Armed with a warm coat, waterproof rubber boots and our trusty binoculars, my travel partner and I set out to track down as many species as possible during a weeklong cruise aboard Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Sea Lion. This 62-passenger expedition ship is built for up-close encounters of the animal kind, with four Zodiac landing craft that take passengers along uninhabited shores where bears forage and bald eagles build their nests. The itinerary includes a cruise through Glacier Bay National Park, where protected islands shelter nesting sea birds, and an anchorage in the nutrient-rich waters of the Inian Islands, where at one point there was so much wildlife around us that we weren't sure where to look: at the bald eagles circling overhead? At the sea lions grunting on the shore? At the sea otter swimming past with its shellfish lunch on its belly?
Alaska expedition cruises offer another key benefit for wildlife-watchers: a staff of naturalists that lead interpretive nature walks, help cruisers spot animals from the observation deck and give evening talks about the local fauna. The naturalists allow you to go from merely seeing wildlife to learning about it.
Prefer big-ship cruising? Bring your binoculars on any Alaska cruise, no matter how big the ship, and you can spot wildlife from the outer decks or your balcony. Many shore excursions take passengers to wilderness areas, as well, in the hopes of spotting whales, bears and other northerly creatures -- even if you're not on an expedition sailing.
Start the slideshow above for a checklist of 10 amazing animals to seek out on an Alaska cruise.
--by Sarah Schlichter, Editor, Independent Traveler
Editor's Note: You may notice that we don't mention one of Alaska's best-known animals, the moose, in the following slideshow; that's because you're unlikely to see one in the Inside Passage. If moose are high on your must-see list, consider adding a Denali land excursion to the beginning or end of your trip.