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Times of the Islands Magazine

See the Sea, From the Sea: Prepare Yourself For a Wildlife Cruise

Jan 27, 2022 02:05PM ● By KENNETH BURGENER

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings. —Moslih Eddin Saadi.  


A loud prolonged blast from the ship’s horn announces that we are leaving the dock. We will be on an imaginary cruise together for the next few pages, and I will give you some tips on how to see as much wildlife as you can while sailing the world.  

When I was in my 20s, I was sailing a small boat in Nassau Harbor and saw a cruise ship. These ships were rare back in the ’70s, so it generated some excitement. We watched as several old, fat, white-haired guys disembarked and headed into town. We laughed at them, and God wrote down in his book, “Make sure Ken becomes one in 40 years.” Now after crossing both oceans on 65 cruises, maybe I am one of those old guys, but my experience allows me to give you some pointers on spotting wildlife while on a cruise.  

First bit of advice: Get to the pier early. This way you can scout out the ship and the port. I estimate that 80 percent of wildlife sightings occur while the ship is at the dock. It is sitting still, the waters around the ship are likely calm, and you can easily see down into the water. The water will be at least 25 feet deep where the ship is moored, but sometimes just yards away is a shallow area where you can see birds and fish feeding. 

After boarding, your first stop should be on the top deck, which can be more than 200 feet up. From this vantage point, you can assess the entire area around the ship and figure out where to focus your attention.  

All cruise ships have dozens of good places to watch for wildlife. Investigate the outside decks to select your preferred viewing areas. Have several places in mind, as sometimes the area you like might be closed because of wind or maintenance. Stationing yourself on the stern (the rear of the ship) has good points and bad points. It is easy to switch sides and see in both directions, but by the time you see something, it’s almost gone from sight. The bow (the front of the ship) allows you to see what is coming up, but it can be very windy. Many ships limit who can be on the bow, and when. 

Decide where to stand when leaving the port. The first day everyone is outside, making it hard to get a spot on the railing. Remember to take your binoculars to the safety meeting that is held before leaving the dock. That way, you will already be equipped for a little wildlife watching on the deck after the drill.  

While still docked you might see sharks cruising the shallows looking for a meal, rays jumping out of the water, and schools of fish just swimming around for your entertainment. On Alaskan cruises, you will see seals and icebergs floating in the harbor.  

Keep a lookout for manatees, especially during the winter months when the water is warmer in the port than in the ocean. With their large size (they can be more than 14 feet long and weigh up to 3,900 pounds) and slow movement, they can be easy to spot from high up on the ship. During mating season you may see 10 or more males trying to mate with a female—it’s a real party with lots of water being splashed into the air.  

All ships post a chart (nautical map) of the waters they are cruising. Take a picture of it to study in your spare time. It may include the times you will be passing any islands—good opportunities for wildlife sightings. Many land birds fly out to the ship and even land on it. If you see fishermen, pay attention to the area around their boats.  

When a ship leaves its dock, it creates a huge underwater tidal wave, bringing up mud, sand, fish, weeds, and food. The birds around the harbor know this and will be waiting for an easy meal. Many animals use the ship’s movement as an aid in finding food from the sea.  

As the ship moves out to sea, it will cross three distinct areas. First is the entrance zone, where the water comes into the harbor. Depending on the tides and surrounding water, you could see freshwater mixing with saltwater. If there is a current, and most of the time there is, you can witness fish eating in this moving waterway. Notice that fishermen sometimes keep their boats close to this area. Lots of large fish come up to snack on the smaller fish caught in the current. This is where one of nature’s smorgasbords is located.  

Leaving this channel, you might pass over several reefs, which lots of marine life call home. You may observe sea turtles breathing on the surface. At this point the ship is picking up speed, making it more difficult to spot wildlife. Try to stay on the side away from the sun. It will be easier to see any surface action.  

Finally, approaching the open ocean, the ship is up to speed, requiring a different mode of wildlife observation. Now you are looking for larger animals in the sea, such as dolphins, whales, and flying fish.  

Often you can see dolphins as they ride the waves created by the ship. They could be 20 feet off the bow or a half-mile back playing in the waves, so you may need to move around to observe them. There are 49 dolphin and porpoise species grouped into six families: the oceanic dolphin family is by far the largest with 38 members; the porpoise family has seven members; and there are four river dolphin families, each containing just one species. All of these dolphin and porpoise species must come to the surface to breathe, so seeing them is always a possibility.   

