The Most Extraordinary Wildlife Experiences in the World
There’s something truly special about witnessing the incredible animals of Planet Earth in their natural habitat. Opportunities to view, learn about and interact with them will deliver every sensation, from an adrenaline rush to a humbling revelation.
While it’s always an enriching experience to be around wildlife, the most important thing to keep in mind is to do so responsibly. Admire from afar, never initiate an interaction and ensure your tourism dollars are going towards the protection and conservation of these beautiful creatures. From the cute and cuddly to the fierce and ferocious, here are our recommendations for extraordinary wildlife experiences to have before you die.
Immerse Yourself in the Biodiversity of the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage site situated 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, is one of the most coveted destinations in the world for wildlife lovers. While it’s not easy nor cheap to reach, this destination is teeming with unique wildlife not found anywhere else in the world.
Serving as the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution, the 15 species of Darwin’s finches are a living, breathing example of how wildlife has adapted to its surroundings over time. Other animals to witness are the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, fur seals, Galapagos sharks and marine iguanas.
Go Gorilla Trekking
Despite being one of the most powerful creatures in the world, mountain gorillas — found in the ranges of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — are quite accustomed to the daily trekking tourists that visit them in their natural habitat, so are not instinctively threatening to humans. They share 98 percent of our DNA, and it’s fascinating to watch their intentional gaze and humanlike movements as they move about the thick jungle.
While gorilla trekking, it is compulsory to let the gorillas control the interaction, but these gentle giants can get quite close during the visit — so have your camera ready!
Spot the Wildlife of the Amazon
The largest tropical rainforest in the world, the Amazon Jungle is home to approximately 10 million species of animals, plants and insects. Known as the “Lungs of the Earth” for the vital role it plays in our oxygen supply, the Amazon spans the countries of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
The Amazon is home to jaguars, anacondas, caimans, sloths, pink and grey dolphins, macaws, piranhas and poison dart frogs, to name a few. Oh, and mosquitos — lots and lots of mosquitos.
Night Snorkel or Dive With Manta Rays
Manta rays are one of the most mesmerizing animals on Earth, with wingspans of up to 16 feet that glide gracefully through the deep blue. While they are not dangerous, it is important to let them control any encounter as they are quite skittish if feeling threatened.
You can dive with manta rays in places such as the Galapagos Islands, Maldives and Indonesia, but one of the most intimate experiences to have with these giant creatures can be found off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. Jump into the water at sunset for a snorkel or a dive, and witness dozens of manta rays congregate to feed off the plankton. They will provide an unforgettable show, diving near and far, doing barrel rolls, and even coming so close they may touch you.
See the Endemic Animals of Borneo and Sumatra
While many travelers flock to Southeast Asia for a beach-filled paradise, wildlife lovers would never want to leave the islands of Borneo or Sumatra off their itineraries. Politically divided among the three countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, the two islands are the only places on earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants live together on the same landmass.
Hop on a river safari to take in the stunning rainforest-covered landscape, and keep an eye out for fascinating creatures such as the proboscis monkey (identified by its giant nose — you can’t miss it). We promise you will leave wanting to channel your inner spirit animal.
Go Bear Watching in North America
The U.S. and Canada are teeming with wildlife such as whales, seals, beavers and bald eagles, and some of the most fascinating animals to be seen here are bears: black bears, grizzly bears or even spirit bears.
If road-tripping through the Rockies or Yellowstone National Park, direct your eyes out the window to spot the powerful creatures roaming in the wild. To increase your likelihood of seeing the deceivingly cuddly-looking animals, join a guided bear-watching tour; there are bear lodges and safari operators throughout these parts of North America. Hop on a zodiac and watch for bears fishing for salmon along the river, or keep your eyes peeled for them picking berries from a bush. Just make sure you’re visiting between the months of April to September because bears hibernate during the winter.
Safari With the Big Five in Africa
A safari, or game drive, in Africa is one of the most iconic experiences you can have — there’s something extremely special about being on the untouched lands of Africa watching animals you’ve only seen before in “The Lion King.”
Every safari-goer comes prepped with a checklist to view the Big Five, the term referring to the most coveted animals for big-game hunters in the past, but now outlining the iconic must-see animals of everyone on safari. The animals are the robust cape buffalo, shy and mysterious rhino, elegant elephant, elusive leopard and the king of Pride Rock: the lion.
