Did you know you can swim with whales around Tonga or watch wild horses gallop on the beach in Maryland? Just look beyond zoos to find plenty of opportunities to encounter animals up-close in nature.
Seeing animals in the wild, living out their lives in their natural habitat and interacting with each other, elevates your experience from “just another day at the zoo” to a unique adventure you may never forget. Here we highlight 10 incredible opportunities to encounter wildlife that will no doubt leave any animal lover in awe.
Wild Animals in Australia
Kangaroo Island may sound like a kitschy name, but it’s an incredible destination that’s well worth the flight to the other side of the earth. Around the island, you can spot wild kangaroos, wallabies, penguins, sea lions, koalas and more. As a bonus, the island is home to incredible rock formations, pristine beaches and the Little Sahara sand dunes.
Puffins in Iceland
One of the best places to see puffins in Iceland is at Látrabjarg Cliffs in the Westfjords, officially the westernmost point in Iceland (and therefore Europe). These small birds build nests and perch themselves on the edge of the cliffs, which makes for a striking picture with the drop-off in the background.
Manta Rays in Hawaii
Just off the shore of Kona, on the big island of Hawaii, there are special spots where you can watch manta rays dine on plankton at night. Although you can spot the rays from the shore, you’ll need to join a snorkel group to get the best view. Tour guides shine powerful lights into the water to attract plankton, and then snorkelers just float as manta rays do somersaults right below them to scoop up the small microorganisms.
Wild Horses in Maryland
There are few places to see wild horses, and the barrier island of Assateague is one of those special destinations. Visitors can watch them graze on land and trot along the shoreline. These strong and beautiful horses are thought to be descendants of once-domesticated horses brought to the island in the 17th century.
Jaguars in Brazil
Located mostly in Brazil, the Pantanal tropical wetlands are the largest wetlands in the world. This is where you go to see jaguars in the wild. Join a safari group for the best chance of seeing these big cats, as they like to hang out on the riverbank to drink water and stalk their prey: caiman and capybara, among others. That makes boating safaris the optimal choice, both in terms of seeing jaguars and remaining safe from their grasp.
Gorillas in Uganda
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Despite the forest’s name, you can enter with a guide to search for gorillas. Lucky trekkers will come across a handful of gorillas during a day’s journey, having the opportunity to view them up-close and watch as they do activities like eat, groom and even interact with each other.
Great White Sharks in South Africa
Off the coast of Gansbaai in South Africa is a dense population of great whites. There are a number of trusted companies in the area that take groups cage diving, allowing you to watch and photograph the sharks below the water’s surface. As frightening as these creatures may seem, you may feel differently once you’re up-close. Their powerful body and movements are mesmerizing!
Wild Animals in South Africa
At the Groenkloof Nature Reserve in South Africa, you can opt to rent a bike for the day and cycle through the reserve. Along the way, you’ll come across giraffes, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, ostriches and more. Don’t worry – there are no lions or man-eating carnivores here. Since you have the freedom to devise your own route, you can actually get pretty close to the animals.
Humpback Whales in Tonga
Each year from about July through October, humpback whales return to the warm waters surrounding Tonga’s islands to breed and give birth. At this popular whale-watching destination, you can do more than just observe whales from the shore or on boat. Licensed tour companies can take you into the waters of the South Pacific Ocean to actually swim with whales on multi-day trips!
Komodo Dragons in Indonesia
Komodo dragons, the largest lizards on earth and can only be found in Indonesia. The biggest are said to live on the island of Komodo. With a guide, you can travel to the island and get an up-close encounter with these carnivorous lizards. While there, you may be able to see them walk, swim, eat (they can consume 80% of their body weight in one sitting!) or fight with other Komodo dragons.