Not much comes close to that thrilling feeling when you spot an animal in the wild, especially when you’re not expecting it. It can be an inspiring, breathtaking and potentially life-changing experience. Holidays focused on wildlife are becoming increasingly popular. Watching wildlife is a great way to get back to nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. With so many wildlife holidays on offer in so many fabulous locations, it’s hard to decide where to go or what animals to see. So I’ve put together my own top 10 favourite wildlife experiences in various locations around the world, some in very remote wilderness areas, but with luxurious accommodations never too far away.
DIVE WITH GREAT WHITE SHARKS IN SOUTH AFRICA
For an extreme wildlife experience, jump into the shark-infested waters off the southern coast of South Africa — in a cage of course – and prepare yourself for a potentially heart-stopping encounter with the ultimate super-predator: the great white shark! Gansbaai, a small fishing village east of Cape Town, has become the hub for tour operators that specialize in diving with great white sharks, all from the safety of a cage of course. The cages are shark-proof, so there is nothing to fear, and the thrilling experience will inspire you for a lifetime. You’ll definitely emerge with greater respect for these often misunderstood, ocean predators.
Best time to visit: winter (May to October) is the best time to cage-dive with great white sharks. Although shark sighting is not guaranteed, the success rate is very high (around 95%). The weather can be unpredictable though in South Africa’s winter, with gales and cold spells, so it's best to book a tour that lasts a few days just in case the weather doesn’t allow for a dive. The sharks are still around during the summer months but not in such dense numbers, so days can possibly go by without a sighting.
SEARCH FOR ROYAL BENGAL TIGERS IN INDIA
Ranthambore National Park is one of India’s last remnants of wilderness. A former hunting ground for the maharajas, the park still contains ruins of temples and mosques, as well as an impressive 10th-century fort. There is plenty of exotic wildlife to observe, such as antelope, sambar deer, langur monkeys, and crocodiles, but the main reason people visit Ranthambore is to spot the magnificent and elusive Royal Bengal tiger. To increase your chances for an encounter with the tiger(s), make sure that you visit in the right season and spend several days of your holiday on tiger tracking in this gorgeous spot.
Best time to visit: most animals are seen at the end of the dry season, during the months of March, April and May, when vegetation is sparse and animals come out in search of water. Be sure to bring warm clothes if visiting during the cooler winter.
SWIM WITH MANTA RAYS & WHALE SHARKS IN THE MALDIVES
The islands of the Maldives, representing the epitome of a tropical paradise, are the visible coral tips of an oceanic volcanic mountain range whose outer edge at some points plunge to depths of over 3 km (1,8 mi). Deep channels separate 26 atolls that run from the Haa Alifu Atoll in the north over 800 km (500 mi) to Addu Atoll in the south, and the ocean currents in between offer world-class diving, as well as the single best spot on the globe to dive or snorkel with giant whale sharks, harmless reef sharks and tremendously impressive manta rays.
Best time to visit: divers can enjoy the opportunity of diving with manta rays and whale sharks in the Maldives throughout the year, but the areas frequented by these marine animals vary with the seasons. During the dry Northeast Monsoon season (January to April), manta ray and whale shark diving in the Maldives are best on the western side of the atolls, whereas during the Southeast Monsoon season, manta rays and whale sharks will typically be encountered near the eastern edge of the atolls.
OBSERVE KING PENGUINS IN ANTARCTICA
The frozen wonderland, called Antarctica, is the last true wilderness not spoiled by humans. Officially uninhabited and owned by no one, it is a place of extremes as it holds the title of coldest, driest and windiest location on earth. But despite these harsh conditions, Antarctica is home to an extraordinary variety of amazing wildlife. It is the Antarctic Peninsula that attracts most visitors, because of its accessibility and more moderate climate. The majestic king penguin colonies, as well as seal colonies, whales and albatrosses, guarantee you the holiday of a lifetime.
Best time to visit: cruises to Antarctica operate during the austral summer, early November to late March. There is no ‘best’ time to go within this period, although the different months do have unique characteristics. November is the courting season for penguins and sea birds whilst spring wildflowers are in bloom on the Falkland Islands and the spring ice is breaking up, creating sculptured shapes. In December and January, the first seal pups and penguin chicks are born on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, whales are starting to appear more frequently, and the days are at their longest. By February and March whale sighting is at its best and the penguin chicks are beginning to fledge, building up their strength for the long winter ahead.
SPOT WOLVES IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (USA)
Yellowstone’s expansive Lamaar valley, crossed by just one road, is a must-visit area for serious wildlife watchers as it is home to America’s “big five” game animals: bison, elk, cougar, grizzly and wolf. Bison and elk are readily visible, while cougars are almost never spotted (unless they remain with a carcass for days). Visitors who are willing to rise early in the morning or wait up until dusk also may spot grizzly bears and wolves roaming the valleys and hunting for prey (bring binoculars!). In fact, Lamar Valley is the #1 destination in the world for viewing wolves.
