26 Fantastic Wildlife Encounters For Your Bucket List
As animal lovers, the highlights of any trip we take are our encounters with wildlife. Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to come across many different species of animals, birds and marine life on our travels. This has ranged from green turtles and monk seals in Hawaii to wild elephants in Sri Lanka. But we still have a long list of wildlife encounters on our bucket list waiting to be ticked off! In the next few months we’re planning to see the big five in Africa and Bengal tigers in India, which we are really excited about.
If you’re reading this I’m guessing that you’re also an animal lover, and perhaps you’re looking for some inspiration for your next trip. So, I’ve asked some of my fellow travel bloggers to share their most memorable wildlife experiences from their own travels. I’ve also added one of ours at the end. I hope you enjoy them; and have fun planning your next holiday!
1- Sealions in the Galapagos, Ecuador
By Claire from Tales of a Backpacker
The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are a special place, where a delicate eco-system has developed in isolation over thousands of years. The lack of human contact has made the animals that live on the Galapagos very relaxed around people, and they usually ignore our presence and go about their daily lives oblivious to what we are doing. Many people choose to visit the Galapagos Islands on a cruise, but it is easy to do independently and ‘island hop’ around the Galapagos. There are plenty of snorkelling spots just off the beaches and coves where you can go to observe turtles, marine iguanas, penguins, and sealions without a tour or a guide. You have to stay at least 2 metres away from the animals, for their protection and yours, although sometimes you can’t avoid a close encounter, as the animal’s curiosity sometimes gets the better of them. Sealions are particularly inquisitive, and while snorkelling from a beach on San Cristobal Island, this friendly guy came over to say hello. I will never forget my special sealion encounter in the Galapagos Islands!
2- African Penguins at Boulders Beach, South Africa
By Dannielle from While I am Young
Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town, an hour’s drive from Cape Town is home to a colony of African penguins and it’s one of the only places in the world you can get up close and personal with wild penguins. Happily, this is a responsible wildlife encounter and the penguins come to no harm. You can pay a small fee, which goes towards the penguins’ conservation, and go down onto the boardwalk to watch the endangered penguins in their natural habitat. You can see them all year round. As tourists look on, the animals wade around the granite boulders jutting out from the beach’s white sand, completely oblivious to their audience. And if tourists get too close? They bite!
3- Elephants in Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka
By Janet from Journalist On The Run
One of the most amazing wildlife encounters I’ve ever had was doing an elephant safari in Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka. The park is home to 200 wild Asian elephants, and is known to have the largest gathering in the world of Asian elephants in one place. There is a large water reservoir in the middle of the park, and during dry season massive herd of these elephants come from near and far to drink and bathe in the cool waters. You can do a morning or evening safari here and get quite close to the herd walking towards the lake or watch them bathing from a distance. Sometimes when you’re driving in the safari jeep the guide will spot some smaller herds emerging out of the bushes, and you must sit and wait as mother and baby slowly cross the path in front of you. It’s an incredible experience and one I will never forget!
4- Sloth in Costa Rica
By Jamie from The Daily Adventures of Me
I tend to gravitate toward peaceful, calm animals such as sloths and sea turtles. One of my absolute favorite animal encounters happened quite naturally when I was visiting Costa Rica. We signed up for a tour that included wading through Victoria waterfalls. We then got into personal water tubes and white water rafted down the Rio Negro. Although there were times when we got a thrill from the turbulent river, we also spent a fair amount of time floating lazily down the river. At those moments, looking at the sky, I noticed sloths– lots of sloths happily sitting in the trees at the top of the rainforest canopy. I love that my first viewing of sloths happened completely naturally just watching them hang out and lazily enjoy their day and eat leaves in the safety of the trees.
5- Crocodiles in Kakadu National Park, Australia
By Claire from Claire’s Footsteps
Seeing crocodiles in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia is a terrifying, yet amazing experience. The best place to watch them from is Cahills Crossing at high tide (the daily high tide times are available from the tourist office), which is when they travel down the river to feed.
Within about an hour, we saw about 8 crocodiles. They ranged in size, from about one metre long, to a colossal croc that was four metres long and nearly a metre wide – definitely not something I’d want to be seeing in any closer capacity!
