Why do you travel? Do you like to visit cities? Architecture? Landscapes? Meet people? Eat and drink? See museums? All of the above for me, but my favorite trips are to see wildlife. The experience is always different, and usually, there is no guarantee that you will even see an animal. I love the thrill of the hunt (photographic, that is).
I find that I'm never sated. One animal adventure just leaves me wanting more. The list below includes my favorite animal experiences and a few that I look forward to visiting one day:
Table of Contents:
1. Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
Alright. I said that I wasn't going to pick favorites but...this is my absolute favorite wildlife destination. Yes, even over an East African safari to see the Big 5. Animals are EVERYWHERE. We were there in May and love was in the air. Many animals, especially birds, travel here every year to mate. One of my favorite travel memories ever was seeing two male blue-footed boobies showing their bright, beautiful (er handsome) blue feet to try and win over a female. After a lot of showmanship that also included pointing their beaks to the sky and moving their wings backward, the female chose a mate and began to dance with him. They generally mate for life so it's pretty cool and admittedly, voyeuristic. If you've never seen a blue-footed booby dance, it is hilarious. They lift each foot up one at a time and they move in a circle around each other. I never paid much attention to birds until I came across these fellas. They won my heart over big time. Hence the blue-footed booby picture on the main page and I also have a picture of them in my house!
Photo credit: Chrissy and Bill Trotter
2. East African Safari (Tanzania and Kenya)
Most people go to Kenya and/or Tanzania to see the "Big 5": lions, elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and the elusive leopard. This term was coined back when hunting safaris were more common than photographic safaris in the 1800s and early 1900s. There are lots of other exciting animals as well: hippos, flamingoes, crocodiles, wildebeests, greater kudu, ostrich and those adorable little dik-diks. The longer you safari, the more you start to notice things that you hadn't noticed before. I spent the first part of our safari focusing on big mammals and became interested in birding by the end of our 10-day trip. That was an unexpected realization...
The most emotional part of our trip was seeing the wildebeest, zebras, and gazelle coming over the hillside, returning back to the Serengeti having made their 2nd trip over the crocodile-infested Mara River. Learning about the Great Migration and seeing the final stages made me cry tears of joy for them.
Many people combine a trip to Tanzania with an attempt at summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is a worthy adventure but not one to take likely. I will write about our climbing experience in a future post. We did a 5-day trek and I'm glad to have the bragging rights, but I will never do that again. Holy hell, it was hard.
I will also write more about an East African safari in a future post but I recommend taking as much time as you can and exploring as many parks as you can. We were able to do a 10-day trip by staying in inexpensive camps or hotels for most of the time and then every third day or so splurging at a beautiful lodge.
Photo credit: Chrissy and Bill Trotter
3. Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba (Canada)
This has been on my list for a while. Churchill, Manitoba is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears. The town, situated on the Hudson Bay, is the self-proclaimed "Polar Bear Capital of the World." Towards the end of the summer, the bears gather near the water and wait for ice floes to form so they can hunt for seals. Specialized rover vehicles that can drive across the varied terrain take tourists closer to the action.
A friend of mine once did this and he said that it was an unforgettable trip. Since I didn't see one floating by us while we were in Iceland (which is a good thing because they aren't supposed to drift that far but sometimes do), then I will gladly keep this one on my list. My Canada to-do list is getting long. Fortunately, Kat at Staying Afloat has me covered on how to plan a trip to Churchill.
Photo credit: http://nathab.com, Gordon Fox
4. Emperor Penguins (Antarctica)
I've been wanting to go to Antarctica for a loooooong time. Leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina - the last stop in South America - you board a ship and sail across the famed Drake Passage to get to Antarctica (hot tip: don't get the spaghetti). There you are met with glaciers and ice floats. Animals abound! The krill-rich waters provide the opportunity to see migrating whales as well as birds, seals, and a variety of penguins. Seeing Emperor Penguins would be a bucket list item check for me!
Trip costs can range from $5,000 to over $50,000 with luxury and comfort commensurate with the cost. This isn't a trip you just take last minute, this is a lifetime trip to plan ahead. Actually, that is sort of true. I do understand that if you are moderately well off, have the ability to take copious amounts of vacation and just happen to be in Ushuaia, you can sometimes score really inexpensive deal at the dock. That's a kidding, not kidding.
Photo credit: http://www.britannica.com/place/antartica
5. Whale Sharks (Mexico)
At the end of 2019, we went to Cabo San Lucas with Bill's family. His sister, Bonnie, and I both shared a dream to swim with whale sharks. We were able to arrange a day trip from our hotel and travel to La Paz, just a two-hour drive north of Cabo. From there, you board a boat and wait in a queue to go out to the bay where they like to swim. It's heavily regulated limiting the number of boats, people on the boats, and the number of people that can jump in the water at the same time.
It doesn't take long to find one of these huge, beautiful creatures. They make dark spots in otherwise bright blue water. You jump in with your guide and try and keep up with the whale. If you're lucky, the whale will just stay in one spot. If not, you have to swim as fast as you can next to the whale while they leisurely swim much faster just because of their sheer size. I am relatively lucky but not that lucky so I was in the group with the swimming whale sharks. Admittedly, swimming is not my strong suit. People start to surface and within our group, I was usually the first. My sister-in-law whose idea of a Saturday is swimming across the Columbia River in her hometown of Portland was the only person besides the guide that was able to keep up. Can I just say how annoying it is to listen to the first group get back on board and tell you how amazing it was that their whale shark just stayed there the whole time? "That's ah-maaaaaazing," I feigned.
