Greatest Animal Migrations to Add to Your Bucket List
When animals embark on epic migrations, they do so based on nothing but primal instinct, following routes developed over millions of years. Witnessing such events is humbling, and even moving.
Imagine hearing the thundering sound of hundreds of wildebeests as they stampede across the savanna. Or watching thousands of butterflies flutter in the sky. Or observing swarms of red crabs as they move from forest to ocean.
Here, we've rounded up these and other spectacular migrations, so you have something truly exceptional to add to your bucket list.
Wildebeest - Kenya and Tanzania
Every spring and summer, more than a million wildebeest make the aptly named Great Migration in East Africa.
During what is arguably one of the most famous animal migrations in the world, herds of wildebeest stretch for miles, their pounding hooves kicking up dust and vibrating the earth beneath them as they search for nutritious grasses and quality water. (A certain tragic scene from “The Lion King” will almost certainly come to mind.)
Wildebeests calve in the early months of the year in southern Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater conservation areas. After the babies grow stronger, they set out on their migration north in the spring, reaching Serengeti National Park in the early summer months. A good chance to see a river crossing is along the Mara River in late summer as herds move into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve.
The extraordinary spectacle also involves zebra, eland, impala and gazelle populations.
When to Go: June and July
How to See: You can take in the scale of the migration by plane or hot-air balloon, but a safari will give you the best vantage point to witness the phenomenon up close. Book a tour with the carbon-neutral travel company Natural Habitat Adventures, which focuses on conservation, small groups and lodges.
Emperor Penguins - Antarctica
As the “March of the Penguins” documentary so memorably portrayed, the long, arduous journey that Emperor penguins take is one of the toughest of all migrations, although these animals are quite capable (albeit a bit clumsy).
Emperor penguins are endemic to Antarctica and are the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species. Every year in April, 200,000 breeding pairs follow a punishingly long path to the inhospitable interior of Antarctica from the edge of the sea to lay eggs on the thick Antarctic ice.
Females lay eggs around June, and the males take over babysitting duties, allowing the mothers to return to the shores to feed and return a month later. As the baby gets bigger, the parents take turns caring for it. By the time the chicks are big enough, it’s the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and the ice breaks up just in time, bringing the shore closer so the family can readily take to the ocean.
When to Go: November and December
How to See: Quark Expeditions offers a 31-day cruise to a remote Emperor penguin rookery on the sea ice of Amanda Bay in East Antarctica.
Atlantic Puffins - Canada
With colorful beaks and penguin-like bodies, these adorable birds are dubbed the “clowns of the sea,” and many make seeing them a bucket-list to-do.
While puffins spend most of their time in the ocean — effectively traveling using wing strokes and webbed feet as they search for small fish — they are also excellent flyers, reaching speeds of up to 55 mph, only coming to land to breed.
In the spring and summer, Atlantic puffins land on North Atlantic coasts and islands to form breeding colonies on rocky cliffs, reuniting with their mates at the same sites each year.
Though 60 percent of the Atlantic population breeds in Iceland, one of the best places to see them up close is on Machias Seal Island in New Brunswick, Canada. Located in the lower Bay of Fundy, this one-mile-long islet with a single lighthouse is filled with about 5,000 pairs of puffins. They come in April to nest and stay until September as they care for their young.
When to Go: April to September
How to See: Every July, Seawatch Tours operates tours to the island six days a week for up to 15 people.
Northern Elephant Seals - California
Northern elephant seals were teetering on the verge of extinction, with just 100 of them left after years of hunting for their blubber in the early 1900s. Today, thanks to dogged conservation efforts, their population has increased to about 150,000, with most of them living off the California coast. These giant earless seals with trunk-like noses spend eight to 10 months a year in the open ocean, swimming as far as Alaska and Hawaii before returning to rookeries twice a year.
Along California’s central coast in San Simeon, up to 17,000 elephant seals gather during peak times at Piedras Blancas rookery in an area stretching six miles. They can be seen sunbathing, squabbling with each other and caring for their young. Males come in December, with females following a few weeks later, forming harems of up to 50 members. The pups stay until March.
When to Go: March and August
How to see: The viewing areas at Piedras Blancas are open daily, free and wheelchair accessible.
Red Crabs - Christmas Island
Christmas Island, located south of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, is a crab mecca — it's home to 14 species of land crabs.