The most breath-taking moment was when two crocodiles leapt out of the water and snapped at each other. I’m not sure what the brawl was in aid of, but I can only wish I was quicker with my camera – it could have been the kind of photo you’d see on the front cover of National Geographic!
It’s important to remember that these are incredibly dangerous animals, and Cahills Crossing is one of the only places to see crocodiles in the park safely. Do not swim in waters with crocodile warnings; or you could meet a very sticky end!
6- Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
By Sabine from The Travelling Chilli
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is home to a very large diversity of wildlife, and none of the lodges and camps within the Delta are fenced off. However, it must be noted that most wildlife will stay far away from the camps and the humans therein. One of the exceptions are elephants who do visit the lodges nearly on a daily basis, but mostly at night when all is quiet and almost everyone is sleeping. They will walk in to find a tree with their favourite fruit or nuts to eat and generally move on after that. One day I was standing by the boat launch enjoying the beautiful nature of the Delta when suddenly I heard some loud splashes pretty close by. A male elephant wanted to walk in the camp via the water right where I was standing. Elephants can be very dangerous when they feel threatened, so I really got a fright, but luckily this elephant wasn’t interested in me so he moved away. I don’t know how I did it, but I still managed to take a photo while he was approaching. What a beautiful memory, straight out of Africa.
7- Snow Monkeys in Japan
By Toni from 2 Aussie Travellers
Japan isn’t a country you may immediately think of for a wildlife experience but we had a fabulous winter hike into the Jigokundani monkey park in northern Nagano to see the wild Japanese Macaque, also known as ‘snow monkeys’ soaking in a hot pool. The monkeys are throughout the park and we saw many of them along the trail and down by the river but the main attraction is that they LOVE relaxing in their onsen (hot pool).
In the 1960’s locals noticed that groups of monkeys in the area were regularly seen squeezing into narrow gaps in the rock where hot springs bubbled through. It didn’t take the monkeys long to figure out that humans nearby had big outdoor baths and they began using those too. To get around the problem the monkey onsen was built within the park fed by a natural hot spring. The snow monkeys took to it right away and have been using it ever since.
While some monkeys do swim it’s a unique experience to see them bathing and relaxing in the pool just like you might with a group of friends. Even the babies like this one seem to love it.
8- Swimming with Dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
By Emily from Two Dusty Travelers
Awe-inspiring, breathtaking, magnificent: There aren’t enough superlatives to describe swimming with dwarf minke whales on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Our four-day live aboard trip with Deep Sea Divers Den took us to remote areas of the endangered reef. When we spied whales surfacing near the boat one morning, we jumped into our wetsuits and scrambled into the water, afraid that we might miss our moment with these beautiful creatures. We needn’t have worried: The whales had come to play.
A pod of five dwarf minke whales circled our boat for several hours, obviously curious about their human visitors and friendly enough to investigate us up close. Intimidating in size but surprisingly gentle, they passed just below us over and over as we floated on the surface, often rolling to the side to examine us with one giant eye. It was an incredibly moving experience to share such an intimate moment with these mysterious animals.
Best of all, our tour guides were very committed to interacting respectfully with the whales. We were instructed not to swim after them or touch them, though they often came close enough. The encounter was entirely initiated by the whales – no baiting or chasing of any kind. We were even able to help with conservation efforts: A scientist on board collected our photographs and had us fill out forms describing the whale activity that we witnessed.
Sharing the water with these friendly giants was a spectacular, yet incredibly peaceful, experience. Knowing that our time with them could help conservationists better understand and protect them was icing on the cake.
9- Kangaroos in Australia
By Ben from Horizon Unknown
During a misty morning on the third and final day of the Six Foot Track, a 44km one-way hike from Katoomba to the Jenolan Caves, NSW, Australia, my hiking group encountered a single, curious kangaroo.
By the time we noticed this large male, he had been staring at us for a while it seemed. After locking eyes with all of us, the kangaroo hopped off into the distance.