Photo credit: http://www.wwf.org
6. The Gibbon Experience (Laos)
Bill and I were traveling overland on the backpacker circuit in Thailand when we first heard about the Gibbon Experience in western Laos. It began in 1996 after a French tourist learned that many acres of forest were being cut down by villagers as "slash and burn" agriculture. Determined to help conserve the jungle, he got community support to build a series of zip lines and treehouses that soared over 100 feet (30-40 meters) within the canopy of the forest. The Experience continues to be operated by locals.
We were told it is unlikely to see a gibbon which was somewhat depressing to hear but probably good to state upfront (they did). We zip-lined to our treehouse, the furthest in the park. At dinner, a local villager zip-lined to our treehouse with tiffin boxes full of food. We were advised to use a mosquito net, but it seemed unnecessary so we went to bed on the ground without it. I turned on my headlamp and the beam hit the thatched ceiling. There were two relatively large eyes and about a thousand little eyes staring back at me. Mama and baby spiders! Now mosquito nets traditionally drape on the ground, but I can assure you that when we set ours up immediately thereafter, we sealed that puppy up so that nothing crawled under it in the night.
The next morning, I thought that I heard a car alarm, which was confusing in the middle of the jungle. We had been warned the gibbons have a very unique sound. That they do. Car alarms met with Tarzan-like vines swaying and before we knew it, we had a family of gibbons zooming right by us! It was a huge adrenaline rush!
Words cannot express what an adventure this is! There are a series of zip line cables that connect to take you around the park. The longest is ~1,800 feet (570 meters) across an open valley. You manage your own harness and carabiners and can go around on your own. There is no formal plumbing and waste is managed by a pig hundreds of feet down below your treehouse (true!). If it sounds appealing to you, you cannot miss this experience! If it doesn't sound the slightest bit appealing, then trust your judgment:) It's certainly not luxury accommodations but it is priceless!
Photo credit: Chrissy and Bill Trotter
7. Southern Right Whales in Peninsula Valdes (Patagonia, Argentina)
Bill and I kind of stumbled upon this peninsula without knowing much about it. I can only assume that we read about it in Lonely Planet, but mainly it was just a stop as we worked our way through Patagonia. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted on the beach by Magellan Penguins and sea lions.
We booked a boat trip in the bay to see the Southern Right Whales. I've done a few whales trips to other places and I had fairly low expectations. Even if you spot them, they are often far away. In general, I feel like whale-watching trips are a great way to spend a day cold and mad on a boat.
That was not our experience on this adventure. The whales were everywhere in this small bay where they like to breed and have their calves. There were dozens of whales around us. They were under the boat, next to the boat, everywhere. We were ecstatic and terrified that the boat was going to tip at the same time.
Patagonia is certainly worth a trip on its own and Peninsula Valdes should be on any Patagonia itinerary if the season is right (pun not originally intended but now identified) for the Southern Rights to be there.
Photo credit: Chrissy and Bill Trotter
8. The Monarch Migration (Mexico)
Monarchs have a very unique lifecycle. While most butterflies' lifespan is mere weeks, monarchs that will make the migration each year to a warmer climate can live as long as nine months. Each year, monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains travel up to 3,000 miles to the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico. After sleeping through the winter, they begin their journey back north in March, laying eggs along the way. Once they get to their destination, they return to the Earth.
We are fortunate in Dallas, where I live, to see some of the monarchs as they migrate each year. Our driveway can fill with a dozen or two at a time as they make their way south and I always wish them well on their journey. Still, I had no idea about what their hibernation spot looked like until a friend told me about her trip back to her native Mexico to see them. Remember I said I had a long list of to-dos in Canada? My Mexico list is even longer.
Photo credit: http://www.monarchjointventure.org, Chrissy Trotter (last photo)
9. Turtle Release - Huatulco or Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Turtles have a hard road to survival. We often hear the stories about the turtles that are entangled in fishermen nets or killed for their meat. But their hard existence starts long before that. Oliver Ridley turtles can lay up to 100 eggs in the sand and green sea turtles between 65 and 180. Of those that hatch, many won't make it to the ocean but will be buried in holes in the sand or be picked off by birds that lay in waiting. Once they get to the ocean, they are at-risk of being eaten by other marine life that are larger than them. Only 1 out of every 100 will survive. Not great odds.
There are many places to release sea turtles. We recently did so near Puerto Escondido, Mexico. We were each given a coconut shell with a baby turtle in it. A literal line in the sand was drawn and we set the turtles down. Not gonna lie, it was stressful. Mine was last but eventually made it into the ocean. I was concerned about whether this was a eco-friendly exercised and asked local naturalist, Peter Wilcox of Sea Safari Huatulco (he was not our guide nor from the same company) about it. He said that anything that gives these turtles a fighting chance is probably not such a bad thing. I agree.
10. Bioluminescence - Puerto Escondido, Mexico
If you still marvel at lightning bugs (I do!) then take your wonderment to the next level by doing a bioluminescence tour. These small microorganisms light up when you move your hands or body in the water.
Bill and the kids were cautiously interested but mostly just amusing me by going on this excursion. We all ended up loving it. It looked like the opening scene of Star Wars when the text is coming at you in a sea of stars only there was no text:) A boat took us out late at night and we stood in 2 feet of warm lagoon waters to see this marvel of nature. Don't miss the chance to do this!
Photo credit: Viator.com
It is important to recognize the impact that we humans have on these animals. Seeing a gibbon in its natural habitat is not only exciting but will forever embed a love for them into your heart. These tangible experiences help to ensure their long-term survival through conservation efforts. That is if it is done right.
Unfortunately, there are also many places in the world where animals are exploited and humans treading in their natural environment comes with no investment in the animals' futures. Research adventure companies before you give them your money. Understand if and how they give back to the communities, animals, and land where they operate.
What wildlife adventures do you think that I missed? Where have been your favorites and/or your bucket list items?