We have given nature presentations on cruise ships for many years and have had the opportunity to visit over 90 countries and at least 200 cruise ports throughout the world.
In this article we’ve highlighted our top picks for the best cruise ports in Australia, NZ and SE Asia for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. Also see our article on the best cruise destinations for wildlife in Africa and Madagascar.
We’ve used four criteria to develop this list:
- We’ve visited these places personally.
- The ports are accessible via mainstream cruise lines.
- These nature and wildlife opportunities are close enough to the port to easily visit in a day.
- We enjoyed ourselves so much that we’d love to go back.
1. Sydney, NSW, Australia
Sydney is gorgeous, safe, and fun city and another one of our favorite wildlife ports. We always try to stay for a week before or after a cruise. For easy day trips you can take a ferry to a great snorkeling spot, take a train or drive to check out the birds in the Blue Mountains, or spend a day strolling through the amazing trees and birds of the Royal Botanic Garden.
If you are lucky your ship will be docked close to Circular Quay, alongside the harbour ferries, the entertaining didgeridoo players, the famous Opera house, and the splendid and free Royal Botanic Garden. The Gardens date back to 1816. They feature 74 acres of amazing plants and informative displays as well as providing a leafy home for hundreds of bird species. A stroll in the gardens and along the coastal walkway can be very rewarding for birders, with species such as splendid fairy wrens, black swans, pelicans, laughing kookaburras, colorful rainbow lorikeets, king parrots, pink galahs, and raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos.
Shelly Beach near Manly
With a ferry ticket you can explore many different quaint spots around the harbor and up the river. Our favorite on a calm sunny day is Manly. The scenic passenger ferry takes about half an hour to cross the big beautiful Sydney harbour. From the ferry dock, we stroll through Manly’s shopping district to the beach, then turn right along the waterfront to calm Shelly Beach which is part of the stunning Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve. Here you can find calm clear water for snorkeling alongside numerous small fish, cuttlefish, friendly blue gropers, and perhaps even sea turtles. You won’t need a wetsuit in the summer, from late November to early March.
This is also the home of the common or weedy sea dragon, a fish that is closely related to Seahorses. This fascinating creature is otherworldly in appearance and looks like a colorful bit of floating seaweed rather than any fish we’ve seen before.
Blue Mountains National Park
Blue Mountains National Park is a World Heritage site famous for fantastic views, stunning lookouts and waterfalls, historic walking tracks, and native birds and animals – all within easy reach of Sydney.
The tourist center for the Blue Mountains is Katoomba, a two and a half-hour train ride from Circular Quay in downtown Sydney. We prefer renting a car and driving for an hour or two, so we have easy access to a variety of trails and accommodation. On one trip we found a Bed and Breakfast for bird lovers, with a comfy bedroom, a delicious full breakfast, colorful parrots on the deck, and lots of help planning our walks!
The blue mountains protect over 1 million ha of exceptional eucalypt forest. Even though you are close to the biggest city in Australia, you have access to the exceptional ecological diversity of one of the largest and most intact tracts of protected bushland in Australia.
There are so many well-maintained pathways that you could walk through splendid bush for days on end. Unfortunately, large areas of the native bushland were burned in the devastating wildfires of 2019-20. It will regenerate eventually, but it may take decades.
In addition to the common rosellas and lorikeets, you might get a chance to see and hear the superb lyrebird. These amazing birds can mimic almost any sound, including musical instruments, chainsaws, dogs, and other birds. We’ve had the good fortune of seeing lyrebirds in their native habitat in the Blue Mountains, and it is one of those experiences we will never forget. See my lyrebird article.
2. Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Cairns & Great Barrier Reef, UNESCO
You won’t want to miss the largest Coral reef in the world, 1,430 mi (2,300 km) long. Home to 1,600 species of fish, 561of coral, 30 of whales and dolphins and 6 marine turtles, plus manta rays, clownfish, potato cod, giant clams and maori wrasse. Over 40% of this huge area of coral is still in good shape, especially on the outer reef, and our tourist dollars can help those working to save the reef.
Scientists are investigating the most resilient species of corals given the threats of rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification. They are finding success with transplanting heat tolerant corals to help the reef survive and adapt to periods of coral bleaching. (See Can we Save our Oceans – Yes!)
Hopefully your ship stays overnight in Cairns or you are given enough time for this spectacular 8 or 9-hour trip. The easiest option will be your ship’s excursion which guarantees making it back in time for sail away! Even if you don’t swim you can enjoy the undersea adventure by taking a semi-submersible to view the reef.
We were on a tight budget when we did our first trip out of Port Douglas but we’re glad we splurged for our trip to the outer Agincourt Reef and the priceless memories we still share. Quick Silver runs professional and well-organized snorkel trips to the outer reef, and TripAdvisor has other recommended options.