There were plenty signs of life throughout the multiple night hike, including other kangaroos and plenty of birds. It was this special encounter that is my fondest memory of the challenging Six Foot Track. Totally unexpected and startled all of us by the gloomy silhouette in the distance. When asked about the hike, this image jumps into my head before any other.
10- Giant tortoises in the Seychelles
By Ben from The Sabbatical Guide
Giant tortoises are a rare thing. They can only be found in two places on earth – on the Galapagos Islands and in the Seychelles – so you’d think seeing them would be an equally rare experience. But as so often the truth with travel, reality does not match up with preconception. Now let me be clear, you’re unlikely to see a giant tortoise next to the A10 in Essex, or wandering down the Champs-Élysées, but get yourself to the right place and they are incredibly abundant.
For us that place was Curieuse Island, an old leper colony and now a protected reserve, in the Seychelles. Here the Aldabran Giant Tortoise has been given a sanctuary, and 500 of them are free to roam wild across the 3km, mangrove-dotted island. And do they? Well I suppose some do, but a hike over to the ranger’s station would suggest, as with most of us, they follow the path of least resistance. Here the tortoises know they are the centre of attention, the main attraction for every guided group who arrives on the island. This means a captive audience who, after some instruction from their guides, present them with succulent leaves from the trees that are far too high up for even the giantest of giant tortoises to reach. It’s a relationship that works both ways, the tortoises get food, the tourists get photos, and everyone is happy. It makes for quite a spectacle, with large groups of tortoises making their way over to this location every day to make the most of their adoring fans.
There are many places in the world were animals are exploited for tourists, in the Seychelles it seem to be the other way around!
11- Hunting Cheetahs in South Africa
By Anna Veronika from Apricots and Adventures
Holding our breaths, we watched Jebulani and Themba, two young cheetah brothers, stalk an oblivious springbok in the distance. Sensing the approaching predators, she twitched her ears before sprinting across the plain. But it was too late. Within 30 seconds the cheetahs had won and brought her down.
Despite sounding like a David Attenborough documentary watching hunts just like this one was almost a daily occurrence during the three weeks I spent volunteering at Modgaji Conservation Projects in South-Africa. Founded by husband and wife team Will and Sharon Modgaji specializes in rescuing orphaned cheetah cubs, as well as other wildlife. On the farm the cubs are raised and trained to hunt with the goal of releasing them into protected areas when they are ready.
I spent my mornings at Modgaji accompanying the cheetahs on hunts, taking care of the other animals on site, including hyenas, servals and African wild cats, and performing necessary upkeep of the reserve, such as fixing fences and clearing out invasive cacti species.
Those three weeks were some of the most amazing I have experience and now, years later, I can still feel the thrill of watching a successful hunt.
12- Volunteering in a Cambodian Elephant Sanctuary
By Lora from Explore with Lora
While backpacking through South East Asia I was looking for an option to see elephants in an ethical way, as sadly many elephants in this area are poorly treated for the purpose of tourism. I found out about the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) which is an NGO in Mondulkiri, Cambodia that was developed to create a home for injured and overworked elephants. The EVP offers visitors an opportunity to get an up close viewing of the elephants in their natural habitat, well also helping to preserve their future.
While volunteering there, we would spend half the day observing the elephants in their natural habitat and the other half working on various projects that supported the elephants. This was an amazing experience because it gives you an opportunity to get an up close viewing into the elephants natural behaviour while learning about them through the knowledgeable guides. It was so much fun to watch the elephants bathe and interact with each other, they are truly amazing intelligent creatures! You can find out more about the EVP at: http://www.elephantvalleyproject.org/
13 – Royal Bengal Tiger in Kanha National Park, India
By Jyotsna from Wandering with Jo
I have been traveling to jungles of India for over 2 decades now in search of my favorite animal – Royal Bengal tiger. This elusive wild cat is simply magnificent and keeps you yearning for those black and yellow stripes. Spotting a Tiger in the wild is an amazing experience which simply cannot be expressed in words.
One of my best Tiger sightings was in Kanha National Park few months ago, with Pugdungee Safaris. This was a particularly mesmerizing experience as I was lucky enough to spot one of the most popular Tigers in the world – “Munna”. This 16 years old, fully grown male Tiger has been the inspiration for many wildlife photographers since over a decade in Kanha. The truly unique thing about “Munna” are the markings on his head which spell C.A.T.
