From gorilla trekking in Gabon to tracking lions in India, and observing sperm whales in the Caribbean, uncover the 10 best destinations for amazing animal magic away from the crowds...
The first warning of the giants’ arrival is a click from the hydrophone – and another, and another, closer and closer together.
Then a cluster of vast, dark shapes, like a squadron of submarines, appears beneath the surface. Lowering yourself silently into the clear Caribbean Sea, you hold your breath as the world’s largest and loudest toothed predators approach.
Growing to over 18m long, with its distinctive square head, stumpy dorsal fin and slender jaw crammed with some 52 massive teeth, you’ll know a sperm whale when you see one. Or, as is the case around Dominica, several: perhaps 300 individuals feed, breed and calve in these waters.
On whale-watching trips around Scotts Head, Roseau, Layou and Point Round, you’ve a good chance of spotting these monumental carnivores, which dive to depths of over one kilometre in search of their favourite food: squid.
Also look for pygmy sperm whales, short-finned pilot whales, melon-headed whales, and pods of Fraser’s, bottlenose, spinner and spotted dolphins.
Top tips: Permits for swimming encounters are limited. Humpback whales migrate past from January through to March.
Also try: Blue whales in southern Sri Lanka; beluga whales in Hudson Bay, Canada; minke whales in west and north Iceland; southern right whales in Península Valdés, Argentine Patagonia.
When: Resident year-round in the Caribbean Sea, the best time to spot sperm whales is between October and March.
A herd of zebra is a striking sight, particularly when a column of thousands are accompanied by peckish predators.
You can experience this equine extravaganza at the start of the year in Botswana, when a seasonal migration, discovered as recently as 2012, sees up to 25,000 plains zebra hoof it south from Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve to the Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pans, respectively – round-trip journeys of at least 500km, longer than the famed Great Migration of wildebeest.
This twin-pronged migration depends on the rains in the pans; if good, the previously glaring white expanses flood, and the zebra arrive en mass to graze on lush, protein-rich grass; pink masses of flamingo arrive to nest, too.
Naturally, lions, cheetah and hyena follow, and you’ve a good chance of witnessing a hunt. Beautiful safari camps are dotted around the Boteti River at the west of the Makgadikgadi Pans, as well as that park’s central area and Nxai Pan to the north.
Top tip: The migrating zebra usually graze in Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pans from roughly January to March, but this is dependent on rains.
Also try: Wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia; sardine run in South Africa; monarch butterflies arriving to over winter, Michoacán state, Mexico.
When: Botswana is cooler and drier from May to September, when zebra start to congregate around the Chobe and Okavango Rivers; the Okavango Delta tends to be flooded from June to September.
In the early post-dawn peace, a rustle of leaves betrays life in the shady forest. Is it a sambar deer or a monkey? Perhaps a porcupine? Then a quartet of honey-hued creatures slink into the clearing before the three smallest break off to tumble, nip and swipe: lion cubs, supervised by their austere mother.
Though the classic image of a lion has this magnificent predator stalking the East African savannah, its oriental cousin still survives in India – just. Once ranging from Turkey across northern India, by the early 20th century the Asiatic lion was restricted to Gir Forest in Gujarat, north-west India.
Today, population estimates range from 350 to 650; certainly, these endangered felines aren’t numerous. But you have a pretty good chance of spotting them in the dry deciduous forests, scrub and grasslands of Gir National Park, home to most of the surviving lions, alongside boar, nilgai (blue bull), chital, jungle cats and leopards, plus diverse bird species such as the oriental magpie-robin and Asian paradise flycatchers.
Watch for the male lion’s mane, slightly less expansive than its African equivalent, and the characteristic fold of skin along its belly.
Top tips: April is a sweltering month to visit, but good for lion sightings, particularly when the sun starts to rise. Also visit the Little Rann of Kutch to spot wild ass, and Velavadar to admire spiral-horned blackbuck and varied birdlife.
Also try: Okavango Delta, Botswana; South Luangwa National Park, Zambia; Kruger National Park and adjacent reserves, South Africa; Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
When: Travel to India between October and March to avoid the monsoon and the worst of the heat.
The radio crackles as you slice through the waves toward the outer reef at Ningaloo: the spotter plane has made a sighting.
You check your mask, and gaze down to see a speckled torpedo glide past, accompanied by a retinue of smaller cobia and remora: whale shark, the world’s biggest fish, growing to over 12m long.
