Ecology — the relationships between living organisms and their environments — has become one of the most sought-after aspects of travel, and cruise lines provide excursions that focus on plants and animals, indigenous cultures and the earth itself. Once passengers are on shore, exploring a destination’s ecology takes many different forms from nature hikes in Alaska to visits with local families in Russia. Hundreds of local tour companies specialize in ecological shore excursions worldwide.
Some destinations are simply about the physical environment, so passengers exploring regions like the Galapagos, Antarctica, the Arctic, parts of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska expect and receive an immersion in the natural world. In other areas, it is local culture that takes center stage. Both river and seagoing cruise lines take passengers to various destinations where they can learn to cook in China, blow glass in Italy and Germany or how to brew tea in Russia.
Cruise lines have not been slow to see the value in ecotourism. Costa Cruise Lines announced this fall that it is offering 240 special eco-excursions, which it has created to minimize its impact on ecosystems and generate economic opportunities for local communities. One such eco-excursion is the Night Safari Tour in Singapore, on which clients can experience the world’s first wildlife park built to be viewed at night. The park covers 40 acres, and its nocturnal animals are allowed to roam freely in huge landscaped enclosures.
All cruise lines sailing in Alaska have extensive programs in nature interpretation and offer excursions from walking on glaciers to wildlife viewing. Children are taught about everything from sea otters to global warming. On one excursion, available only to cruise passengers, the Tlingit people near Ketchikan allow guests of all ages to wear their robes and participate in their native dances.
A sampling of ecological shore excursions includes:
In Hawaii Norwegian Cruise Line and other lines give passengers an intimate experience with volcanoes, getting close enough to feel and smell the hot lava or snorkeling in an extinct crater.
Experiences in Australia showcase the Great Barrier Reef, and lines like Regent Seven Seas Cruises schedule visits to the Tandanya Cultural Institute for an opportunity to experience contemporary and traditional Aboriginal culture.
Silversea Cruises’ African shore excursions take guests to visit and learn about endangered animals in their natural habitats, such as African elephants at the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya, Madagascar's black lemurs at their sanctuary on the island of Nosy Komba and orangutans at the rehabilitation centre in Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park.
Silversea also has an exclusive partnership with Fondo per l'Ambiente Italiano (the National Trust for Italy) and offers guests optional shore excursions to its properties, conserving the artistic and natural heritage of Italy.
In the Galapagos, Celebrity Cruises’ Xpeditions makes sure all its guests can view the unique animal life that fills every crevice of the rocks, as well as the waters and the near prehistoric birds circling in the air above. The company has three fitness levels for included shore excursions daily, many by boat, so passengers at virtually all levels of activity are able to get close to the life of the ecosystem with conservationist guides.
Another magical experience in South American cruising takes Oceania Cruises guests on an ancient forest eco-walk in Puerto Montt where they see nearly extinct giant Alcerce trees.
Holland America Line offers a hands-on dolphin adventure for guests. The tour allows participants to work six hours beside professional dolphin trainers. Participants gain an insight into and an understanding of the basic skills needed to care for and train dolphins through practical hands-on experience, while being an active member of a team of marine mammal experts.
Disney Cruise Line and Princess Cruises are among the lines who offer the Stingray City and Underwater Observatory Tour where guests can view stingrays at the original Stingray City from the comfort of an underwater observatory or hold, pet and feed the stingrays at Stingray Sandbar. And Carnival Cruise Lines, among others, schedules trips to the Sea Turtle Rescue Center, located on a beach about 20 miles from Acapulco in the state of Guerrero.
Many cruises offer shore excursions to the Grand Cayman Butterfly Farm, where visitors learn about the complex lives led by the elusive creatures and what to plant to attract them, wherever they live.