Go Scuba Diving Among Hundreds of Fish
Yes, this is an activity that takes some serious preparation, but it’s definitely worth it. If you’re looking for a new hobby that you can do all around the world and see amazing wildlife while you’re at it, scuba diving is it. Get your certification through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors or Scuba Schools International, and be one with the world’s best marine life as you breathe effortlessly underwater. It’s a calming and fascinating activity that can bring you face-to-face with sharks, turtles, seals and hundreds of fish.
Amazing spots for diving are Sipadan in Malaysia, Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, Belize’s Lighthouse Reef, Cozumel in Mexico, the Maldives or various islands throughout French Polynesia.
Watch a Sloth Move Slooooowly Through the Trees
Resist the urge to cuddle (we know it’s hard) because, despite what you may have seen in photos, research has shown that these slow-moving, smiling creatures experience stress when handled by humans.
Sloths are best admired from afar in tropical forests in Central or South America, including hotspots like Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio Forest or various areas in the Amazon Rainforest. Just keep your eyes skywards for some fur and a smile hanging from the branches!
Take a Selfie With the World’s Happiest Animal
Native to Western Australia, quokkas are dying for a feature on your Instagram page. These smiling marsupials have been dubbed the “World’s Happiest Animal” because of their cheeky little grins, and tourists love to take photos with them when visiting their primary home of Rottnest Island.
There are more than 10,000 quokkas on the 7-mile-long island, so getting a photo isn’t difficult. Just remember that feeding them is strictly prohibited, and they are still wild and may get aggressive if threatened.
Visit the 'Polar Bear Capital of the World'
These beautiful white bears reside in icy areas around the North Pole, and you may be lucky to spot them on an Arctic expedition. But if you really want to increase your chances, visit the tiny town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, where approximately 1,000 polar bears migrate from July to November. It’s known as the "Polar Bear Capital of the World!"
Join a tundra vehicle tour, and keep your eyes peeled for white fur amongst the white ice. To round out your wildlife experience, the local river is also a great place to spot beluga whales from July to September.
Go on a Walking Safari
A safari is a staple on the bucket lists of pretty much every wildlife lover, but a walking safari takes things to the next level: ground level. If you are looking to feel connected with the landscapes and animals of Africa, there’s no experience more intimate than this. Set off on foot as you track big game animals, retrace their footsteps and feel them rumble the ground beneath you. You may sleep under the stars, in a tent or at a camp, all right in the midst of the animals’ natural habitat.
As with all wildlife experiences, walking safaris present their own risks, but your guide will be very highly qualified and ensure you are not put in the face of danger. Safari operators throughout Africa offer walking tours — for instance, Discover Africa offers tours in 12 countries.
Swim With Whale Sharks
It may seem against human nature to swim with a creature that can grow up to 40-feet long, especially one that has “shark” in its name, but whale sharks are actually harmless and only feed off of small animals such as shrimp, fish and plankton. They are actually the world’s largest fish. So, don’t be frightened when their 4-foot-wide mouth comes swimming in your direction!
Wildlife lovers travel to places such as Holbox in Mexico, Tofo Beach in Mozambique or Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia to share a peaceful swim with these gentle, spotted giants.
Release Baby Turtles to Sea
There are conservation centers around the world — including ones in Florida, Texas and Mexico — that release baby turtles out into the sea, and if you get the opportunity, it’s a show that is definitely worth watching.
This is a survival-of-the-fittest moment in action as the number of hatchlings can be in the hundreds, and they scurry towards the sounds of the waves to take on the odds. Only one in a thousand turtles survive to adulthood and will come to lay eggs on the same beach. The rest will be lost to pollution, fishing, predators and other challenges.
Explore Untouched Wilderness in Antarctica
Antarctica: the final continent that so many of us globetrotters are itching to cross off our list. Arriving here will set you back a pretty penny, but the magnitude of this polar paradise will surely leave you in awe.
Bundle up and have your camera at hand because the adventures in Antarctica are waiting to be discovered. This is a land of pure untouched wild, hosting animals such as seals, whales, albatrosses and several penguin species, including the coveted emperor penguin. This is the largest penguin species measuring about 4-feet tall and is endemic to the region.
Cycle Through the Place That Inspired ‘The Lion King’
Located just outside Lake Naivasha in Kenya, Hell’s Gate National Park is said to have inspired the setting for “The Lion King.” It’s one of the only national parks where you can actually go on a bicycle safari due to the lack of predators like lions or leopards.
Take in the inspiration for the movie's Pride Rock and the gorge that hosted the stampede scene, and cycle through the beautiful plains that are home to zebras, giraffes, antelope and warthogs that may have the same vocals as Pumbaa.
