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I decided to make this bucket-list of wildlife experiences for travelers to put to paper all of the animal encounters that any animal lover should do before they die.
If you’re like me, you love having animal experiences on your travels. While you’re initial thoughts may go straight to safaris (rightfully epic), there are way more ways to interact with animals on your travels. Some of these wildlife experiences I would never have thought were possible, such as swimming with whales in Tonga and cage diving with creatures beyond the common Great White Shark.
Here are my top picks for animal encounters to have on your travels. I hope to keep adding to this list as time passes.
I’d love if you shared this article and let me know which of these you’ve done, or which ones are highest on your bucketlist. Here are 29 epic wildlife experiences for travelers.
1. Swimming with Whale Sharks
There are a few places in the world where you can jump into the water and swim with these gentle giants. There’s Isla Holbox in Mexico, Bohol in the Philippines and Western Australia in, you guessed it – Australia, are popular spots to have a whale shark swim.
I completed this goal in 2013 when I got to swim with these giant fish in Isla Holbox, Mexico. I would recommend the area between May and September as there were a lot of Whale Sharks around – you could see their fins circling from the boat – and everyone had atleast one swim with the sharks.
Fun fact: These creatures are harmless, but they do move fast so get ready to swim as soon as you jump into the water.
2. Bathe elephants in Thailand
There are many sanctuaries in Thailand that have ethical elephant experiences. Chiang Mai is particularly famous for this and is well known among responsible tourists. Be sure to avoid any tour operators who advertising elephant riding as an activity due to the cruel ways elephants are trained to allow tourists to ride them.
Do your research when choosing an elephant sanctuary to visit. Try to avoid those that also offer elephant riding when looking for an ethical wildlife experience.
3. See Orangutans in Borneo
Those auburn rascals otherwise known as orangutans are commonly spotted in the wilds of Borneo, most easily sought out in the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Borneo. The sanctaury has a healthy population of orangutans which have been rescued from ownership or have been injured in the wild.
It’s one of the only places in the world to see orangutans in their natural habitat, another being in Sumatra. The sanctuary helps rehabilitate the orangutans then eases them back into the wild by weaning them off human fed meals, until they learn to feed themselves.
Note: The Center in a little annoying to get to but is well worth the trip.
4. Visit the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica
At Costa Rica’s sloth sanctuary the owners and volunteers work hard to rescue and rehabilitate injured and sick sloths. We heard some harrowing stories about how the sloths were seen as evil from a small group of locals and that some had been rescued after suffering attacks.
I visited the Sloth Sanctuary on a backpacking trip back in 2014 and loved seeing all of the sloths. I paid extra to do the Insiders tour which I wholly recommend as you get to feed the sloths and get really close to them. It really is one of those animal encounters worth splurging on.
Fun Fact: It’s a little out of the way to get to but it well worth it. It’s best visiting when you’re about to move on to Panama as Cahuita (where the sanctuary is located) has buses headed into Panama.
5. Seeing Polar Bears in Antarctica or Canada
It seems you don’t have to go all the way to Antarctica to see Polar Bears – although that would be totally cool – you can also see them in northern Canada. Personally, I’d be happy with either tour!
6. Gorilla trek in Rwanda or Uganda
After spotting the big five on safari the next bucket-list wildlife experience would be the do a gorilla trek in nearby Uganda or Rwanda.
7. Swimming with manatees
If you’ve read my ‘Welcome post’, you’ll know that I have a fondness for manatees – they kind of look like floating poop with faces (if poop was grey). Regardless, I would love to swim with these creatures in the wild.
This was one of my first wildlife experiences, swimming with them at Xel-ha, a water / nature park in Mexico. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t swim with animals in a place like this anymore as I don’t particularly agree with it, but if it wasn’t for that experience I would never had heard of them.
Note: They are pretty big but are very gentle creatures.
8. Cuddling a Koala in Australia
I did this when I was very young and had a great experience, which means I would totally recommend this for families as it’s child friendly. It’s a fairly short experience, you wait for your turn then when its time to go up, they place the koala on your and take your photograph.
From what I remember I had around five minutes with the koala, it really is a short experience which is organised for the photo, rather than spending time playing with the koala.
9. Cage Diving with Great Whites
Despite sounding utterly dangerous, this animal experience actually involves you swimming inside a cage within the ocean, with metal bars between you and the sharks. There are a number of places where you can experience a cage dive with great whites, the most popular being in South Africa, Mexico or Australia.
You don’t need to know how to actually dive for this experience which makes it relatively accessible to most travelers.
10. Going on Safari to spot the Big 5 in Africa
I’m sure a safari in Africa is high on most animal lovers bucket-lists. Whether it be a gateway to a love of animals or a pinnacle experiences for wildlife lovers, most people have a dream to go on a safari once in their lives.
The big five consists of:
- and Cape buffalos
Tip: While you can spot many of these animals elsewhere, Africa (especially southern Africa) is the best spot to see all five.
11. Swimming with whales in Tonga
Ever since I heard you could do this, the experience has found its place planted firmly at the top of my bucketlist. Unfortunately, Tonga is a little expensive to get to so this is an experience I’m saving for when I’m older and (hopefully) richer.