Seconds later you’re in the water, trying not to gasp through your snorkel as the bus-sized behemoth extends its mouth in a broad gape, hoovering up plankton as its tail sweeps languidly. Mesmerised, you gaze at the constellation of spots on its flanks, unique as a human fingerprint.
The whale shark is one of the blue planet’s most magnificent marine creatures – and the most mysterious: although scientists study their epic migrations covering thousands of miles across the oceans, it’s still unknown where they produce their young – a phenomenon that’s never been seen.
For nearly half the year, large numbers arrive in Western Australia to feed along the outer edge of Ningaloo, one of the world’s longest fringing reefs. Small numbers of operators are licensed to lead whale-shark swims, during which you’ll also snorkel above kaleidoscopic coral gardens and possibly spot manta rays, humpbacks, dugongs, spinner dolphins and green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles.
Top tips: Humpback whales migrate past Ningaloo from around June to October. Manta rays are present year-round, but numbers near Exmouth rise between May and November.
Also try: Donsol Bay, Philippines; Mafia Island, Tanzania; Maldives; Nosy Be, Madagascar.
When: Whale sharks typically cruise the waters of Ningaloo from mid-March to August, sometimes a week either side.
Your feet are wet, sliding and squelching in the muddy forest floor. Sweat bees dance around, settling on your damp forehead and arms. But the hope of meeting one of our closest relatives – a western lowland gorilla – sharing over 98% of its DNA with humans – keeps your spirits high.
Gabon’s extensive network of protected areas, notably Lopé and Ivindo National Parks, hosts important populations of this critically endangered species, although infrastructure is minimal and sightings not guaranteed.
Loango National Park, described as ‘Africa’s last Eden’, offers a reasonable chance of an encounter with this enchanting ape: one gorilla group, named Atananga, has been habituated for several years, and the process is being repeated with another.
However, don’t ignore the other creatures in the park’s rainforest and Atlantic coastline, many rarely seen elsewhere: red river hog, sitatunga, forest buffalo, chimp and elephant roam the lush foliage, while leatherback turtles nest on the sandy shore, humpbacks cruise past and hippo are, legendarily, reputed to surf.
Top tip: Book well in advance – gorilla-tracking trips are limited – and be prepared for a muddy slog through the forest.
Also try: Eastern gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda; western lowland gorillas in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Congo.
When: The best time for gorilla sightings in Loango is also the wet season; the creatures travel less widely between January and May.
Day fades to dusk as the sun dips behind the ridge. Still the waves roll in from across the endless Pacific to break on the rocky shore. Blueish bumps appear in the surf – half a dozen, 20, more – as a pocket battalion breaks from the foaming sea and waddles up through the boulders: penguins. Dozens of penguins.
Three penguin species nest on New Zealand’s main islands, with several more inhabiting smaller outposts. For a guaranteed penguin parade, head to Oamaru, on South Island’s east coast between Christchurch and Dunedin, home to a colony of little (or ‘blue’) penguins (pictured left), known to Maori as kororā. This smallest penguin species nests in boxes here, heading out in the day to forage for sprat, returning at night to feed their chicks.
Alternatively, visit the Penguin Place conservation reserve at Dunedin, working to protect the endangered yellow-eyed penguin orhoiho, which can also be spotted in the wild at Curio Bay on the Catlins coast in the far south.
Top tip: For a chance to see Fjordland crested penguins (also known as tawakibook), go on a day cruise from Milford Sound, or hike to Munro Beach near Haast.
Also try: Galápagos penguins in Ecuador; Magellanic penguins in Argentine Patagonia; African penguins in South Africa; various species in the Falkland Islands.
When: Though penguins remain at Oamaru year-round, you’ll see more – up to 200 – from September to February, when parents spend days at sea foraging food for their young.
In truth, looking for a sloth in the wild is a trying task. At least, it is unless you’re an experienced wildlife guide accustomed to scouring the forest canopy for a creature that spends almost all of its life in high branches, and which is so slow-moving that algae grow in its fur.
It’s not so much that sloths are shy – and with a top speed of less than a quarter of a km per hour, they’re unlikely to outrun you –just that being well camouflaged and living among dense foliage makes spotting one tricky.
The answer: join an expert trek through Costa Rica’s cloud forest or rainforest – brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffman’s two-toed sloth live in various areas across the country, although note the latter is nocturnal.
Manuel Antonio National Park, a pocket gem on the Pacific coast, is a hot spot for sloth sightings, with accredited guides leading walks through the humid tropical forest. You’ll likely enjoy the antics of playful squirrel monkeys and coati, as well as catching glimpses of agouti, green kingfisher and various snakes; along the coast, you may also see olive ridley turtles lumbering ashore.