Wake Up With Elephants in Thailand
Want a wildlife experience that also allows you to support human and animal rights? When you stay at Chai Lai Orchid River Eco Lodge in Thailand, you will be greeted with some unusual visitors during your morning coffee. The hotel is a sanctuary for rescued elephants, and they will come right up to your bungalow to say hello. It’s the best way to start a day!
The resort also employs and empowers young women who have been rescued from trafficking, so you can be sure that your money is going to an amazing cause all around.
See Lemurs in Madagascar
A member of the primate family along with monkeys, apes and humans, lemurs are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. Wildlife lovers must put seeing them on their bucket lists due to their highly entertaining behaviors and the diversely evolved range of their subspecies.
There are just over 100 species of lemurs in the world, and they are all endemic to the southeast African island of Madagascar. The island’s geographic isolation and highly seasonal climate mean that lemurs have claimed and adapted to their own specific niches of the island.
Marvel at a Sperm Whale
Sperm whales are fascinating creatures. They are the largest toothed predator, measuring up to a whopping 65 feet and weighing 50 tons (roughly 100,000 pounds). They are the loudest animals on Earth, with their clicks translating up to 35 miles away. They can dive down almost 2 miles, where their body will tap into its oxygen reserves in its muscles and blood in order to preserve its lungs.
The whales can be found throughout deep waters in their natural habitat, but some areas such as Mauritius and Dominica actually offer the opportunity to free dive with the giant creatures. Now that is one for the adrenaline junkies!
Hear the Screeching Roar of Howler Monkeys
If you’re questioning whether you’ve heard howler monkeys, let us break it to you — you haven’t. You would know.
Though not large in size, these monkeys found in the jungles of tropical Central and South America have a screech so loud you can hear it echo 3 miles across the jungle. You will feel like you’re in a scene from “Jurassic Park.” But don’t worry, as intimidating as they sound, howler monkeys are harmless unless provoked and will typically just watch from afar.
Witness the Great Wildebeest Migration
One of nature’s greatest shows is the annual migration of more than 1.5 million wildebeest between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. It’s the largest overland migration in the world, and it gives off unbridled energy that just needs to be experienced to be believed.
Leaving Tanzania around March and Kenya around November, these animals follow the rains as they are accompanied by some 20,000 plains animals such as zebra and antelope. It is a spectacular sighting to witness these powerful creatures stampede through the grounds, across rivers, over hills, all the while dodging predators — or at least attempting to, as approximately 250,000 will die along the journey. View this incredible spectacle from a safari vehicle or from the sky in a hot-air balloon safari. It’s certainly a bucket list experience you won’t forget.
Snap a Photo of a Smiling Alpaca
Found in the Andean mountains of Peru and Bolivia, alpacas are the llama’s adorable cousin, and their happy, fluffy faces definitely deserve an appearance on your Instagram feed.
You can find them acting as photo attractions in tourist centers like Cusco and La Paz, or keep an eye out on the side of the road as you are cruising through the spectacular mountainous countryside. Just make sure if you are coming up close for a photo, that you are doing so respectfully and not supporting any mistreatment of these cuddly creatures.
Snorkel With the Spunky Cape Fur Seals
Found in Southern Africa, these underwater acrobats, known as “the dogs of the ocean,” are playful and curious. They can be found in various seas around Cape Town, South Africa, and you can take a snorkel tour to visit them with Animal Ocean, which will take you to their colony just outside of Hout Bay.
Get your GoPro ready for when their whiskered little faces come darting towards you amongst the kelp forests. Word to the wise: Hold your nose because they do give off an odor!
Visit the Macropods of Australia
If you love wildlife, you won’t be able to think of Australia without picturing its signature marsupials such as kangaroos, koalas, wombats and wallabies. “Macropod” is a classification given to these pouched mammals that live in Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.
Many of these animals carry their babies (known as “joeys”) in their pouch until they are ready to venture out into the world, and the joeys still use their pouch for feeding and sleeping. As for where to spot these animals, look for kangaroos on North Stradbroke Island, koalas in Cleland Wildlife Park and wombats on Tasmania’s Maria Island.
See a Real-Life Dragon
If seeing a real-life dragon is on your bucket list, head over to Komodo National Park in Indonesia. The largest lizard on the planet, Komodo dragons are only found on Komodo and Rinca islands in this pristine region renowned for its scuba diving and island hopping.
