10+ incredible animal encounters to inspire you to travel
One of the best things about traveling is of course being exposed to new people and new cultures. But how about new animals and wildlife? I and so many others are inspired by the incredible wildlife abroad to seek out new destinations and experiences on my travels. Together with my fellow travel bloggers, we’ve put together a list of amazing animal encounters to inspire your next travels.
Swimming with turtles in Oahu, Hawaii
Visiting American Bison in Montana
Once upon a time, the American West was the land where the bison freely roamed in enormous numbers. They were a staple part of life for the Blackfeet Indians; bison provided food, clothing, shelter. The near-extinction of these animals drastically changed the way of life for the thousands of people who depended on them. But today, after years of careful cultivation and education, the bison are returning home.
I had the opportunity to spend a summer on one of the bison ranches located on the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana. Each week, we’d take our trusty steed, the old Ford farm pickup, and drive all over the land until we found the bison. Then we’d drive into the heart of the herd and toss out special bison treats from the bed of the truck. It never took long for the animals to come right up to the truck and try to take the snacks right out of our hands.
Most people won’t get to live on a bison ranch. But the Blackfeet have a public herd descendant from the bison that last lived there in the 1800s that any visitor can see. Off of Highway 2, between East Glacier and Browning, is a “Buffalo Viewing Area.” There are never crowds of people there, and the bison are usually close by. It’s the perfect place to go to see these majestic creatures roaming their homeland.
Visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo
A visit to Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo is a bit of a bucket list trip for most people. Close to the town of Sandakan in the far north, Sepilok is world-renowned for good reason. Working primarily with the endangered orangutan, which is endemic to Borneo and found only on this island and Sumatra in Indonesia, they do incredible work rescuing mainly young orangutans. The babies are looked after in the nursery where they are hand-reared and taught how to swing from branches and feed themselves; once they reach adulthood, they are released back into the jungle. Some will never return, but many choose to come back regularly to take advantage of the free food laid out for them each day.
Visitors don’t have access to the very young and vulnerable babies, but can watch the slightly older “children” from behind glass as they play on their (very literal) jungle gym. The highlight, however, is the twice-daily feedings of the adult orangutans. A raised walkway takes visitors to a viewing platform with a clear view of the feeding area; it is great fun to watch the orangutans swing their way down ropes to take the food, often performing for their audience once they’ve had their fill.
There is affordable accommodation close to the Centre, which is also home to sun bears. Short trips are available to visit proboscis monkeys at a nearby sanctuary. Sepilok is a relatively inexpensive long weekend visit from Kuala Lumpur, and more than worth the effort!
Swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Mozambique
Tofo Beach, in Mozambique, has one of the largest whale shark population in the world. We didn’t know about this until arriving over there, during our Central and East Africa trip, let alone knowing we can actually swim with them.
Lucky us, we were there with a couple of biologists friends who were also professional divers. They convinced us to go to an Ocean Safari with them to try seeing the gigantic “vegetarian” shark.
We were really excited and apprehensive. Regardless of payment – U$ 50 -, there is no guarantee one will see a whale shark. In fact, we heard from other travellers who had been on the trip before us, that they were unlucky.
After three hours sailing in deep-sea, seeing many humpback whales, dolphins and turtles, there was no sight of the whale shark. Just before giving up, we spotted a large dark shadow on the water, at last. We were really impressed with that perfect seven meters shadow next to our boat, and even more impressed to hear the captain: “Right, jump in!”. We were like, “Whaaaat? With that thing over there?”
As everyone else jumped, so did we. It was one of the most spectacular moments of our lives. Swimming freely with that giant of the seas, completely immersed in their world, getting real close to it and letting him dictate the rhythm and rules, was a touching experience. To be able to interact with such a rare animal in its natural environment and, most of all, freely, definitely opened our eyes to many issues related to animal conservation.
Encounter with a rescued baby kangaroo in Australia
Seeing a kangaroo is on everyone’s Australia Bucket List. But what about feeding a rescued baby kangaroo? That easily goes to the top of my favourite animal encounter memories.
The best part is that I had no expectation when it happened. We booked at the last-minute an Airbnb stay at a Queensland farm. They did mention that there were many animals around the farm. But I was surprised when we came back after our hike and our host met us with this cute baby wallaby in a poach in her arms. They did not only take care of their farm animals, but they also had many young rescued animals staying on their property. They release them in the wild when they’re ready, but some grown-ups would always come back.
I don’t like visiting zoos as I find it sad to keep animals in captivity and I always favour rescued centres or experiences in the wild. It’s a lot more rewarding when you know that your money contributes to a great cause and that the animals are genuinely being taken care of – with no profit in mind.
Snorkeling with turtles in Barbados
Like many of you I’ve dreamt of seeing turtles in the wild for years, I don’t know what it is about them as they aren’t fluffy and cuddly but they’re just so cute in their own way! On my recent travels to Barbados I was lucky enough to spot turtles swimming around Carlisle Bay whilst we were out stand up paddle boarding – and we soon jumped off our boards to snorkel with these amazing creatures. There are lots of boats that offer tours to swim with the turtles and will take food in the water to attract them, in my opinion the groups in the water were too large and although the staff would clearly ask people not to inevitably there was at least one person who would chase after the poor turtle(s). However due to these boat trips visiting Carlisle Bay regularly and feeding the turtles they tend to hang around here.
