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Science Cruises: Astronomy, Nature and More at Sea

National Geographic Orion docked in Antarctica while a Zodiac full of passengers heads to a penguin-covered shore
National Geographic Orion in Antarctica (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

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Attention stargazers, animal-lovers and wannabe experimenters: Did you know there are cruises that let you tap into your inner scientist, astronomer, botanist or environmentalist?

If you're looking to spice up a sailing with a bit of scientific exploration or educational opportunities, look for science-themed cruises run by affinity groups or spearheaded by the cruise lines themselves. Even ordinary sailings can offer a stargazing event or nature-based talk as part of regular programming on the right line or itinerary.

We outline some of the most creative science cruises and nature-themed sailings afloat, as well as science-themed activities you can do onboard and ashore.

Updated February 10, 2020

Astronomy Sailings

A starry night sky emerges during dusk at sea
Stargazing is a longtime maritime tradition, both for navigation and for fun because the lack of light pollution makes heavenly objects brighter at sea. While you're always welcome to try out DIY constellation tours on a ship's upper decks, some lines bring experts onboard to show passengers how it's done. For example, on Viking Ocean Cruises, a Stargazing Specialist teaches passengers how to identify major constellations and gather your bearings from the stars. Princess Cruises offers stargazing activities, as well.

Taking it a step further, Viking and Cunard Line are the only cruise lines to offer planetariums on select ships. Viking passengers can watch the nighttime action through a high-tech dome with 7K resolution, studio speakers, 2D and 3D options, and laser beam projectors. A "resident astronomer" sails on each cruise to add insight for passengers.

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 has a planetarium with its own dome-like screen where stargazing shows are projected. The company, which has a partnership with the Royal Astronomical Society, also hosts its own Transatlantic Space Week with experts and astronomers onboard.

Celestial events also lure many travelers out to sea on science-themed cruises. Sailings to view total solar eclipses are common in years where peak viewing takes place over water. Several outside companies, including TravelQuest, Sky and Telescope and Eclipse Tours, charter ships to take travelers to the totality.

Cruise lines like Viking and Hurtigruten capitalize on the potential to explore the northern lights from sea where there is little light pollution to obscure the view. They offer winter cruises in northern waters for cruisers hoping to cross the aurora borealis off their bucket list. Take an Alaskan cruise tour in September, and you can request wake-up calls from your post-cruise hotel should this celestial phenomenon take place overnight.


Nature and Wildlife Cruises

A blonde woman in the background photographing a Wild Galapagos giant tortoise in the foreground
One advantage of cruising is that you can explore remote islands and different ecosystems whether by sea or river. Travelers can get up close and personal with nature while sailing past Alaskan glaciers or through the Galapagos Islands. That experience can be enhanced on a themed cruise with experts onboard to share their knowledge.

Un-Cruise Adventures has a weeklong Costa Rica and Panama sailing for bird-watchers. Silversea Cruises hosts whale watching cruises in Alaska with conservationists from the charitable group ORCA.

Holland America Line hosts a "Science at Sea" cruise with a team of naturalists (including YouTube celebrity Steve Spangler) in Alaska. At the other end of the world, Ponant goes deep on one of its Antarctic sailings where the theme focuses on climate change through lively discussions and expert talks. Most Antarctica expedition cruises will host a team of naturalists ready to teach passengers all about the wildlife and landscape found at the bottom of the world.


Onboard Programming

Photo of a male lecturer giving a PowerPoint presentation to a group of passengers on Midnatsol

If you're into science, cruises with lecture programs are worth investigating. Regent Seven Seas provides enrichment programming through Artful Travelers, which regularly includes big names from public broadcasting programs like anthropologist Graham Townsley and conservation scientist M. Sanjayan. Travelers can attend lectures, as well as enjoy drinks or dinner with these notable names.

Princess Cruises' Encounters with Discovery at Sea program brings experts onboard to present to cruisers. Featured lecturers include meteorologist and oceanographer Jevan Morris and Norwegian explorer Halfdan Tangen.

Hurtigruten and Lindblad Expeditions are known for expert lectures on their Antarctic sailings where travelers learn about nature, the environment and the explorers that previously made the trek to the seventh continent. And while many cruise lines stock binoculars and telescopes for passengers to use, Lindblad takes it up a notch and sails with hydrophones (underwater microphones that allow you to hear whale communications).

Little cruisers can also have some scientific fun and discovery. Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean kids club aboard the Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas have science labs where kids can dig for fossils or make their own "space mud."


Onshore Learning

Young woman touching the shark and ray tank at the Barcelona Aquarium
It's not just shipboard entertainment that boasts a science education twist. Visitors to many cruise ports can venture off to explore some of the world's great science museums whether with the ship or solo. Wellington, New Zealand's Te Papa Museum is famous for its large collection of fossils and plant and bird specimens. Meanwhile, visitors can explore the world of robots at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

Princess runs shore excursions to the aquarium in Barcelona, while several lines (including Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line) offer tours to the observatory at the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii to see the powerful telescopes there.

Science fiends would be wise to read up on the ports they're visiting to see if there are science-themed attractions they can visit on their own if organized shore excursions don't go to key attractions.

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