While documentaries like “Planet Earth” have shown these lizards fighting to the death, they are typically quite docile — until it’s time to feast. Humans are prohibited from getting too close, as their venom is poisonous and will kill a victim within four to five days of entering a bloodstream if not treated.
Go Chimpanzee Trekking
If you want to go see a hairier, more rambunctious version of yourself, go chimpanzee trekking. These great apes are the closest relatives to humans, sharing 98.6 percent of our DNA. And seeing them in real life will exhibit a display of similarities, from their mannerisms and behaviors to their physical composition.
They’re savvy creatures with the ability to use sticks or rocks as tools, play and show emotion, and if you can get close enough, you will notice they have a very similar appearance to us humans. Find these playful creatures in the treetops of forests like Kibale National Park in Uganda and Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania.
See a Manatee
Some creatures are so ugly that they’re cute, and these “sea cows” are so bizarre-looking that they’re endearing. Manatees look like floating Michelin Men with round snouts and paddle tails. The slow-moving, peaceful giants are grayish-brown or white in color and have wrinkly necks with whiskers poking out of their chubby cheeks.
They are extremely docile but also quite inquisitive, so they may come up to check out any humans joining them in the water. Notable areas to spot manatees are the springs of Florida, seas of Belize and even the Amazon River.
Go Shark Cage Diving in South Africa
Although the great white shark is one of the most deadly predators on the planet, its numbers have been dwindling due to orca whales on the hunt. But there are still opportunities to come face-to-face with this beautiful, powerful, gigantic shark — especially during prime season from April to September.
Organizations like White Shark Projects in Gansbaai or White Shark Africa in Mossel Bay allow you to jump in a cage and see the great whites approach in search of bait. Just don’t stick your hands out through the bars because those razor-sharp teeth mean you might not get to keep them!
Marvel at the Antics of Orangutans
These playful, lanky, hilariously relatable apes can only be found on the islands of Sumatra or Borneo (yes, these two again), and watching them move about their day is a captivating event. Their expressions are priceless, they swing across branches and bridges with a carefree splendor, and their interactions between each other are remarkably humanlike.
Whether they’re traversing across the ground by a series of somersaults or carefully peeling a banana with their toes, one thing’s for sure — orangutans just want to have fun!
Discover the Endemic Species of the Kimberley
Situated in northwestern Australia, the rugged Kimberley region is home to a range of endemic species that make for an unforgettably unique wildlife experience.
Come here to see the round-nosed snubfin dolphins (the cutest dolphins of them all), as well as the saltwater crocodile, frilled lizard, Kimberley rock-rat, red rock rabbit, and plenty of other mammals, reptiles and birds. Many of the Kimberley’s animals are endangered, so ensure you are treating this paradise with the respect it deserves!
Go Reindeer Sledding Under the Northern Lights
Fancy playing Santa for a night? All your Christmas dreams will come to life with this incredible experience in which you can enjoy a sleigh ride being pulled by actual reindeer (Rudolph not included). Dog sledding is one thing, but this experience is straight out of your childhood imagination.
Tour operators include Norway Tours in Tromsø, Norway, or Baltic Travel Company in Lapland, Finland. Visit these Scandinavian winter wonderlands from November to March, and you may even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights on your ride!
See Wolves in the Wild
Once the most widely dispersed animal on the planet, the gray wolf has been hunted to extinction in many of its historic territories. The wolf plays a critical role in keeping ecosystems in check, and in a successful experiment of the circle of life, it was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park to prevent overgrazing by elk herds and to allow for habitat restoration of beavers and birds.
They are sleek and stealthy hunters that typically travel in packs, enabling them to kill large animals such as moose or elk. They can be seen in national parks across the United States, and their subspecies, such as the Arctic Wolf, can be spotted in the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland.
Spot Narwhals in Nunavut
If you’re looking for a real-life unicorn, this might be as close as you will get. Introducing the “unicorn of the sea,” narwhals are some of the most unique looking animals out there, with a giant tusk protruding from the top of their heads, and spotting them will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A relative of bottlenose dolphins, belugas, harbor porpoises and orcas, narwhals also travel in packs and feed off of fish, shrimp, squid and other small marine life. They can only be viewed in the wild in the seas of Lancaster Sound and Baffin Bay in Nunavut, in Canada’s Arctic.
Marvel at the Puffins in Iceland
Almost 60 percent of the world’s Atlantic puffin population lives in Iceland, and coupled with some breathtaking landscapes, we’d say this is a spot worthy of a visit! These adorable birds share the black-and-white coloring of a penguin and the vibrant beak of a toucan.
