Puffins are so darn cute – find them in far northern regions best reached by cruise ships that have Norway or Alaska itineraries — Photo courtesy of Ernst Furuhatt/nordnorge.com
Cuddly koalas and bright-eyed lemurs – how exciting to see them in their native habitat! Yet, that's usually far off the beaten track.
Cruises may surprise you as an inexpensive option. Some ships tuck into smaller ports near remote animal habitat–places often hard to reach via land travel.
Or consider package tours designed for exotic animal spotting. A specialized tour will be expensive, but expert guides can be the best bet for spotting the wild critters.
On the inexpensive side you can always design your own trip, and if your heart is set seeing that Madagascar lemur or other critter in its habitat, hire a local guide to tap expertise.
Here are tips on finding ten wild things.
Lemurs live on the island of Madagascar off East Africa — Photo courtesy of Mathias Appel/Flickr
Animated movie Madagascar rocketed lemurs to fame. Since then, travelers have been eager to reach Madagascar, the Indian Ocean island home of lemurs.
Costa Cruises' 14-day sail from Mauritius to Réunion includes three days on Madagascar, where you can trek Lokobe Nature Reserve hoping to spot lemurs. Hike Amber Mountain National Park to find the long-tailed, startled-looking creature.
Costa cruise: From $1,795 per person
Package tours: Madagascar safaris range from $3,000 to $10,000
Do-it-yourself trip: Airfare runs $2,200-$2,500 to Madagascar. Consider upping your lemur-spotting game with a wildlife tour – guide, car, hotels for $2,000.
Puffins, beluga whales, Shetland ponies
The small, white beluga whale could be spotted in Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park — Photo courtesy of Britt Reints/Flickr
Viking Ocean Cruises' 15-day sail from Bergen, Norway to Montreal leads to a menagerie of critters. Calling at Scotland's Shetland Islands, you'll find cute Shetland ponies, and on Denmark's Faroe Islands, visit a puffin-packed cliff.
In Reykjavik, board a whale-watching vessel. Port calls in Greenland will earn you bragging rights. And when the ship reaches Canada, you could have a whale of a day sailing Newfoundland's Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, home to cute white beluga whales and minke whales.
Viking Spirit cruise: From $5,479 per person
Package tour: No comparable trip available
Do-it-yourself trip: Visit puffins and beluga whales in Newfoundland for $1,200-$2,500
Penguins with ice
The adorable gentoo penguin lives in Antarctica, reached only by expedition ships outfitted to do battle with ice — Photo courtesy of Poseidon Expeditions
Who can resist the emperor penguin, strutting like a little man in his tuxedo?
Emperors penguins are hard to find, though, even on Antarctic cruises. Visitors are most likely to spot gentoo, Adélie and chinstrap penguins.
Poseidon Expeditions explores the Antarctic Peninsula in its M/v Sea Spirit, a 114-passenger ship with ice-strengthened hull. Although penguin encounters are never guaranteed, chances of visiting them are better with naturalists on board to help spot colonies. And the company's 18 years of sailing Antarctica is a real plus when sailing icy waters.
Poseidon Expeditions' Antarctic cruise: From $6,495 per person for 11-day cruise
Package tours and do-it yourself: Not an option in Antarctica
Penguins without ice
Rockhopper penguins are happy to see you on Falkland Islands, off the coast of South America — Photo courtesy of David Stanley/Flickr
You don't have to go to Antarctica to see penguins. South America's southern tip hosts colonies of rockhopper, chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Visit several colonies from Holland America's 16-day cruise embarking from Santiago, Chile.
You can visit Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island off Punta Arenas, Chile. And you'll see gentoos on tours out of Ushuaia, Argentina, and rockhoppers on the Falkland Islands. There are lots of opportunities.
Holland America Line cruise: From $1,998 per person, Santiago-to-Rio cruise on ms Zaandam
Package tours: From $3,000 to $5,000
Do-it-yourself trip: From $2,000
The koalas like to cuddle at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary at Celebrity Cruises' port call in Brisbane — Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises
Very few animals that you'd probably like to cuddle feel the same way about you. The koala is the exception! Hold koalas at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary when the port call is Brisbane on Celebrity Cruises' Great Barrier Reef Cruise. The 12-night cruise on Celebrity Solstice sails from Sydney to Cairns, Australia.
Celebrity cruise: From $1,699 per person
Package tour: $4,500; $15,000 for custom tour visiting koalas and kangaroos
Do-it-yourself trip: Australia is very DIY. Cuddle koalas at Cleland Wildlife Park near Adelaide and at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary outside Brisbane. Or Visit koalas at Featherdale near Sydney. $1,500 to $2,500.
Swimming with dolphins gets you up close and personal — Photo courtesy of Daniel Hurt/Flickr
Patting dolphins and swimming with these friendly marine mammals is magical. If you're looking for dolphins in their native habitat, you'll find marine mammal-spotting tour boats off Mexico's coasts.
