from the crow’s nest lounge or the top deck, but the view is impeded by glass.

accessibility for many people) and require opening heavy doors, they are not frequently used by most passengers.  Of course, you are exposed to the wind and potential rain on this deck.  Since the ship might be moving at 10-20 mph into the wind the wind you feel could be quite strong.

Key is to have unobstructed views in any direction and ease in accessing these viewing locations.  The promenade deck of some ships is especially useful – both for exercise in walking and also observing for seabirds, marine mammals, and any other sea creatures.

Compared with the much smaller expedition-sized ships, cruise ships do have the advantage of a better ride in the open ocean, and can usually travel faster and farther when they need to.  Expedition ships are not as comfortable in open ocean, high swell environments.  Expedition ships, being closer to the ocean surface, do not have as good long-range visibility as higher cruise ships, though being lower has the advantage of being much closer to surface wildlife.

Having mentioned some cruise ship advantages, most cruise ships do not have a focus on cultivating serious naturalists because these tend to be a minority of the passengers.  It is also impractical to take hundreds of passengers birdwatching on a shore excursion.  Our observation is that Alaskan cruises have a greater percentage of passengers oriented towards nature.

Practical aspects for naturalists to evaluate when considering a cruise

Below are some of the factors we consider when evaluating a cruise itinerary.

What nature opportunities are there in your ports of call?

To a large degree the ports of call determine whether the cruise will be interesting or not.  Also, the time available in these ports will determine whether some onshore activities are possible.  Port calls in a larger city will usually make visits to the countryside difficult or expensive.  Smaller ports are more likely to be close to natural landscapes.

The best way to evaluate whether your port of call is close to a natural landscape is to use Google Earth imagery and try to find where the ship will actually dock (or anchor).  The figures below illustrate examples from the Alaskan cruise ports of Juneau and Haines.  The image captions explain the point of showing each image.

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This is a view from Google Maps imagery of Juneau showing four cruise ships in port.  There is a large area of forested terrain near Juneau, but no obvious attractions or access to this area.
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A closer view of the same area in the above image shows the cruise ships, but now some places appear in Google Maps.  Clicking on this image gives a larger view. which shows the Mt. Roberts Nature Center.  Access to this center isn’t obvious.
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Yet a closer zoom of the Nature Center shows several buildings and Google reviews indicating that this is a highly rated attraction.
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It turns out that a tramway leads up the mountain from the port area; this was the only fee required to visit the nature center.  An array of well-marked trails with information plaques radiated out from the nature center.  We enjoyed the trail walks, and saw several new bird species.  We were somewhat rushed because we also wanted to see the Mendenhall glacier, which was some miles out-of-town.

While in Juneau, a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier is a well-publicized outing.  The glacier is quite accessible and scenic, and buses take hundreds of visitors daily from the port to the glacier.  Less well-known is that a routine city bus does the route every hour and tickets for that bus cost a small fraction of the Mendenhall tours.  We took the local bus, and once at the Forest Service visitor center at the glacier, we continued to walk on some of the national forest trails in the area.  Quite literally, we took the path less traveled, as there were almost no people on our trail through the woods, while almost everyone went to a large waterfall, or returned to town after a short while.

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Google Earth imagery view of the Mendenhall Glacier – a small lake separates it from the parking lot and visitor’s center.  Click on images for larger views.
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a somewhat closer view from a slightly different angle.  The parking lot is more clearly visible now; almost all visitors head towards the base of the waterfall in the upper right of this image.
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You can get quite close to the waterfall – we did not go to this because we did not have enough time (we took this photo with a telephoto).  Also, it is “just” a waterfall.  Impressive, but not as unique as what we saw on the trail we took instead.  See the two images below for what we saw.
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We got a very close look at a porcupine in a fir-tree.  In fairness, a ranger was there watching it and pointed it out to us.  It appeared to be sleeping most of the time.
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The trail continued on a long way (we had to turn around because of lack of time) through a forest with trees laden with mosses.  Almost no one was on this trail and it went for a few miles on ground that had been glacier-covered a few hundred years ago.

