With so many wildlife experiences on offer, which ones are the most memorable? David Whitley lists his top 10
Wildlife has a habit of putting human achievements in the shade. The thrill of spotting an elephant, tiger or whale in the wild will always trump any sighting of a tall tower. Release a dolphin near a great bridge, and it’ll hog the attention. But there are animal-spotting holidays, and then there are wildlife experiences of an altogether more remarkable magnitude. These special interactions can remain seared in the memory for a lifetime – and they don’t have to involve roughing it through inhospitable landscapes, either. These unforgettable encounters come with the creatures – and the comforts.
1 Horseback safaris in Kenya
There’s only so far that safari vehicles and mini-buses can go in Kenya’s Masai Mara – but horses can plough on into quieter territory. In this part of the world, this means fording rivers as wildebeest herds cross, skirting close to hippo-packed pools and sharing open plains with giraffes, zebras and elephants. These safaris are not suitable for novices – much of the day is spent in the saddle, and riders need to be confident enough to gallop away in the event of danger. But they do add an incredible sense of being part of the Masai Mara, rather than passing through it, with the sights, smells and sounds intensified and distractions minimised.
Unicorn Trails (www.unicorntrails.com; 0044 1767 600606) offers 11-day, 10-night horseback safaris in the Masai Mara – staying in luxurious camp accommodation – from US$7,445 (Dh27,345) per person, all year round
2 Swimming through jellyfish in Palau
Over hundreds of years, the invertebrate inhabitants of Mecherchar Island’s Jellyfish Lake have evolved to farm algae with their tentacles, rather than sting. This makes it safe to get in the water with them. Swimming to the middle of the lake starts off odd, as a few straggling jellies float past, but then turns utterly freakish as numbers mount into what’s essentially a near-solid block. There’s no choice but to bat them away like a child pushing through a ball pool - something that goes against all naturally ingrained instincts.
The trip to the lake is generally added to the end of day-long snorkelling or diving trips around Palau’s Unesco World Heritage-listed Koror Rock Islands, where the surrounding lagoon has some of the best water visibility in the world - not to mention some of the most vivid reef-life.
Fish ‘N Fins (00680 488 2637, www.fishnfins.com) offers a seven-night package, including airport transfers, five days’ diving and accommodation at the Palau Pacific Resort, from US$1,805 (Dh6,629) per person, all year round.
3 Tiger snapping in India
Wild tigers are increasingly difficult to find in India - particularly on tours that head into reserves for just a day - so dedication is often required. The Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is the best spot for seeing them, and Naturetrek’s dedicated photography tours spend eight days inside, tracking the tigers in Jeeps and on elephant-back.
The emphasis is on the photography - of bird-crowded dams, abandoned temples, ruined hill forts and ancient rock carvings, as well as the tigers.
While trying to track down the elusive big cats, other creatures are less camera-shy. Langur monkeys, spotted deer and bee-eaters are easier to spot (and photographically capture), but time and perseverance pays off with the stripy giants.
Naturetrek’s (0044 1962 733051, www.naturetrek.co.uk) 12-day India wildlife photography tour, starting and ending in Delhi, including all lodge accommodation and most meals, costs from £2,095 (Dh11,983) land-only, all year round.Snorkelling with whale sharks, Australia
4 Snorkelling with whale sharks in Australia
The Ningaloo Reef, off Australia’s west coast, is just as glorious as the far busier Great Barrier Reef on the east coast. But it comes with the added bonus of the biggest fish on earth - whale sharks. From April to July, these filter-feeding gentle giants get unusually close to the shore, drawn in by the spawning coral and the plankton that feeds on it.
Numerous yachts take small groups out to snorkel alongside the whale sharks, and getting in the water is an exercise in feeling humbly small. They grow up to 16 metres long and have mouths over a metre wide. Fortunately, they’ve no interest in swallowing up humans.
The Sal Salis luxury wilderness eco-camp (0061 2 9571 6399, www.salsalis.com.au) offers four-night packages, including three days out snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef with the whale sharks, from 3,295 Australian dollars (Dh10,928) per person.
5 Watching turtles laying eggs, Grenada
When the leatherback turtles crawl up Levera Beach, it’s a gargantuan struggle. They’re huge - the size of living-room coffee tables and weighing up to 900 kilograms - and they’ve usually travelled for thousands of kilometres.
Yet they regularly come back to the same beach where they were born to give birth - usually between April and July. It’s possible to stand on this Caribbean beach at night and watch the whole process by torchlight. It feels like an incredible privilege, albeit a voyeuristic one. The turtle lumbers up the beach, uses her flippers to create a hole in the sand, lays dozens of eggs into it, then laboriously covers it up, before exhaustedly pushing her way back to the sea.