If you look closely there is another marking below it which spells P.M. So he is undoubtedly deemed as the Prime minister of cats and he has been living up to the fame ever since.
14- Zebras near Johannesburg
By Sara from The Bag Under The Bed
Last year I spent three months in South Africa and in the neighbour country of Swaziland. Of course, I loved my safari experiences at Kruger Park and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. I expected to see lots of wild animals, so even if they were exceptional adventures, there were any unanticipated wonders. Today I want to write about something different, a breathtaking wildlife encounter that took place near Johannesburg.
It was a normal, lazy Sunday afternoon and with some friends, we decided to go to a rural area where people like spending their leisure time, walking in the bush or riding the bike. It didn’t sound like anything too exciting. Only a peaceful walk to enjoy the shining day. The area was immense and remote. Suddenly, like this was the most normal thing in the world, we came across a group of zebras. I stopped breathing. It was not like seeing them in a park or during a safari. I felt in danger but only for a moment. The zebras were calm, placid, not even taking notice of us. They walked with us for a while and then continued their way. I felt immensely privileged to be there with them, in the wilderness. That encounter made my day. I realized that each day can bring a special gift and that I don’t have to take anything for granted.
15- Swimming with Humpback Whales in Tonga
By Nicole from Travelgal Nicole
One of my best wildlife experiences is swimming with humpback whales in Tonga. I spent six days swimming with the whales as they come to Tonga for the shallow waters to birth their calves. You often see the baby whales first as they have to come up for air more often than their mothers.
Tonga is one of the few places in the world where it is legal for you to get in the water with a wild humpback whale. You are not allowed to touch the whales and you must stay at least four metres away from the whales but getting in the water with a 36,000 kg whale is an absolutely amazing experience.
One of my favourite experiences from the week was a two hour ‘hang’ with a mother and calf. The mother was just chilling at the bottom of the sea floor while the calf would come up to the top for a breath and then come check us out before returning back to its mother.
16- Mating Sea Lions in New Zealand
By TJ from TJ Weisenberger II Photography
I was fortunate to go to Cannibal Bay, New Zealand at the perfect time. Not only to view sea lions but to capture two bulls in a mating dispute over a cow. One bull came from the sea and approached the other bull and cow on the beach. There were displays of strength from each as well as barking, growling, and charges. The bull already with the cow bit her and tried to keep her from approaching the competition. She eventually got close to both and laid down, I think she was enjoying the attention.
Eventually they all made it into the water and disappeared around the rocks. I followed and saw two in the water acting aggressive and playful. They were mating, I am not sure which male won but felt like it was the one already with her. The original bull is in the rear of this photo and the cow in the center.
17- Penguins in Antartica
By Matilda from The Travel Sisters
One of my best wildlife encounters ever was getting close to penguins in Antarctica. While the White Continent has no shortage of amazing wildlife including whales, seals and seabirds, I was most charmed by my close encounters with the penguins. I saw large number of penguins of various species (mostly Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins) swimming, walking around or just standing. It was also incredible to see mother penguins feeding their babies. Humans are not allowed to touch and must keep a safe distance from the penguins but that doesn’t mean a close encounter is out of your reach. It is fine to just stand there and let the penguins approach you. Penguins don’t fear humans so they frequently and happily waddle over. Even though I saw many penguins on daily basis, I never grew tired of them – in fact they were the highlight of my trip to Antartica.
18 – Swimming with Whale Sharks in Southern Leyte, Philippines
By Roneth from The Fickle Feet
Whale sharks usually appear in Pintuyan, Southern Leyte during November to May. They roam freely in Sogod bay which also means that when you visit, it is not always 100% guaranteed that they will appear.
Before swimming with the sharks, all visitors must undergo briefing where they will discuss about the important guidelines for tourist safety and less disturbance to the whale sharks.
Aside from the quick briefing, we did not have the actual idea on what we were going to do.