But one crab in particular gets most of the attention: the red crab, a bright, large crustacean that makes an annual migration that's become the stuff of legend. Each year, millions (yes, millions) of red crabs venture from the forest to the ocean to breed. Their migration is so epic, David Attenborough himself — the famous naturalist and "Planet Earth" host — has called capturing it on film one of his all-time greatest TV moments.
When to Go: Dates vary, but the migration usually happens in November or December.
How to See: Head to Christmas Island with your camera in hand, and wait. The crabs can be seen virtually all over the island as they migrate.
Asian Elephants - Sri Lanka
Referred to as “The Gathering,” the highest concentration of wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka’s Minneriya National Park is a must-see for animal lovers.
Sri Lanka is home to some 4,000-5,000 elephants, and hundreds of them travel each year to the shores of an ancient reservoir, built 1,700 years ago in Minneriya National Park. They’ve been gathering there for centuries to bathe in the muddy waters, socialize, mate and feed.
When the water recedes in the dry season (July through October), lush grasses grow, providing a feast for the hungry pachyderms. Be there to witness this magnificent event as the sun sets over the nearby mountains.
When to Go: July through October
How to See: Book an evening guided safari tour at Minneriya National Park.
Caribou - Alaska
These beautiful creatures iconic to the Alaskan landscape are almost always on the move, sometimes traveling more than 3,000 miles in a year. For the Porcupine caribou herd in Alaska, spring migration begins in March and lasts until May.
Pregnant females start the two-month long migration north in search of calving grounds, with bulls following them. After giving birth and nursing their babies, they travel in groups towards northeastern parts of Alaska in the summer.
With autumn setting in, the fuzzy-antlered herds head south, feeding and bulking up in preparation for the winter months. Bulls can be seen rubbing their antlers against the trees or fighting with each other.
When to Go: Spring and Fall
How to See: Herds often congregate along the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Arctic Wild also runs seven-day backpacking and camping trips for small groups along a 35-mile stretch of the Kongakut River valley.
Monarch Butterflies - Mexico
The annual monarch butterfly migration spans more than 2,485 miles as these critters make their way to Mexico every fall and return to Canada and Northeastern United States in the spring. The butterflies make a stopover in southern states like Louisiana and Texas to mate and lay eggs.
The most fascinating thing about the migration? It takes at least four generations to complete the route; the butterflies born in southern United States continue flying north, carrying on the life cycle along the way. Those that end up in Mexico come fall have never been there before.
The largest butterfly congregation happens in Mexico in a small area two hours west of Mexico City, where they roost and feast on oyamel fir trees. Here, they can be seen swarming around and clumped together on branches in astonishing numbers.
When to Go: January to February is when their population is highest.
How to See: The ideal time to see this hibernation is in the early afternoon at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Sandhill Cranes - Nebraska
With their long and elegant necks, slender legs, broad wingspans and iconic red-crown patches, Sandhill cranes are striking beauties.
These native North American birds are also the most abundant of the world's cranes, with a total population of around 650,000. Every March (sometimes sooner), most of them — some 500,000 — gather along the banks of the Platte River in Nebraska to roost at night until the break of dawn. Here, they subsist mainly on corn and small animals in the fields before continuing their pilgrimage up north.
The chorus of their loud, rattling calls can be heard for miles.
When to Go: February to March
How to See: Visitors can stay overnight at cottages at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in Grand Island for sunset and sunrise viewings from heated blinds set along the river. Early morning tours are also available at the Audubon Society Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney.
Gray Whales - Mexico
Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of any species, with only humpback whales sometimes traveling longer distances.
The longest-ever recorded journey was that of a 9-year-old gray whale named Varvara that made a 172-day journey from eastern Russia to Baja California in 2011 and 2012, covering a total distance of 13,987 miles.
Western North Pacific gray whales are critically endangered baleen whales, with only 100 remaining due to whaling, fishing and boating. They migrate between their winter breeding grounds off southern China to their summer feeding grounds in the Sea of Okhotsk.
The Eastern North Pacific gray whale population is significantly more robust: There’s an estimated 20,000 of these whales still around. They spend summers feeding in the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Alaska and Russia. In the winter, they travel south along the west coast of the U.S to Mexico to breed and have their calves.
