As a travel writer, I’ve visited more than 70 countries, and have had countless wildlife experiences venturing into the wild. I’ve journeyed from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific in search of the sublime, and — I hate to play favorites — but some adventures are simply more awe-inspiring than the rest. To that end, I’ve rounded up ten unique wildlife experiences around the world for thrill-chasers, animal lovers, and off-the-grid adventure travelers to add to their bucket lists. Each encounter is ethical and sustainable and offers a chance to experience something greater (and wilder) than ourselves — true communion with nature. Read on for some major travel inspiration, and get ready for some serious wanderlust. Real-life Planet Earth awaits.
1. Sledding with Reindeer in the Arctic Forests of Finland
The author feeding a reindeer
I visited Finland in the early days of March and quickly learned that traveling to the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. From snowmobiling to husky sledding, there was no shortage of frozen activities to partake in by day, but the greatest of all was a reindeer sleigh ride. Reindeer farms are located throughout Finnish Lapland, and travelers have the opportunity to go sledding through a forest coated in snow, a reindeer pulling at the sleigh. Just be warned: Don’t let the surrounding sights of this winter wonderland distract you, and keep your hands on the reins at all times. Once your reindeer goes off-course, it’s quite hard to regain control of your sleigh. (I am speaking from experience — trust me.)
2. Sailing with Pink Dolphins in the Amazon Rainforest
A swimming pink dolphin (provided by Erick Gorleer)
When I visited Amazonas, Brazil, on a sailing cruise up the Rio Negro with Amazon Nature Tours, my guide, Alex Tucano, told me about the legend of the pink dolphin. According to local lore, whenever a Saints Festival occurs in communities throughout the Brazilian Amazon, the pink dolphin swims to shore and steps onto land as the most handsome man in existence — unplanned pregnancies are blamed on the pink dolphin’s presence at these parties. The crew of Amazon Nature Tours is entirely indigenous to the Amazon, which adds such unique insight into the experience — the people and the culture are just as fascinating as the wildlife. Speaking of which: You often hear a pink dolphin before you see them, as (similar to other dolphins), they are curious and enjoy cruising in the wake of kayaks or boats. Only pink dolphins are far shyer — and a rarer sight. While other outfitters promise swimming with dolphin encounters, spotting the creatures in the wild with Amazon Nature Tours is a more ethical and sustainable experience. (And therefore the most rewarding).
3. Sleeping with Hippos in the Savannahs of Kenya
If it’s wildlife sightings you’re after, there’s a reason that the Maasai Mara in Kenya always tops travelers’ bucket lists. My first visit to this magical destination was in early November, and though the lions, elephants, rhinos, and giraffes were as magnificent as expected, I was surprised by my newfound love and affinity for hippos. Though hippos are famous for being one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, I found them to be a surprisingly comforting presence outside my tent at the Hippo Corner in the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. Their raucous sounds were my morning alarm clock as they swam through the water back to the muddy shoreline — a cacophony of dozens of hippos returning from their nightly escapades, a day of rest awaiting them at their destination. And if you haven’t yet woken up to the sounds of hippos sloshing up a river, I suggest you add that to your bucket list post-haste.
4. Trekking with Gorillas in the Mountains of Rwanda
Rwandan gorilla (provided by Volcanoes Safaris)
When I visited Rwanda this past June, I had the most life-changing experience on a gorilla trek in Volcanoes National Park. Being up-close-and-personal with these animals in the wild of the Virunga Mountains is nothing short of spectacular — and, today, the experience is enhanced by the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a new research center and tourist exhibit available for guests. When I first approached the gorillas, I felt utterly exposed and nervous. These massive creatures are even more imposing in real life, and their movements and interactions — both with their human guests, and one another — are so similar to our own, it’s unnerving. But after this initial fright, a feeling of calm and awe washes over you, as you realize you’re encountering the creatures closest to your own kind — and, at the moment, closer than you’d ever expected in your life. Permits per day to see the gorillas are limited, and the trackers are experts at interpreting the gorilla’s grunts and movements, guaranteeing that the uniqueness of this encounter with the sublime will remain a precious and singular adventure for all travelers for years and decades to come. So, book that trip now.
5. Lickings from Jaguars in Belize
Jaguar at the Belize Zoo
Do you Belize in magic? If you book a trip to La Democracia, we promise you will. I visited the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center on a December morning early on my trip through this beautiful country in Central America — but don’t let the wording fool you: the destination is less of a zoo, and more of an animal sanctuary, as it takes in abandoned and/or injured wildlife from the region. It was here, as part of a visit to the jaguar rehabilitation program, that I was touched by an angel (read: licked by a jaguar). I was up-close-and-personal with this majestic creature — even more stunning in real life than you can possibly imagine — as it licked the top of my head through the bars of the enclosed area where I was seated below. Let’s just say it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. And are unlikely to experience anywhere else.