Once you are out on the reef you will need to wear colorful Lycra suits that are usually provided to protect you from stingers or jellyfish. These days, we wear full length suits whenever we snorkel in tropical waters because of the increasing likelihood of running into jellyfish.
Box jellyfish living in Queensland waters can be dangerous and even deadly. Read my article to learn more about the tiny but dangerous Irukandji jellyfish and how they actively hunt for prey.
North of Cairns: crocodiles and cassowaries
If you have the time and want to drive in Australia (on the wrong side for most Europeans and North Americans) it is a beautiful scenic drive along the tropical coast from Cairns to Port Douglas. Allow an hour and a half and double-check your departure time if you’re taking a trip to the outer reef.
If you have lots of time to spare, we have a couple of suggestions.
If you have children (or an average male under the age of 110) in your possession, you’ll have an interesting time at the crocodile attraction on the way to Port Douglas. We don’t normally recommend roadside attractions filled with captive creatures, but Hartley Crocodile Adventures fulfills some instinctive male urge to admire giant predators from a safe distance. Must be something about getting to know a potential enemy just in case someone close to us insists on nude sunbathing on the shores of a crocodile pond.
Turns out that Crocodiles Are Smarter than we thought – check out my article How Smart are Crocodiles? Can They Cooperate, Communicate…Use Tools?
In Port Douglas we can recommend Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas. Not a typical ‘zoo,’ this place offers an Australian wildlife experience with a difference. There is a strong conservation emphasis and they care for injured and displaced native wildlife. We enjoyed watching and learning about unusual and rare creatures such as cassowaries and tree kangaroos.
Wow! Watch that kick! You might want to check out why cassowaries are considered the most dangerous birds in the world!
Best time of year to visit
The best time of year to visit Cairns is from June to October for low rainfall, clear waters, better snorkeling, and temperatures in the 60s – 80s (16-27 C). November to March is the monsoon season with tropical cyclones and not the best time to visit. Many of the locals try to leave town during monsoon season.
3. Perth (Fremantle), WA, Australia
Perth offers the opportunity to see many of the loud and colourful species of birds in Australia. In our experience, birding in Australia is exceptionally rewarding because the birds tend to be big, colourful and raucous! As North American birders we’re always amazed at the sensory bounty on offer.
The ideal experience is to have an overnight stop in Fremantle. We hired a car on day one and roamed extensively up into the scenic Perth hills with plenty of Australian wildlife, including kangaroos, wallabies, and black cockatoos! On the morning of day two, we jumped in our car at 5 am and drove to Kings Park for early morning birding and it was fantastic! Even if you find yourself in the port of Fremantle for a one-day visit, a quick shore excursion to Kings Park is still worthwhile.
The Western Australian Botanic Garden in Kings Park has over 3,000 plant species unique to WA. There are beautiful paths and plenty of bushland in the 400-hectare park and a good chance to see birds and to familiarize yourself with the biological diversity on offer.
Did we mention the views? You get sweeping views overlooking the Swan River, Perth city skyline, and the Darling Ranges.
4. Dunedin (Port Chalmers), South Island, NZ
Dunedin and area offer a wildlife bonanza. There are great opportunities to explore a little penguin colony, take a boat tour among the albatross and fur seals, or to visit a native bird sanctuary. On the tip of the famous Otago Peninsula, you can stand at dusk and gasp as albatrosses with 10-foot wingspan soar right past you and your camera on their way home.
Look at the map below and you’ll see that there are more walks and nature spots than you can absorb in one day – or in a week! In this article we’ve provided a small sampling of the best nature and wildlife highlights based on our personal experience.
Where do the Dunedin cruise ships dock?
Port Chalmers, which is 15 minutes north of Dunedin and on a bus route. We’ve visited three times, for two weeks on one trip, and can’t wait to return to see more.
What wildlife can you see near Dunedin?
On the Otago Peninsula you can see yellow-eyed penguin, little blue penguins, seals, sea lions, sea elephants, Stewart Island shags and lots of smaller birds. Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the peninsula Is where you can see the Royal albatross and the boardwalk is free to the public.
Where can you see penguins?
Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula offers close-up views of yellow-eyed penguins and their nests from hides and covered trenches. Penguin Place does an excellent job of protecting the little penguins and their fragile nests. It’s fun to learn about each penguin and details of their lives bringing up their chicks without intruding on their private space. In addition to perfect penguin partnerships, you’ll discover stories of infidelity and wife-swapping!
Best place to see the albatross? Otago peninsula
Taiaroa Head is one of the only places in the world where visitors can get close to these great albatrosses. The colony is tiny, with only 140 individuals, and breeding pairs are carefully protected.