We hopped on our boat with our guides and went to the other side of Sogod Bay where the whale sharks would be lurking. It was an hour ride to the spot and we waited another hour until one spotter saw a whale shark. We were tired and we slept for a while, but the moment we heard them saying “Here it is!”. All of us moved and wore our gears quickly.
I jumped and saw the whale shark under the water and I felt a different feeling where I was overwhelmed, excited, and thankful all at once.
It was more or less an hour chasing game. We only saw one whale shark, unlike the other days it was probably more than five. But numbers are not important, the experience was still amazing.
19- Trekking with tigers, elephants, and rhinos in Bardia National Park Nepal
By Mike from Live, Travel, Teach
Bardia National Park is my favorite place for wildlife encounters in the whole world! This largely unknown Nepali national park is the best tiger habitat in the world and you can find wild elephants and rhinos mixed in too! Bardia is much more remote than Chitwan, its popular cousin “near” Kathmandu, making it a nature lover’s dream.
The lush jungle can be explored on foot or by jeep but if you are there to see wild animals than I highly recommend joining a jungle trek. Head there in March or April for the best chances to see tigers but I saw them when I visited in July & August. Locals tell of tigers and elephants coming through the village all through the year so there really isn’t a bad time to visit Bardia National Park.
20- The Ibera Wetlands in northeast Argentina
By Shelley from Finding Beyond
Our best and most unique wildlife encounter was at the Ibera Wetlands in northeast Argentina. The Ibera Wetlands was once an area used for hunting but is now a protected nature reserve. The landscape consists of marshy wetlands, floating islands, lagoons and streams and is populated with so much wildlife such as capybaras, otters, caiman, howler monkeys, wolves, swamp deer and over 400 bird species. Right in the middle of it all is the small rural town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini where there are numerous guesthouses to stay. Colonia Carlos Pellegrini has a real outback vibe which adds to the off the beaten track experience of visiting the Ibera Wetlands. The wildlife can be spotted while simply walking around the town, we even almost walked into a giant anaconda hiding in some greenery on the side of the road. But to really immerse yourself in the area’s natural landscape and get up close and personal with all the above animals, find a local boatman to take you on to the water. It’s especially special at sunset when the expanse of water reflects the orange setting sun.
21- Gorilla trekking in Africa
By Natasha from The World Pursuit
One of the absolute best travel memories we’ve ever had was going gorilla trekking in Uganda. There are around 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and they are all located in Uganda, Rwanda, or the DRC.
Uganda holds 60% of the total mountain gorillas left in the world with about 400 of them residing in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This park is also the most popular place to see the gorillas in all of Uganda, so we knew we had to go.
To go and see them is a special and once in a lifetime experience. The trek starts early in the morning and can take anywhere from one hour to all day to find them. Once your small group manages to find them deep in the jungle visitors are permitted only one hour of observation. This is so humans don’t disrupt the natural behavior of the gorillas. While observing you are allowed to take photos, ask your guide questions, and enjoy the jungle.
Gorilla trekking is not a cheap endeavor. Prices in Uganda range from $600-$650 for the day permit. However, if you go in Rwanda you can expect to pay more than double that. Whatever price you pay you are almost guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience.
22- Magellinic penguins in Argentina
By Melissa from The Family Voyage
Is there anything cuter than a newly hatched baby penguin chick? I didn’t think so. We had the amazing opportunity to visit Peninsula Valdés in northern Patagonia, Argentina during peak hatchling season. What an remarkable experience! We took a (very careful) stroll on the paths around the the burrows and along the beach where they like to relax and hop in for a swim. We spent hours just quietly observing the adult penguins waddling along going about their penguin business, listening to their honking, and trying to spot the eggs and hatchlings nestled under their parents. We could even hear their tiny chirps in between the cacophony of adult honks! If you’re planning to visit Argentina, don’t miss this special opportunity to see the Magellanic penguins of Peninsula Valdés.
23- Bears in Denali National Park, Alaska
By Chris from A Brit & A Southerner
Visiting Denali National Park in the heart of Alaska is not only a breathtaking experience to appreciate amazing panoramic landscapes but also because of the many epic wildlife encounters you will likely have during your visit. From caribou to Dall sheep and moose to gray wolves, Denali is home to a variety of species. However, there is one animal that stands head and shoulders above the rest – the bear!