Some of these whales can be found on the west coast of Baja California in the shallow waters of Magdalena Bay and its surrounding lagoons. Here, the females raise their young and teach them the ways of the ocean before heading back up north beginning in May.
Magdalena Bay allows only local boat tours to go see the gray whales, which are considered “friendly,” as the curious moms come right up to the boats. They even let whale-watchers touch them.
When to Go: December to March
How to See: MAAR Experiences organizes tours to Magdalena Bay that include round-trip transportation from La Paz and 2-3 hours on the boat to watch whales.
Zebras - Botswana
An often overlooked migration that takes place on the African continent is the trek zebras embark on in Botswana. From Chobe River in the northern part of the country to Nxai Pan National Park, the striped beauties traverse 300 miles roundtrip in search of lush grasses and waterholes.
From March to April, they move farther south to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, which has miles upon miles of shimmering salt pans. They end up at Boteti River before making their way back up north in November.
When to Go: March to April
How to See: Natural Selection has lodges along the route offering overnight stays, game drives, bush walks and hot-air-balloon rides.
Magellanic Penguins - Argentina
Magellanic penguins are iconic to South America, gathering in large colonies to breed along the coasts of Chile and Argentina. Standing 30 inches tall, with a white band that runs from their eyebrow area to their chin and small areas of pink flesh next to their eyes, these penguins are among 17-19 species of penguin in the world.
These flightless birds breed during the warmer months of September and March, and take to the Atlantic ocean to swim up north to Brazil in search of warmer climes.
When to Go: November is when the babies are born.
How to See: A perfect place to find them along their migratory route is at Punta Tombo National Reserve on Argentina’s central coast, where more than a million of them come to breed.
Black Necked Cranes - Bhutan
The black necked crane is a medium-sized alpine crane species that resides at high altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau, Bhutan and remote parts of India. These endangered birds leave their southern wintering grounds in late March and migrate to their northern nesting grounds. Each nesting pair lays two eggs, with just one surviving to maturity.
For humans in the region, the cranes are sacred, seen as reincarnations of long-lost ancestors; sightings of them signify longevity, peace and prosperity.
Every year, from late October to February, more than 300 of these endangered cranes flock to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley. The residents gather in November for an annual festival in the courtyard of Gangtey Goenpa Monastery to celebrate this highly anticipated arrival. As they perform cultural activities, the beautiful birds loop over the monastery.
When to Go: November
How to See: Attend the Black Neck crane festival at the Gangtey Goenpa Monastery in the Phobjikha valley.
Humpback Whales - Bermuda
Humpback whales make mammoth migrations, covering up to 6,000 miles, among the farthest of any species on earth. These 40-ton mammals trek to cool waters at the poles in the warmer months, then to warmer waters in the winter to breed and raise their young. Humpbacks in the Northern Hemisphere travel to Hawaii or the Caribbean; those from the Southern Hemisphere go towards eastern Australia.
While Hawaii, Caribbean and eastern Australia are great places to watch nursing whales and babies, one of the best places to experience them on their migratory route is Bermuda. Located in the middle of the Atlantic, the island offers opportunities to watch these acrobatic animals in action, propelling themselves out of the water, slapping their tails and continuing along their journey in pods toward Canada, Greenland and Iceland.
On whale-watching tours, expect to find up to 20 whales on a given day!
When to Go: March and April
How to See: Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo offers whale-watching tours on Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from March 10 to April 30.
Green Sea Turtles - Costa Rica
The beaches of Tortuguero National Park are filled with thousands of endangered green sea turtles, who return every year to the same remote areas they were born in to lay their eggs. Often covering thousands of miles, these turtles opt for warmer waters as the seasons change.
During the nesting seasons from July through October, they dig holes in the sand in the cover of darkness, depositing their eggs before slipping back into the sea, never to see their offspring again. Only a small fraction of the babies survive, succumbing to predators on land and sea.
The green turtle came dangerously close to extinction in the 1960s when female turtles arriving in Tortuguero were stolen and exported for turtle soup. After the establishment of the Tortuguero National Park in 1970, these reptiles became a protected species, and the area became the largest nesting site for green sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere.
When to Go: July to October
How to See: The beaches of Tortuguero National Park are ideal for watching mama turtles, and if you are lucky, you may get a chance to see the spectacular event of newly hatched turtles scuttling across the beach to the sea.