The point of the images above is to show that there were genuine natural environments close to Juneau,  where you could spend the entire day and that these were available at very minimal cost compared with the more widely advertised shore excursions, examples of which can be seen here.  But you have to know that they exist because there is no financial incentive for tour companies to steer you towards free or low-cost attractions.

What is the best time of year for your cruise?

While some landscapes look good at any time of year, most cruise traffic takes place during the warmer time of the year and some destinations like Norway and Alaska are mostly restricted to summer.  While this is ideal for long days, such destinations can be very crowded – especially certain popular ports where 4 or more large ships are disgorging their passengers at the same time.  Fortunately, for naturalists a great majority of the passengers aim for the tourist-oriented shops near the ships, with few heading to out-of-the way destinations.

There is no reliable way to predict the weather you will experience on your cruise when you book your cruise – usually months in advance.   Higher latitude cruises could have much warmer or cooler temperatures compared with climatology – though the ocean temperature is usually close to its monthly mean value (anomalies are usually only a degree or two).  Nonetheless, study the climatology for your cruise area – don’t take a down jacket on a September Caribbean cruise (unless you get cold in the ship’s restaurants!).

Are there any nature-oriented excursions offered on your cruise?

We are not big fans of cruise ship excursions.  We have taken only one excursion on three cruises.  That excursion was actually quite good.  But few excursions are nature oriented, and we prefer to walk to destinations that are off the beaten path to the extent possible (often this is difficult or time-consuming).   Unfortunately, many cruise lines, like Holland America, focus on older persons who do not have the same drive for higher energy activities favored by younger people.  And many excursions involved with “nature” are better classified as adventure tourism (e.g. flying to dogsled on a glacier) and are typically expensive.  You may have guides on these activities but they typically won’t be botanists, ornithologists, or geologists.

 Some logistical details

Selecting your room on a cruise ship

Ship cabins come in different price categories.  Being higher up on the ship, having larger rooms, and having balconies all add cost to a cabin.  The least expensive cabins are usually those that are interior (without a view).   Yet we select these when we cruise.  Why?   Our answer is simple: we like to sleep well.

When considering a cruise, relatively few people consider how a ship moves in rough seas or know how to select a room for minimum motion in rough seas.   It is actually quite simple:  the minimum motion will be felt near the center of mass of the ship.  Of course, trying to find this location from your cruise brochure or the company’s website is virtually impossible.  Very roughly it is in the middle of the ship and relatively low down near the waterline.  To see a ship comparable to a small cruise ship under some motion – entering a port, see this youtube video.

Why is the middle of the ship the region of minimum motion?  Consider the three motions of a ship (or airplane).  These are pitch, roll and yaw.  Pitch is the up and down motion the ship experiences when heading into swells – the bow rises and falls, as does the stern.  The middle of the ship barely moves in these conditions.  Roll is the side-to-side motion that the ship experiences if it is moving parallel to the ocean swells.  Again, near the center of the ship there is little movement, though high up there is more motion.  Interior cabins, if they exist (not all ships have them) are much preferred over outside cabins in minimizing roll motion since your head is only a foot or so from the centerline of the ship in an interior cabin, while it is perhaps 40 feet from the centerline in an outside cabin.  Finally, Yaw (side to side motion most apparent at the bow and stern) is relatively small for ships, but again, it is felt most strongly at the front and back of the ship.