The Royal Albatross Centre is operated by the Otago Peninsula Trust, New Zealand’s first private charitable conservation trust. A proportion of every ticket sold at the centre goes directly towards the fostering and protection of the Northern Royal albatross.
Royal albatross, with their massive three-meter (10 ft) wingspans, are renowned ocean wanderers. They travel vast distances from their breeding grounds to feed, flying tens of thousands of miles per year. They can spend years at sea without touching land. Albatross have a special locking mechanism in their wing joints that makes soaring almost effortless.
Breeding pairs arrive at Taiaroa Head in September. They nest during early November and within the following three weeks an egg is laid – one only per pair, on alternate years. The best time to see them is November to March when the chicks are being fed by one parent and the other is delivering food.
Another opportunity to see the albatross is out on the water. We can highly recommend the friendly and informative Monarch wildlife cruise. When the weather was cool and unsettled on our trip, they provided cozy waterproof jackets. We slowly drifted alongside feeding albatross without bothering them and had excellent photo opportunities. The captain took the boat in close for a great view of NZ fur seals on the rocks and in the water around their breeding rookeries.
Port to Port Tour picks people up at Port Chalmers which is handy.
Best time to visit Dunedin
The highest tourism scores are for January and February when the temperatures range from 65 to 80 F (18 – 27C), albeit with showers! The cool dry season extends from June into October. It may be windy on the water from May to early July.
Orokonui offers one of those exceptional opportunities that New Zealand is becoming famous for: a natural sanctuary surrounded by predator-proof fencing. As you are probably aware, introduced species such as stoats, feral cats, and even cute possums from Australia have decimated the native birds of NZ. This is a land where birds evolved without mammals as natural predators, so the pest-free sanctuaries are an important part of the NZ strategy to exclude predators from larger and larger areas throughout the nation.
We were amazed to be able to sit and watch rare and endangered birds such as the Kaka parrot! This group of parrots split off from the other parrots around 100 million years ago and retain unusual, primitive features lost in most other species. We spent many wonderful minutes watching and photographing the antics of these intelligent and vocal birds, with their harsh ka-aa calls and whistling sounds.
Orokonui is located only ten minutes’ drive from the port, so it is easily accessible by taxi or rental car. It may be on offer as a shore excursion and would be worth the price for nature nuts like us. The walks through the sanctuary offer a terrific chance to stretch the legs while absorbing the sights and sounds of protected native bushland in New Zealand. A wonderful experience!
5. Tauranga/ Mt Maunganui, North Island, NZ
We must stop saying this, but Tauranga is one of our favourite ports in the world! The scenery is amazing! You can spend the entire day walking through town, along the beautiful coastline, and on up to the very top of Mount Maunganui. This volcanic cone is 232 metres tall and officially known by its Māori name Mauao. Many Kiwis refer to it as The Mount.
Mauao is very popular with hikers and over one million people per year visit the paths around the base and up to the summit. We have enjoyed these walks several times and the views from the top continue to stay with us for years afterwards.
Tauranga Harbour provides the largest estuarine habitat in the Bay of Plenty and is home to many bird species. Notable birds include three common migrant wading birds; bar-tailed godwits, ruddy turnstones, and red knots. All three of these birds nest in Siberia and Alaska, and travel 6,000 km all the way across the Pacific to New Zealand every year. Hard to believe when you consider how long it would take to travel the same route by ship!
Cape Kidnappers gannet colony
One of our favourite excursions from this port is Cape Kidnappers gannet colony. The Australasian gannet is one of three species of gannet in the booby family (see my article why blue-footed boobies need blue feet). They are usually found in large colonies on offshore island around New Zealand and southern Australia.
At Cape Kidnappers there are roughly 6,500 pairs, which makes it the largest and most accessible mainland colony in the world. And perhaps the smelliest from our experience!! The best viewing of nesting gannets is at the Plateau colony which is on private land. The beach access is unreliable – if you plan to hike in, check the Dept of Conservation website for the latest status. If the beach access is closed, you’ll need to use a commercial tour operator running daily tours through the private farm.
You can find reliable commercial operators online if you don’t mind booking ahead. The tour is also offered as a shore excursion directly from the ship and worth the expense if this is your best opportunity to get close to a colony of nesting gannets. It is a great trip in our experience, with lots of information and photo opportunities galore!
6. Wellington, North Island, NZ
Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, is another large city and you may be wondering why it appears on our list of nature-oriented ports. If you’ve read the section on Dunedin, we mention the predator-free Orokonui Ecoreserve on the South Island. Wellington has a similar sanctuary formerly known as the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary and now called Zealandia. This was the first urban ecosanctuary in New Zealand completely protected by predator-proof fencing.