Feeding by diving into the ocean, puffins are often called the “clown of the ocean” due to their comical composition. Visit from April to September for prime puffin viewing.
Go Shark Diving — Minus the Cage
If cage diving with great whites didn’t spark your adrenaline enough, maybe swimming in the open ocean with two of the most dangerous shark species — tiger and bull sharks — will do the trick. This activity is not for the faint-hearted, and divers must be extremely careful not to act threatening or skittish. But once you’re able to get in the water with these majestic and powerful creatures, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Opportunities to swim with these iconic predators can be found at Shark Marine Reserve in Fiji, the Bat Islands of Costa Rica, Protea Banks in South Africa, Tiger Beach in the Bahamas and Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique.
Dine With Giraffes
One of the best wildlife photo-ops can be found at Giraffe Manor, a lodge in Kenya where some friendly giraffes actually come up and peep through the window while guests are having breakfast.
Located just outside Nairobi, the grounds of the manor and its adjacent Giraffe Centre are home to Rothschild giraffes, which are only found in the grasslands of East Africa. Guests can come up close to admire and learn more about these beautiful creatures, even get an opportunity to feed or receive a kiss from them — and of course, snap a killer photo.
Dodge Some Pesky Monkeys in Bali
OK, we may not be framing this as a desirable wildlife experience, but maybe we are still bitter about losing our sunglasses.
Asian monkeys called macaques can be found throughout the Indonesian gem of Bali, and they can be quite entertaining. Their antics are usually good for a minor panic attack or a laugh, as they will not hesitate to steal your food or belongings. Find them at Monkey Forest in Ubud, at the top of Mount Batur after your sunrise hike or along the temples of Uluwatu. The forests here are breathtaking — just keep your belongings close!
Hang Out With Habituated Meerkats
If Timon was your favorite character from “The Lion King,” this experience must be on your list. Organizations like Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana and Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa offer opportunities to hang out with the resident meerkat colony.
The lively little desert creatures live in gangs of up to 40 individuals and are bursting with personality as they scurry in and around their burrows and go about their day. They are accustomed to humans and may even use you as a lookout post when surveying their surroundings!
See the Snow Leopards of the Himalayas
One of the most impressive predators in the world, and the master of high-altitude hunting, is the snow leopard. They typically live at elevations of 10,000-15,000 feet and have adapted to some of the harshest environments on the planet with their snowshoe-like feet and almost-white coat with black rosettes.
Though they can be found in 12 countries throughout the mountains of Central Asia (China, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Mongolia), they are highly difficult to spot due to their dwindling numbers, camouflaged coats, hard-to-reach habitat and stealth nature. One of the best places to see them is Ladakh in India, where you can go on a snow leopard trek in Hemis National Park.
Adore the Pandas of China
Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwest Sichuan Province, is known primarily for one thing: China’s cutest residents, the giant panda bears. While you can see pandas in their natural habitat in Sichuan, if you want to guarantee a viewing, you will have to visit Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, where almost 200 pandas are kept for breeding and feeding. The way they stumble around, playful and curious, makes them one of the most endearing creatures on Earth.
You can also visit some of the province’s sanctuaries like the National Bifengxia Panda Reserve or join a trekking company like Panda China Tour for a chance at seeing the black-and-white cuties.
See the Humpback Whales of Tonga
Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world, but if you’re looking for an extremely high chance of getting up close and personal with this gentle giant, the South Pacific islands of Tonga are calling your name.
From July to October each year, the tropical waters off the coast of Vava’u welcome humpback whales that have migrated from Antarctica to nurse and mate. You can whale watch from the surface or jump in and swim with the mothers and calves. Their beautiful underwater songs will make it feel like you’re in a dream.
Spot a Bald Eagle
Catch a rare sighting of America’s national bird, the bald eagle, in Washington’s San Juan Island National Historical Park. The islands host more than 125 nesting pairs, with one of the highest densities anywhere in the contiguous United States.
Bald eagles can be spotted year-round all over the island but are most commonly seen along the south-facing slopes of the American Camp shoreline.
Feed an Elephant
There are many conservation centers around the world that rescue orphaned, injured or mistreated elephants to provide a safe place for them to grow and live. Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa is one example of a sanctuary that takes in young calves who have lost their mothers and are too young to feed on their own, as well as rescued elephants from culling, circuses or other mistreatments.
These places provide opportunities to get up close to the gentle giants, feed them, walk with them, even picnic among them and learn about what makes them so special.