It is perhaps almost obvious that cruise companies don’t advertise the importance of interior cabins to reduce motion sickness.  They would like to have passengers think that their ships are large enough, and with good stabilizers, that ship motion will be insignificant.  Certainly this is true for cruising in fjords of Norway and interior passages in Alaska.  But it isn’t true of the open ocean.  We encourage cruisers (the next time they cruise) to go to the forward Verandah-level deck and stand along the centerline of the ship, then walk to either side of the deck.  You will notice the rolling motion difference (pitching will be about the same).  Then do this along a long deck corridor (usually these are found only on the lower decks.  Walk from the bow to the stern – you will notice that change in pitching motion, with a minimum near mid-ship.  You might not note a difference if traveling on the inland passage of Alaska, but in open ocean with some swell the differences will be very apparent.

best main deck cabins Zaandam
Example of Main deck cabins on the Zaandam.  Our perspective on the best cabins for minimum ship motion are in the red rectangle.  In these cabins your head (top of your bed) lies within a foot or two the ship’s centerline.  Cabins in back (near stern) will have more pitch, as will ones near the bow.  Avoid elevators (noise) by one or two cabins, likewise noise from common areas above or below your room.  Last resort: earplugs.

In summary, get a cabin as close to the center of mass (in the center and low down, generally speaking) of the ship as possible if you want minimum motion during your cruise.  Be familiar with the cabin locations and decks (example here) before you consider your cruise.  Surprisingly, these are usually the least expensive cabins, since they lack windows.  You will sleep better.

Weather and other unpredictables

Even the best plans for using all of your available time ashore may be for naught if the weather isn’t suitable.  If the day is rainy then outdoor activities will likely be unpleasant – even if they are possible to do.  Or, as was the case with our recent Norwegian cruise, bad weather forced the ship to miss the two northernmost ports – due to the inability of the ship’s pilot being able to come aboard our ship.  Thus, it may be unwise to rely too heavily on seeing any particular landscape or item of flora or fauna.  Be willing to accept second or third options – since you will likely not have the opportunity to return to the location the next week, month or even the next year.

Suggestions for cruise ship lines to enhance nature education

Here we provide some suggestions that might help cruise lines develop a larger nature-oriented clientele.  Our comments here are aimed specifically at Holland America which is experimenting with enhanced nature (and other educational) experiences aboard one of its ships.  Of course, it may not be in the best business interest of a cruise company to encourage such passengers – if it comes at the expense of fewer excursions being taken, less patronage of the onboard casino, or less shopping in the ship’s shops.  One has to recognize that cruise lines will tend to do what maximizes profits, and in general we should not expect a for-profit company to have lofty goals of educating the public about the Earth’s natural or cultural history or the pressing social problems of the day.  It would be nice, perhaps some day they all will.

“Easy” additions to increase nature-education

Some relatively easy and low-cost possibilities to improve education on natural history subjects might include the following activities.

1)  Adding on the promenade deck walkway weather-proof posters or plaques  related to commonly seen 1) marine mammals, 2) pelagic seabirds and 3) aspects of physical oceanography related to the cruise.  Such plaques might need to be varied by cruise, since birds expected in the north Atlantic might be quite different from those seen in the tropical Pacific.  The physical oceanography plaques might describe aspects of the sea state (Beaufort scale for example), the difference between swell and waves, or the water temperature climatology of the cruise (this might require cruise-specific maps).  Other possible plaques might describe the ocean’s bathymetry (bottom topography maps of the cruise region) or some other aspects of the marine environment like the typical vertical structure of the ocean below the ship (thermocline depth etc).  While some of these topics sound technical, they can all be explained in a manner understandable by the vast majority of passengers.  All such plaques or posters should be removable so that others can replace them as a particular ship’s destinations might vary throughout the cruise season.

2) expanding the library selections or have a section on the bookshelves of the Explorers Lounge designated as “natural history of our cruise”.  There were some good books in the reading room on the last ship we were on, but finding them was a matter of luck or extensive searching.

3) Putting more extensive weather forecast material on the Ship’s displays (and TV).  This should include satellite images of the ship’s region and some weather forecast maps that are readily available via internet.