6. Diving with Sharks off the Islands of Fiji
Black-tip reef shark with the author
I first visited Fiji this past winter, descending upon the islands after nearly two years without tourism, and the beauty that awaited me was indescribable. But Fiji isn’t only about relaxing on the picture-perfect beaches, cocktail in hand (though that is enjoyable, of course) — there’s plenty of adventure to be found, especially beneath the water. Though I’d dived at many of the various island chains in Fiji (and seen my fair share of sharks already), it was one particular experience at Castaway Island, in the Mamanuca island chain, that will stay with me forever. Castaway is home to the only resort-owned dive center in Fiji, and I’d set out on a dive along the Malolo Barrier Reef — also known as the Supermarket Reef for its popularity with sharks dining on reef fish — when I came face-to-face with a black tip reef shark. I’d descended before my fellow divers, and it was the two of us alone. The shark circled me curiously, and as it was just the two of us in crystal-clear water, I had the opportunity to really watch the way it moved — like a sailboat underwater, its dorsal fin directing its every move— and appreciate its curiosity and playfulness. The shark followed us for the rest of the dive, even coming towards the surface for our safety stop. My initial fear had entirely evaporated and what remained was joy, and gratitude for the chance to see a supposed predator as a playmate instead. (A wonderful counter-narrative to Shark Week).
7. Walking with Tigers in the Jungles of Nepal
Nepalese tigers (provided by Tiger Tops)
Track tigers on foot through the jungles of Nepal with Tiger Tops, the first ethical elephant experience in the nation. I stayed at Tharu Lodge in Chitwan National Park and Karnali Lodge in Bardia National Park during my trip to Nepal and was rewarded with a wild tiger sighting on one of my last days of safari. We’d spent afternoons picnicking along the Karnali River, driving through dirt roads through the National Park on an old-school Safari Jeep, and mornings walking through the lush forest on foot. Due to their evasiveness, tigers are exceedingly difficult to spot in the wild, but the reward more than outweighs the effort (which is enjoyable in and of itself). I sat with my binoculars staring across the river bed, looking at the spot where my guides told me the tiger was at rest. But the creature that was so impossible to see in repose suddenly became magnificently apparent as it started to move — an orange flame crossing through the tall grass like a knife. The spotting — and the safari — was easily one of the most spectacular experiences of my life as a travel writer.
8. Snorkeling with Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands
Sea lions in the Galapagos (provided by Pikaia Lodge)
Visiting the Galapagos Islands had been a long-held dream of mine, and my maiden voyage did not disappoint. I stayed in Pikaia Lodge, one of the premier luxury resorts in Ecuador’s famed island chain, and immediately felt immersed in a David Attenborough documentary — then nightly screenings of his famed Galapagos 3D documentary only enhanced the experience. My Planet Earth immersion only continued when we set out to sea aboard the Pikaia yacht, and I dove into the waters for the very first time. I’d barely leaped from the deck of the boat when I spotted a sea lion swimming towards me beneath the water. I was snorkeling along the surface of the water when this enormous animal — shockingly massive up-close — swam in circles around me, in an underwater dance beneath the waves. This willingness to approach humans, and the animal’s lack of fear, is what sets the Galapagos apart. Our traditional role of predator and prey, hunter and hunted, that kept us apart while we existed in the rest of the world was blissfully nonexistent in this safe haven of nature and wildlife. The entire experience made me reconsider my place in the animal kingdom, and further recognize the common experience between all living creatures. And what more could you want from an animal encounter than that?
9. Cruising with Crocodiles in the Everglades
Florida alligator (provided by Greater Miami CVB)
You needn’t travel so far afield for spectacular wildlife encounters — a lesson I learned one springtime afternoon in the swamps of Florida, on a visit to Everglades National Park. The Everglades is the only place in the U.S. where you’re likely to spot an American crocodile in the wild and is the only place on earth where you can find both alligators and crocodiles alike. Sign up for an airboat tour for an Everglades safari, where you can cruise by crocodiles and alligators — the latter surprisingly unafraid of boats and/ or humans (be on the lookout during your drive through the National Park for gators lounging beside the road).
10. Swimming with Sea Turtles in St. John
Beach at Cinnamon Bay (Adobe Stock)
Cinnamon Bay in St. John is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world — and, having visited this August for the first time, I can certainly attest to that being the case. I was staying at Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground, an eco-resort where I spent my nights glamping in a tent on the beach and my days exploring the beauty of the island both above and below the water’s surface. St. John is famous for its sea turtles, and there are three species that can be spotted off its Caribbean shores: Hawksbill, green, and loggerhead sea turtles. And while Maho Bay is famous for its turtle sightings, the waters can become crowded with snorkelers, and the turtles’ habitat is therefore disturbed. A far better option, I found, was one closer to my (sadly temporary) home. Wake early and snorkel off the shores of Cinnamon Bay, where the famous turtles can also be found, blessedly free of the surrounding aquatic (human) crowds. Sea turtles famously bring good luck, and nothing feels more like a harbinger of good fortune than having a sea turtle surface to the top of the water beside you — a communion between animals that’s both serendipitous and expected in this gorgeous part of the world.