If you are planning a visit to Denali to experience wildlife, the ultimate encounter is with either an American black bear or a grizzly bear. For those that are fortunate enough to experience both, well it could be considered a life-changing encounter.
Tours of Denali National Park offer visitors the opportunity to have first-hand, up close and personal experiences with both species of bear. Black bear sightings are very rare in Denali and the likelihood is that grizzly bear sightings will be more frequent. There are numerous spots throughout the bus route that offer frequent sightings, in particular along the rivers such as Savage River, Teklanika River and Toklat River.
There is nothing quite like watching these amazing mammals in their natural environment, whether they are taking care of their offspring or simply relaxing in the open landscape. We were incredibly fortunate to have multiple sightings and certainly can reflect on a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these amazing creatures in this untouched environment.
24- Leopards in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
By Sarah from World Unlost
A few hours into our final safari in Sri Lanka, we were excited by the wildlife we’d spotted in Yala National Park – elephants, mongoose, and water buffalo. But knowing that the elusive leopard is rarely seen in the wild – and the endangered Sri Lankan subspecies now numbers only 700–950 individuals – our hopes weren’t high.
At least until our guides pointed out paw prints on the sandy track out our safari jeep window.
As if on cue, a spotted, four-legged figure then appeared, sauntering along, some 50m or so in the distance. Another unidentifiable animal (possibly a baby sambar deer) dangled limp from its mouth.
Seemingly content with its catch, the leopard retreated to the secluded cover of some bush to our right. After watching it for a good half hour, our guides served what became the most memorable breakfast of my life – jam-slathered bananas wrapped in delicious hoppers (Sri Lanka’s answer to pancakes). We ate in silence, listening to the crunching of bones as the leopard chowed down its own, rather bloodier breakfast.
It was thrilling to get to watch this magnificent animal in its natural environment – to see up close first-hand how leopards behaved, what sounds they make, how they move. It deepened my interest in wildlife conservation. I just hope generations to come get to see these creatures in the wild, too.
25- Pelicans on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia
By Brad & Agnes from Black Pepper Aboard
The Entrance found on the Central Coast of New South Wales is home to the incredible Spectacle Pelican feeding! It’s an amazing experience to watch these massive birds wander through the crowds while they wait for their fish. Accustom to people they can be a bit rude, muscling spectators out of their way for that prime spot. When the volunteers approach, the birds feathers begin to tremble with anticipation as they anxiously await the first fish to be tossed. The rest of the feeding looks like a synchronized dance of heads bobbing and bills opening to catch the airborne fish. The odd cheeky bird will try to steal the fish straight from the volunteers glove, a funny sight to see. While the crowd sits around enjoying the show, other volunteers share information while examining the birds well being. Primarily search for any fishing lines or hooks that may be caught in their beaks, or wings.
This entertaining event takes place at 3:30pm every day of the year, rain or shine. Arriving early not only gives you a chance to snag a good spot, but also the chance to watch all the pelicans swooping in to claim their place at the feeding.
26- Koalas on Kangaroo Island, South Australia
By Cindy & Simon Collins from Free Two Roam
One of the best things about living in Australia is being able to enjoy its incredible wildlife. Kangaroo Island in South Australia is one the best places we’ve visited so far to see Australian wildlife. Seals, pelicans, echidnas, kangaroos, wallabies, possums and koalas all wander around freely on Kangaroo Island and are generally quite unconcerned about people.
During our visit we stayed at the Western KI caravan park, which was heaven for wildlife spotting. The most memorable moment was when we spotted a mother koala up in a tree, with her young cub. After snoozing for a bit they both woke up and then stretched by hanging using just their arms from the branch. We’d never seen a koala do that before! Next, they decided it was time to change trees. So they made their way down the tree and across the caravan park (with baby on mum’s back) to another tree. They were totally oblivious to the audience of at least twenty people who were frantically snapping photos and videoing them. It was highly amusing to watch and it was great to know that they were so unafraid of us.