Deluxe suites at the nearby Petite Anse Hotel (001 473 442 5252, www.petiteanse.com) cost from US$370 (Dh1,359), all-inclusive, during turtle-watching season. The turtle tours, bookable through the hotel, cost $20 (Dh73).
6 Microlighting with eagles, Zambia
There’s no shortage of animals to spot in eastern Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, but the Tafika Camp offers a different perspective. The owner, John Coppinger, takes guests up in his own microlight for a bird’s-eye view of the buffalo, hippos and general bush-waking-up activity below.
The bird in question is an eagle, and they’re often found swooping and soaring at the same heights as the microlight. It’s impossible to look elegant by comparison, but it is possible to glide over fluffy chicks tucked up in nests before watching herds of elephants plod towards the river for a morning bath.
Extraordinary Africa (0044 7841 624773, www.extraordinary-africa.com) can arrange a seven-night safari, including four nights at Tafika, all food and drink, plus numerous game drives and walks, from £4,225 (Dh24,166) per person. The microlight flight costs US$110 (Dh404), payable at the camp, all year round.
7 Sailing to the wall of penguins, South Georgia
One of the most remote islands on Earth, South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean has no permanent human inhabitants, but more than enough king penguins to go around. Hundreds of thousands of them can be found during the Northern Hemisphere winter on the Salisbury Plain coastal strip alone, nurturing chicks until they are ready to fend for themselves. The sheer weight of numbers turns it from being a wildlife-spotting experience to something altogether more mind-blowing. It’s a great wall of penguins.
The trip there involves cruising through craggy fjords, passing rocks lined with thousands of fur and elephant seals - before cooing at them, remember that they eat the baby penguins.
Exodus (0044 203 603 9372, www.exodustravels.com) offers 20-day Antarctica, Falkland Islands and South Georgia trips, including cabin accommodation and most meals for from £7,900 (Dh45,188) per person.
8 Whale-watching under the midnight sun, Norway
Well inside the Arctic Circle, the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway forget what night looks like for nearly two months of the year. Between May 25 and July 18, the sun never drops below the horizon.This means that it’s one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to go whale watching under the photogenic light of the midnight sun. At this time of year, Arctic Whale Tours in Stø heads out at 9pm for a serious seven-to-eight-hour viewing session.
The big daddies to look out for are the sperm whales, which grow up to 18 metres in length and weigh up to 60 tonnes. They’re often found feeding at the end of the continental shelf. Also on the viewing menu are minke whales, pilot whales, humpback whales, orcas, harbour porpoises and Atlantic white-sided dolphins. And, as a bonus, on the way out to sea, the ship passes islands crammed to the gills with puffins.
The midnight sun whale-watching safari with Arctic Whale Tours (0047 7613 4300, www.arcticwhaletours.com) costs 950 Norwegian krone (Dh578) per person.
9 Cruising the Chobe River, Botswana
The rule of thumb in Africa is that where there’s water, there’s wildlife - and the Chobe River in Botswana is notorious for the high concentrations of animals slurping water from its banks.
When hundreds of elephants go for a drink at once, the best vantage point is from on the river itself - which is where the purpose-built Zambezi Queen houseboat comes in. Lions, leopards and buffalo are also regularly spotted, while hippos and crocodiles swim close to the vessel.
A maximum of 30 passengers can stay on the boat at any one time, with fishing tuition and birdwatching sessions coming as part of the package. And there are plenty of birds to see - over 460 species have been recorded within the Chobe National Park.
AMAWaterways (001 800 626 0126, www.amawaterways.com) runs a 16-day Stars of Africa package that includes a four-day Zambezi Queen cruise, as well as time in Cape Town, the Kruger National Park and Victoria Falls. Prices start at US$9,995 (Dh36,712) per person, all year round.
10 Tundra buggying with polar bears, Canada
Looking out onto Hudson Bay, Churchill in Manitoba is Canada’s most northerly seaport. And in the surrounding tundra, man gives way to polar bears at the top of the food chain. To keep out of harm’s way, tundra buggies with giant tyres plough through the bear’s domain - allowing camera-wielding visitors to get up a lot closer than would otherwise be safe. The other creatures sharing the tundra with the world’s largest land predator - caribou, arctic hares, silver foxes - aren’t quite so lucky if they cross the bears’ path.
Try during winter for the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights, or July and August to spot hundreds of beluga whales in the bay.
Expedition Trips (001 206 547 0700, www.expeditiontrips.com) runs seven-day small group expeditions from Winnipeg, including three days among the polar bears with a professional photographer giving tuition, for from US$6,695 (Dh24,591).