Grab your snorkel and swim or paddleboard out into the bay in the afternoon so as to avoid majority of the boats and you should be able to spot some of the turtles either having a snooze on the sandy bottom or mooching around looking for leftover food. There are also some purpose-built wrecks around the bay to see, meaning that even if you don’t manage to spot a turtle you’ll still have a great time exploring the corals and marine life that now inhabit these old boats.
Swimming with dolphins in New Zealand
I could barely sleep the night before, tossing and turning in bed. It was probably the most excited I’d ever been. The next morning, I was going to have one of the best experiences in my life–I was to swim with dolphins in the open sea!
I jumped out of bed when the tiniest slither of light peaked across the horizon, full of excitement and anticipation. By 7am, I was at the Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura office, waiting to get suited up and briefed on what to expect out in the water.
We were taken out into the ocean by boat, and once the captain spotted dolphins, we jumped into the water and the rest was history.
There were dolphins everywhere, and they were playfully swimming around us. Our instructor told us to make as much noise as possible in the water by humming and playing with the zippers on our wetsuit, as this would attract the dolphins.
The feeling was so surreal, swimming out in the open water with one of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom. I don’t think I stopped smiling for the full duration I was underwater.
This was hands down one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, thanks to Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura who were extremely professional. If you’d like to also have one of the best experiences money can buy, visit Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura’s website for more information.
Visiting Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka hosts a number of large national parks, with an array of avi, fauna, and flora. Yala National Park being one the most popular of places to visit. Bird lovers can view many 100s of different species, elephant lovers get the opportunity to see these beautiful pachyderm in the wild. What you are trying to feast your eyes upon are the illusive leopards, the sloth bear and the wild buffalo, and the best way to seek these out, are on a safari in Yala.
We headed out early in the morning on a jeep, with a driver and a tracker. The morning mainly consisted of seeing many species of bird, crocodile, elephants, and many more animals. By the afternoon, we were still searching for the illusive leopard. The tracker did well and eventually we captured images of the leopard just as it walked out from the bushes with pride. The beauty of this fierce animal in front of us.
We travelled as group, so stayed in a bungalow near to Yala, however many travellers visit Yala on a day trip. The best way to organise a safari would be through your accommodation in Tissa and be prepared to be in a jeep all day, so take lunch.
Although Africa has its famous ‘big five’ animals to see on safari, Sri Lanka is not far behind with ‘big four’ in their national parks!
Snorkeling with Salmon in Canada
I love wildlife and have been lucky to view wildlife on all 7 continents, but the craziest wildlife encounter I ever had was snorkeling with salmon in the Campbell River of Vancouver Island, BC. Destiny River Adventures runs this unique rafting and snorkeling trip each July to September. They provided a very tight wet suit and ride in an old school bus to the river. After a short paddle and an option to jump off a rock to get wet in the cold river, you get the first chance to swim with pink salmon. After another raft ride down mild rapids, you jump in the water again for about 45 minutes. During this swim you’re shooting down the rapids as chinook salmon dart by. These mature salmon are amazingly large and fast. It’s impossible to swim down this fast-moving river – you really need to “go with the flow.” If you’re lucky, you might spot something other than fish. On my trip, I spotted something large and black on the left bank of the river. I raised my head and realized there was a black bear fishing for salmon on the river bank! Later in the swim, as I approached the estuary of the river and the sea, a friendly seal swam by. He was too fast to follow but it was a cool experience and a great end to an exciting ride on the Campbell River.
Orca Spotting in Iceland
Iceland is known for its beautiful landscape and nature, but did you know it has incredible wildlife as well? The coast of Iceland is teeming with whales, there are around 20 different types of whale species in Iceland’s waters, including humpback whales, sperm whales and orcas.
While on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in north Western Iceland, I went on an incredible whale watching tour where we had the opportunity to see 7 of these species. My goal that day was to see orcas. I’d been lucky enough to see humpbacks on a whale watching trip in Maui already, which was incredible itself, but I really wanted a chance to see orcas in the wild.
We booked a tour with Laki Tours, which I strongly recommend doing on your trip to Iceland. We were lucky enough to see 7 orcas in total which completely blew my mind, and the team and Laki Tours did a great job educating us about the whales. On your tour you’ll be outfitted with a very warm suit that covers your whole body (even in summer!) to keep your warm on the very cold seas. Whale watching season in Olafsvik (where we departed from), lasts from March – September. If you plan on visiting Iceland, definitely try to spot some orcas!
Seeing Snow Monkeys in Japan
One of my best animal encounters was seeing the snow monkeys in Japan. The snow monkeys are Japanese macaques native to northern Japan and famous for their reddish/pink faces and for soaking in hot springs. I was able to see a large group of snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park where they come down from the mountains to play, hang out, groom and cuddle each other and relax in hot springs just inches away from humans. With a name like snow monkey park one could assume that this isn’t an ethical animal encounter. On the contrary, the snow monkeys are in their natural habitat and free to roam as they please. The park also has very strict rules about visitors not being allowed to feed or touch the monkeys.
Jigokudani is located about an hour from Nagano and three hours from Tokyo by public transportation so you can stay in the area or just visit on a day trip. If traveling from Tokyo, the fastest way to reach the snow monkeys is to take the bullet train to Nagano and then transfer to either a local train or bus. While the park is open every day year round, winter is the best time to see these cute monkeys as everything is covered in snow making them true “snow monkeys”.
Swimming with manta rays in the Maldives
Did this post inspire your travels? Let us know in the comments below!
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.