Best time to visit: the best times to visit Yellowstone are spring (from March to May) and autumn (from September to November). These seasons both feature mild weather and fewer crowds, and wildlife is at its liveliest (especially during spring). However, if wolves are your single reason to visit Yellowstone, then some will tell you that the best time of the year is winter when the wolves are more visible (the black ones stand out against the snow) and the prey is in plain sight. While winter is not for the faint-hearted with bitter cold, there’s nothing quite like seeing plumes of steam rise from beneath a thick blanket of snow or a pack of wolves from the comfort of your snow scooter.
TRACK WILDLIFE IN CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK (COSTA RICA)
The National Park of Corcovado, located on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica’s southwest corner, is one of the most intense biological places on earth, and the beauty of its old-growth wet forests, cloud forests, mangrove swamps, and wild beaches is beyond words. The heart of this national park, around the Serena Ranger Station, is teeming with tropical wildlife, such as Red Macaws, tapirs, quetzals, red-eyed tree frogs, boa constrictor boas and various species of monkeys to name just a few. Call yourself extremely lucky when you spot a mountain lion or jaguar on the beach hunting for turtles, but be careful of herds of voracious peccaries in the dark jungle.
Best time to visit: Corcovado National Park is one of the wettest places on earth, so make sure to visit this corner of Costa Rica during the dry season to avoid most of the rains (January to March).
FOLLOW THE GREAT MIGRATION IN THE SERENGETI (TANZANIA & KENYA)
One of the most dramatic stages for a classic African safari is the Great Migration, a 1,200-mile odyssey of 1.5 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras, all of them chasing the rains in a race for life while being purchased by an incredible amount of predators. Your chances of watching a kill by a pride of lions are pretty high when you visit the area in the right season. The only other African wildlife adventure that comes close to the Great Migration, is observing Africa’s second greatest concentration of wildlife in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Hotels I recommend, &Beyond Serengeti Under Canvas, Four Seasons Resort Serengeti, Serengeti Migration Camp, Singita Faru Faru Lodge, Singita Sasakwa Lodge, Singita Sabora Tented Camp, & Singita Explore Mobile Tented Camp.
Best time to visit: the herds of wildebeests follow the rain, so plan your travels accordingly. The best time to witness the migration in Tanzania is probably February and March when the wildebeest and zebra congregate in the Serengeti at the start of the rainy season and have their young too. Not only can you enjoy seeing baby animals, but the predators are at the highest number too. In June and July, the great migration hops over to Kenya’s Masai Mara and this is the time that you can witness spectacular Grumeti River crossings with crocodiles killing their prey (although it is hard to predict the exact time of this event).
KAYAK WITH WHALES IN ALASKA OR BRITISH COLUMBIA
Imagine the incredible sight of a pod of killer whales, also known as orcas, or the sound of a humpback whale’s blow as it gently swims past your kayak. No crazy sounds of another tourist on a boat trip, but just you, the whales, and the overwhelming silence of nature. There are no better places in the world to kayak with killer whales than Johnstone Strait off the northeastern corner of Vancouver Island, and to kayak with humpback whales near Adolphus Point near Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. Don’t be surprised to witness some whales breach just a few yards away.
Best time to visit: the best time to kayak with whales is between May and the first half of September. The days are long, whales are active in the area, and temperatures are moderate (be prepared for rain – lots of rain – and storms at any time of the day).
WALK WITH GRIZZLY BEARS IN ALASKA
This may sound like an insane idea, but it is not, at least not in Katmai National Park, a remote and pristine wilderness area in Alaska. In Katmai, giant coastal brown bears do not consider humans as prey nor as a treat due to the abundance of food nearby and a 100+ years-long wildlife protection program. A scenic flight in a small aircraft, followed by an exhilarating beach landing, will take you to Katmai’s meadows, where you will observe the bears in their natural habitat, and even walk amongst them with an unarmed guide.
Best time to visit: although you may encounter a bear at any time in Alaska (except when they hibernate), your chances of seeing bears are best when they gather to feed on seasonally concentrated food sources like salmon and sedges. Katmai is the single best place to view bears in the wild (don’t even look for alternatives). June and August are the best months to watch bear activity (playing, digging clamps, grazing, mating) and walk among them on the wild beaches of Katmai. In July and September, brown bears congregate to feed on sockeye salmon near the Brooks River Falls in the centre of National Park, allowing spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities from 3 viewing platforms (that you will have to share, unfortunately, with many others). Be bear-prepared!
ENCOUNTER MOUNTAIN GORILLAS IN RWANDA OR UGANDA
Spotting a wild gorilla in the African jungle is on many people’s bucket lists. Mountain gorillas are the most majestic, and sadly, rarest apes of all non-human primates. Only 700 of these magnificent creatures remain in the world, all of them found in the border area between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A guided gorilla tracking (which takes half to a full day, and allows you to spend one hour with the apes once you found them) is an awesome experience and worth all the travel efforts. Watch below a clip of my recent gorilla tracking; the clip includes some stunning moments, such as bluff charges by a silverback and a baby gorilla touching me!
Best time to visit: while gorillas can be tracked all year-long, the best time to track gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda is during the country’s two dry seasons: January and February and from June to September.