The best way to see a whale is on a specific whale-watching excursion, but it is possible to sight one on a standard cruise. Most whale sightings are in cold water; seeing whales in the Caribbean would be unusual. If you do happen to spot one, just yell, “WHALE!” Everyone will rush to the windows to get a look. If the whale jumps up again, you may become the hero of the cruise.  

From the lower decks you can look for flying fish. The hull of the ship acts as a giant predator, which motivates the fish to fly out of the water. Watch the wind to see how it is coming around the ship. The fish will almost always fly into the wind. You can sometimes see fish fly several hundred feet if the wind is cooperating. You might see only one flying fish, or you might see schools that can number in the hundreds. You just have to be at the right place at the right time. Also watch for birds circling the ship, as they are looking to grab the fish as they fly out of the water. 

When in the warmer waters of the world, be on the lookout for one of the most unusual-looking creatures—the ocean sunfish, or Mola mola. My first encounter with this strange animal was on a small island off the coast of Florida, where I found what looked like a huge piece of fish flesh with no fins, eyes, or gills. It resembles a fish head with a tail, and its main body is flattened laterally. Adults typically weigh between 545 and 2,205 pounds. The ocean sunfish can be as tall as it is long when its dorsal and ventral fins are extended. It also produces the largest number of eggs of any vertebrate, up to 300 million eggs at one time.  

Another thing to look for while in the warmer waters of the Caribbean is the floating jungle called the Sargasso Sea. These yellow floating weeds drift from the Caribbean into the North Atlantic, stretching for miles and providing habitat to many creatures. When you are on shore, wade out and grab a handful. If you give it a shake, you will be amazed by the many different fish, crabs, and other sea life that fall out—for example, the Sargasso fish, which looks like a piece of weed, except it swims.  

During your cruise, always be on the lookout for birds that have been blown aboard ship—or the smart ones that just take up residence there. These birds can be attracted by the lights of the ship at night, or they may just visit to get a free meal. Over the years I have seen more than 30 different types of birds, from mourning doves to a sora, a small secretive waterbird that lives in the marsh. You might even spot a bird that caught a ride on the ship from another continent.  

Perhaps the smartest bird you can find living on a ship is the peregrine falcon. This crow-sized falcon is found nearly everywhere on earth; it is the world’s most widespread raptor and one of the most widely found bird species. It is renowned for its speed, reaching over 200 mph during its characteristic high-speed dive, making it not only the fastest bird in the world, but also the fastest animal.  

One captain told me that a peregrine falcon had been aboard from Europe to North America. It would just hang out in the upper parts of the ship, waiting for an unsuspecting bird to fly by. This is a great tactic, as the falcon can see any bird approaching the ship, then will take off and strike the bird, knocking it into the water. It retrieves its victim, taking it up into the ship’s rigging to dine.  

As your ship makes stops along the way, you will have ample opportunity for wildlife viewing, either on ship-sponsored excursions or going off on your own. Ship excursions provide you with educated guides and take you places that are likely to have an extraordinary amount of wildlife. This is because they often feed the creatures that you have paid to see. This is good and bad—good because you will see dozens of animals, bad because this never happens in nature.  

If you decide to head off by yourself instead, or hire a guide off the street, here are a few tips. The farther away from the ship you go, the cheaper the guides and taxis, because they do not have to pay the cruise line for providing customers. Some of these guides can be knowledgeable and take you on a great trip at less than half the price. But, beware: Every guide will claim to be an expert. 

It pays to plan ahead for ship excursions and private tours. Contact your local guides months in advance, so you have some idea of their knowledge and experience. Many websites can help you find guides and see reviews about the trips they run. Several countries have bus services close to their docks. This is an inexpensive way to get around.  

With a little bit of planning, you can be sure that by the time you return to your home port, your trip will have been all that it could be. Your wildlife viewing will have fulfilled your expectations, and your friends will be jealous of your world travels and newfound knowledge. Next time you can be the expert and take your friends along for the cruise.   


Sanibel resident Ken Burgener is a world traveler. He was a sailboat captain in the Caribbean and has worked as a tour guide for Audubon, Dragonfly Expeditions, AAA, Greyhound, and Road Scholars. He is the founder of Carefree Birding.