More significant additions to improve nature-education might include:

 Add a science officer to the ship’s staff.  Take a hint from the Starship Enterprise and identify someone who will be knowledgeable about natural history and technical aspects of the cruise (a “Spock”).  This obviously doesn’t have to be a permanent crew member but someone similar to the Cruise Director.  Such a person, with broad background in natural history, might carry out the following tasks:

  1. Be available daily to answer nature-oriented questions of all kinds.  This might be from what kinds of birds we expect to see tomorrow, to what parks are near the port, to what the detailed weather forecast will be for 5 days from now.  Having such a background would require a specialized course for such staff members.
  2. Provide daily talks on a variety of natural history subjects, dependent on the particular cruise.  I suspect these would be popular.  Not everyone can or is able to go on the limited excursions that might be available, but probably most people want to learn something about where they are traveling to.  We were surprised on our last cruise – into the fjord region of Norway, that there was no illustrated talk explaining the origin of the landscapes we were seeing.  The basics of how glacial landscapes form should have been covered and would have been of interest to a great many people.  Some thoughts on possible talks for different cruise itineraries are given here.
  3. provide talks about each port’s natural history opportunities – the day before arriving.
  4. Be able to describe the technical aspects of the ship, the procedures for navigation, and the maritime vessels likely to be seen on the cruise.  Also, aspects of the ports and how a port functions.  Sometimes the Captain will provide a talk on some of this; we found this interesting when he did.  Much of the material could be presented by the science officer.
  5. Include specialized excursions focusing on some key aspect of the natural history of the cruise.  This might be volcanic landscapes in Iceland or Hawaii, cloud forests on volcanoes in the Lesser Antilles, Costa Rica or Ecuador or a botanical exploration in southwest Australia.  Some of these might be potentially challenging because of the ship’s normal (limited) time-in-port, usually less than 10 hours, which allows only for destinations relatively close to the port.
  6. Dedicate a channel on the ship’s TV to subjects related to the natural and cultural aspects of the cruise.  This material could be port-specific, cruise specific, or even related to general topics like how weather forecasts are made, what are oceanic circulations, or how fjords are made.  There is no shortage of educational materials of a general nature, though specific material related to particular ports might require some development.
  7. Add an astronomical option to the ship. Most cruisers are from the Northern Hemisphere and may have never seen the southern skies.  A few small, low power telescopes or larger binoculars could be used during the cruise while at anchor (overnight port calls).  A knowledgeable supervisor (science officer) would also be needed (see below).  Observing sessions could also be carried out underway.  While the best location to minimize ship motion is on the ship’s centerline near mid-ship most ships don’t have deck space in this area so the stern deck would probably be the most feasible area for observation – and would also be somewhat wind protected.  A green laser pointer would also be helpful to point out key features in the sky and to help passengers with binoculars to find objects in the sky.

Desirable modifications for naturalists, but not necessarily for other passengers

Most port calls are too short to reach destinations away from the port.  Some nature excursions would benefit from overnight stays, so that natural history travelers could take overnight trips at a greater distance from the port. This would require hotel accommodations away from the ship.  Alternatively, if port arrival times were earlier and the departures later, day excursions could leave early (say 6 AM) and return late (perhaps 8 PM), adding valuable morning and evening hours to day-long excursions.  This might be especially important for photographic and birdwatching expeditions away from the ship.


There are opportunities to increase the natural history focus of cruise ships without  much direct cost.  Whether this would increase the total number of passengers on such cruises is unclear, and some additional modifications to cruise itineraries would be needed to make major improvements in the nature-oriented activities.

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2 thoughts on “Cruising for naturalists

  1. I just got off the Celebrity Solstice Inside Passage tour. We had both a naturalist and a destination historian giving talks before each port and on sea days. This was my favorite thing. I got to your article searching to see what other lines to consider in the future. Do you know if there are any?

    • Sorry – I just saw your comment. I don’t know the details of other cruise lines, or in fact even other Holland America ships or routes. With HAL only the longer cruises with many sea days have lecturers and some of those have dedicated staff to do this (like Alaska and Antarctica). I just completed my first lecturing activity in August, but based on the experience signed up for three more. I did get lots of positive feedback – which surprised me – as did the full rooms. I expected much less interest.

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