Top tip: You’re guaranteed to see sloths at a number of rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries. One well-regarded operation is the Toucan Rescue Ranch, which runs guided walks.
Also try: Soberanía National Park, Panama; Atlantic Rainforest, Brazil; Iwokrama, Guyana.
When: Although Costa Rica’s ‘drier’ season is from December to April, the lush country is never truly 100% dry.
A single scalloped hammerhead shark is a bizarre sight, with its curious cephalofoil – the scientific term for the wide handlebar skull formation enhancing wide vision and electroreception.
However, the sight of hundreds of T-shaped silhouettes up to 4m long schooling above you as you fin along undersea walls and around soaring rock pinnacles is pure subaquatic science fiction.
To experience this surreal spectacle, join a liveaboard dive tour to Wolf and Darwin islands, volcanic specks over 100km north of the main Galápagos group. Here, at dive sites such as El Arco and El Arenal off Darwin and Shark Point nearby Wolf, you can expect to encounter large numbers of these sleek predators – but rest assured they’re more interested in small fish and squid than human prey.
Watch for other undersea creatures too, such as eagle rays, sea lions, Galápagos sharks and silky sharks and, of course, make time to meet the island’s other inhabitants: giant tortoises, algae-munching marine iguanas, penguins, courting albatrosses and dancing blue-footed boobies are just a few of the quintessential species to spot here.
Top tips: Visit the Galápagos Islands between December and May for the best chance of seeing big schools of hammerheads and mobula rays. Flying within 24 hours of multiple dives can be dangerous – allow at least a day after your last dive before leaving the islands.
Also try: Cage dive with great whites off Port Lincoln, South Australia or Guadalupe Island, Mexico; snorkel with basking sharks, Hebrides, north-west Scotland.
When: The best time for a hammerhead shark encounter near Wolf and Darwin islands is between June and November.
The boat engine chugs wheezily as you glide along the river. A dense wall of trees at either side creates the impression of being inside a fishtank, humid and half-dark.
On the banks, birds and proboscis monkeys flit through the canopy. Then you catch a glimpse of shaggy, rust-orange fur in the lush foliage, and your heart leaps at the sight of one of the beautiful ‘people of the forest’.
Like the two other species of this great ape, the Bornean orangutan is critically endangered (the Tapanuli in Sumatra may number just 800), hit particularly by habitat loss from wide-scale logging and clearance for oil-palm plantations.
Visitors can see orphaned and recovering individuals at a number of rehabilitation sanctuaries in Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan – but to experience the thrill of spying one in the wild, venture along the lower reaches of Sabah’s longest river, the Kinabatangan.
During a late-afternoon boat cruise, you may spot monitor lizards, macaques, elephants, the big yellow snouts of the rhinoceros hornbill – and, with a dash of fortune, orangutans high in the canopy.
Top tip: Feeding times at the Sepilok centre, when residents are given bananas and milk, are typically mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
Also try: Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Sarawak; Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra; Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan.
When: It’s damp year-round in Malaysian Borneo so always travel prepared for rain; the wettest months are between November and April.
There’s no marmalade, no felt hat, no duffle coat – but the sight of Paddington’s wild cousin, the spectacled bear, in its natural habitat is more heartwarming even than Michael Bond’s beloved creation.
Classified as vulnerable, due to extensive loss of the species’ Andean habitat, probably fewer than 10,000 adult spectacled bears survive, with the largest remaining population in Peru.
The place to look for them is among the folded, striated mountains of Chaparrí Private Reserve, an 84,000-acre nature reserve that spreads along Peru’s northern coast.
Eagles, vultures and Andean condors soar above the crags here, and endangered white-winged guan – similar to a slender, pink-throated turkey – can be spotted feeding in fruit-bearing trees.
Long protected in the reserve, the bears are seen with reasonable frequency on trail hikes – watch for that characteristic pale facial marking, which varies from a minimal T shape along nose and brow, to full-on goggles.
Even if you’re not fortunate enough to encounter one on the trails (where you might also see peccary or white- tailed deer), you can meet one in semi-wild enclosures at the reserve’s rescue centre.
Top tips: Peru is drier between May and October; September is peak month for bear sightings. There’s another spectacled bear rescue centre at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes.
Also try: Brown bear in Pindos Mountains, Greece; grizzlies on the Katmai Peninsula, Alaska; polar bear on Svalbard, Norway.
When: Wildlife viewing at Peru’s Chaparrí Private Reserve is best in the early morning and also late evening.
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