Zealandia provides an excellent opportunity to see the biodiversity of 225 ha of native forest being restored. You can easily access Zealandia from the port by renting a car or taking a taxi.
Over forty different species of native birds have been recorded in Zealandia, including some rare species that you won’t see outside of these fenced areas. Birds include the saddleback, one of the great conservation success stories of NZ. This is also home to New Zealand’s second largest population of little spotted kiwi and the only wild population on the mainland.
We can highly recommend this as a great place to relax and absorb the sights and sounds of plentiful forest and wetland birds and insects.
One creature that you may not have on your bucket list is the weta. In case you’re wondering Zealandia is a good place to see these giant flightless crickets! There are about 70 species of weta and the largest ones can weigh more than a sparrow. Preyed upon by introduced mammals, some species are critically endangered.
Another interesting creature that you might get to see is the Tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus. These amazing creatures are not lizards and can live for 100 years. They are well known for having a “third eye” – not a functioning eye, but a spot that is sensitive to light. This is the only surviving member of an order of reptiles that thrived during the age of dinosaurs. Tuatara were once found throughout NZ but are rare today. In Wellington, they are only found in places where predators are intensively controlled such as Zealandia.
A group of volunteers called Predator Free Wellington wants to make Wellington the first predator free capital city in the world. The aim is to bring back native wildlife and a dawn chorus that New Zealand was once renowned for.
In case of a terrible rainy day, one of the best museums for natural history that we’ve visited anywhere in the world is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington (Te Papa).
7. Komodo Island, Indonesia
Komodo island isn’t in Australia, but it is close enough, and we absolutely must include it in this article!
Komodo island is the closest thing to visiting a real lost world filled with giant reptiles fighting for dominance. When you hop aboard the tender you are transported from your cruise ship to a mystical island of living Komodo dragons. These dragons are the stuff of legend; they are the largest monitor lizards in the world, growing to 3 metres (10 ft) in length and weighing up to 70 kilograms (150 lb).
And yes, you can walk among them! (But first you might want to read my article about why grabbing a dragon by the tail is best left to professionals!)
The most common way of getting to Komodo Island is via cruise ship and you’ll have to take a ship’s excursion to go ashore. If you are keen to see the giant lizards, it is well worth taking the hour and a half to two-hour tour guided by National Park rangers. You’ll receive an introduction to the tour, learn about the lizards, and you’ll be given a strict set of instructions on the dos and don’ts of walking with living dragons. DO NOT run, do not get too close, do not make unnecessary noise, do not make sudden movements, stay close together… you get the picture. I mean, you should get some great photos!
The rangers carry long forked sticks to keep the predatory lizards away from the tourists, but personally I was surprised to see how freely we moved among the creatures. Based on their reputation, I had expected a barrier between me and the dragons. There was no such thing. Please keep this in mind before you book this excursion. Komodo lizards are not pets, they are unpredictable wild animals.
I haven’t found any records of tourists being injured on one of the ranger-led National Park tours. There is a report of a tourist being badly bitten by a Komodo dragon when he didn’t follow instructions and went outside of the area patrolled by the rangers.
If you stay with the rangers and follow their instructions, you should be fine. This is an experience to remember and one for any nature-lover’s – or should I say lizard-lover’s – bucket list!
After the walk, you’ll have time to browse through the souvenir stalls run by the villagers. This is a big source of income for the locals and a hand carved wooden Komodo dragon makes a fantastic souvenir. I’ve seen a passenger carrying a three-foot long wooden dragon back to his cabin! Not sure how he fit that in his luggage, it must have weighed 30 lbs!
Komodo island also features excellent snorkeling on one of the best coral reefs in Indonesia. Don’t forget that Komodo dragons are good swimmers!
Check out our other articles on some of the great cruise ports in the world for nature-lovers and wildlife enthusiasts!
We’ve used four criteria in selecting our top picks for these articles:
- We’ve visited each of these ports and have given our top picks based on personal experience.
- We’ve highlighted ports that are accessible via mainstream cruise lines, rather than specialty expedition cruise ships.
- We’ve chosen ports with nature and wildlife opportunities that are close enough to easily visit in a day, since port visits are usually about 5 to 10 hours. This means that the return access times by car, bus, or taxi must allow time for a meaningful experience. Personally, we are more interested in seeing wildlife and exploring nature than we are in eating lunch for two hours. Although it is nice if lunch is included.
- The nature and wildlife opportunities and the scenery at these ports are all outstanding and worthy of providing lifelong memories. We’ve chosen ports that we would enjoy going back to at any time because of the great memories and photos we’ve acquired during past visits.