Disney Cruise Line offers several dolphin experiences out of Cozumel on Mexico's Riviera Maya coast. Disney cruises also sail to Cabo San Lucas on Mexico's Baja Coast. Swim with, pat or kiss dolphins in either place, or try your hand at becoming "dolphin trainer for the day."
Disney cruise: From $3,469 for week-long Mexico cruise
Package tour: Not necessary. Riviera Maya and Baja coast are both very tourist-friendly. Book a resort and take tours.
Do-it-yourself trip: $1,700. Book dolphin encounters at Cabo Dolphins Center or at Xel-Ha, a fun eco-park and natural inlet near Cozumel.
Pandas munch bamboo and tumble around on a playground at Giant Panda Base near Chengdu, China — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
Good news from the panda world – in 2016 they were taken off the endangered species list. Panda numbers have increased in the mountains of China, thanks to intensive Chinese programs to breed pandas, set up wild reserves and learn how to return pandas to the wild.
Chengdu Giant Panda Base is where most visitors watch giant pandas tumble on play equipment. And for a fee you can even hold a panda. For a different experience, Dujiangyan Panda Valley (outside Chengdu) has a Panda Keeper Program that lets you wake up pandas in the morning and make a tasty bamboo-apple-steamed-bun-lunch.
Chengdu and the playful pandas are inland, but cruising is still a good fit as the Yangtze River is nearby. Viking River Cruises' Undiscovered China sails Yangtze seven days and visits Chengdu Panda Base on a 19-day cruise+tour.
Viking cruise: From $4,204 per person
Package tour: Anyone determined to see pandas in the wild will pay $10,000 for "The Wild Side of China" with Natural Habitat Adventures. NatHab holds the only permit to view pandas in the wild and their facilities and program are high quality. Natural Habitat Adventures is World Wildlife Fund's travel partner.
Do-it-yourself trip: It's challenging to get around China and cost varies too much to estimate.
Komodo dragons are large and bloodthirsty; you might think you've stepped into Jurassic Park when meeting these monsters — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
If dinosaurs left a brother behind, it's the Komodo dragon. They're big and can smell blood a mile away, and they act like yours has great appeal (watch the nostrils). This eight-foot, 150-pound reptile can even outrun you. See them in Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Park rangers guide you, carrying a stick for defense – only a little reassuring.
Viking Cruises and Holland America Line both call at Komodo island.
Viking cruise: Komodo and the Australian Coast cruise starts at $5,199. Also see jumping crocodiles in Australia and the dazzling fish and coral reef of the Great Barrier Reef.
Holland America Line's cruise: 13-day Indonesian Discovery starts at $1,159
Package tours: $4,000-$8,000
Do-it-yourself trip: Expensive and time-consuming. Fly to Jakarta, then fly to Bali, and take a long boat trip to Komodo island.
Best Place to See Wildlife (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2016)
Best Place to See Wildlife (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2016)
Bears (oh, my)
Grizzlies (brown bears) having a smackdown in Katmai National Park — Photo courtesy of Chris McLennan/State of Alaska
Alaska is the place to see bears in their habitat. In fact, hikers jingle bells as they go, hoping not to startle a grizzly.
Denali National Park runs tour buses through the park; wildlife is often sighted. If you're lucky, a bear will be among them. And Disney Cruise Line offers tours to bear habitat on Alaska cruises. A tour out of Ketchikan includes catching a floatplane to a salmon-packed stream favored by bears in Tongass National Forest. Another includes a 10-mile trek leading to an elevated platform over Herring Cove where bears hang out. Ships calling in Skagway offer a twilight tour to Chilkoot River where bears feed.
Disney cruise: From $3,416 per person for a five-night cruise including Ketchikan; nine-night cruise including Ketchikan and Skagway starts at $6,501.
Package tour: $4,000 to $10,000
Do-it-yourself-trip: Alaska is ideal for independent types; rent a camper or just camp in Alaska's many state campgrounds. Reserve well in advance for Denali National Park camping and bear viewing.
A whale twirls in Kenai Fjords National Park — Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Thoresen/National Park Service
It's thrilling to see the flip of a tail, knowing a huge whale hovers right below the surface.
Alaska cruises are good for spotting whales, though your best chance of sighting them is aboard a smaller whale-watching vessel. These boats send radio messages to one another when whales are spotted.
They can also easily relocate to that spot; that's something the big ships can't do. Besides their agility, small boats also get you closer to whales, which is important since Alaska's coastal mists often limit visibility from the cruise ship itself.
Holland America Line offers a fun mingle with whales on a tour departing from Juneau. In Stephens Passage, whales dot the water like cocktail ice cubes. The captain cuts the catamaran's engine and lets the boat drift, sometimes close enough to hear a whale breathe.
Holland America Line's Alaska cruise: Starts at $999 for 14-day Great Alaska Explorer embarking from Seattle
Package tour: $4,000 to $8,000
Do-it-yourself-trip: You won't regret a one-day cruise in marine-animal-packed Kenai Fjords National Park – see killer whales, dolphins and more whales.
Prices are correct as of publish date, but are subject to change.