12. Visit the Penguins in Cape Town
You can visit Boulders Beach for a hassle free penguin sighting. You have to pay to get into the park which is a series of elevated boardwalks across the beach. As you walk through the area you can see penguins below you and also some swimming in the ocean.
29 EPIC Wildlife Experiences For Travelers | Best Animal Experiences & Encounters
13. Swim with turtles in Akumal
A short shuttle ride from Playa del Carmen in Mexico is the resort town of Akumal where you can swim with turtles in a shallow bay. You can hop on a tour for this aquatic animal encounter or go without one if you’re comfortable catching the shuttle bus on your own. The water is very clear and calm and you can rent snorkeling gear from the shop on the beach if you don’t have your own.
Top Tip: We found this relatively easy to do independently with hardly any Spanish. The hardest part was finding the bus stop in Playa del Carmen (which wasn’t hard at all) – ask your hotel / hostel receptionist for directions to the bus stop. If all else fails just say Akumal to any of the shuttle drivers and they should point you in the right direction.
14. Dive with Hammerhead sharks
Diving with hammerhead sharks is a dream of many scuba divers and there are a number of dive sites you can hit to give yourself a chance. Popular places to dive with hammerheads include the Galapagos, the Bahamas and Socorro. While you’re not guaranteed a sighting you have a pretty good shot at seeing them at these locations.
15. Visit the fox park in Japan
After searching for cat cafes on a super short trip to Japan last year I stumbled across a park full of foxes. I was unable to visit due to the location being to far from where I was visiting, but I added the experience to my bucketlist for the next time I’m in the country.
It’s called Zao Fox Village and you can find it in the mountains new Shiroishi. There are two different areas to the attraction; the first part resembling a petting zoo, while the second part is out in the open where the foxes wander freely.
Tip: Be careful with children around the foxes. These are wild foxes and are not domesticated. You can come up to them and pat them like you would a cat.
Pin it! (16-19 below)
16. Visit the Deer Park in Japan
A park full of deers? Located in Japan? Near a major city?
Yes, yes and yes.
A low key animal experience, Nara Park is an easy day trip from the nearby cities of Kyoto and Osaka, making it quite accessible to travelers. Many people traveling to Japan are likely to transit through those cities anyway as they make their way through the country.
I came so close to visiting this place on my school trip last year until our boss changed the itinerary. I think this and number 15, and number 29 definitely warrant a trip back to Japan.
17. See Komodo Dragons on Komodo Island
If you have the desire to see large lizards during your trip to Indonesia you’re in luck. The giant lizards, otherwise known as Komodo Dragons are found on the island of Komodo in Indonesia. They are also present on a few surrounding islands, and together these islands make up Komodo National Park. Tourists are able to see Komodo Dragons through boat tours as you are unable to visit the island yourself.
Hot Tip: To save money its best to get yourself to Flores and get a tour from there rather than paying for an expensive tour from Bali.
18. See the Wildebeest Migration
Wilderbeast, zebras, gwazelles and impalas – everywhere. These are some of the animals you see when taking a safari to the Serengeti National Park. There are a few good times to visit – such as calfing season in January, February and March, and river crossing in July and August. Really though, you can see the migration throughout the year you just have to visit the right spot.
19. See baby turtles trek into the sea
There are a few places in the world where you can watch baby turtles made the arduous trek into the ocean from their sanding nesting grounds. A lot of these babies wont make it, either being picked off by predators on their way to the ocean, or encountering trouble once they’re in the water.
A lot of the sites that arrange viewings of this journey do what they can to help the turtles avoid predators as they crawl towards the water, without overstepping boundaries.
20. Swim with Orcas in Norway
Norway is one of the only places in the world where tourists can swim with Orcas in the wild. In Norway you can do liveaboards with the aim of diving with them, or boat tours that offer snorkeling – and yes, the water will be cold.
21. Swim with pigs in the Bahamas
At Big Major Caye, one of the 100 of islands in the Bahamas, you’ll come across happy faces and big snouts. At this popular vacation spot you’ll get to swim with pigs in the sparkling clear waters. To get here you’ll need to hire a boat or hop on a tour from one of the main islands.
Top Tip: Don’t feed the pigs in the sand, a number of pigs were found dead through accidental ingestion of sand during feedings. If you must feed them, do so in the water
22. Go elephant spotting in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is said to have the most elephants in a country in all of Asia, according to their Department of Wildlife Conservation. To see large herds of elephants in the wild you can visit Kaudulla National Park with the best viewing time being between August to December.
Top Tip: Be careful when researching elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka as not all are as ethical as they state.
23. Swim with seals in Kaikoura
In the sleepy seaside town of Kaikoura in New Zealand visitors can join a tour to swim with adorable seals in the ocean. It isn’t too far of a swim out to the swimming spot and kids are welcome (atleast they were when I was younger). Here you’ll see multiple seals swimming around you in their natural habitat.
This one I got the pleasure of doing when I was much younger. Unfortunately the guide decided to make a joke about Great White Sharks in the area just before we got in so I was a little nervous. The experience was amazing though and I’d love to do it again one day.
24. See the Giant Tortoise in Galapagos Islands
Though their numbers are dwindling you have a good chance of spotting the giant tortoise in Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands. The giant tortoise is a rare species and is only found in two places; the Galapagos islands and Aldabra in Tanzania – both remote islands where the animals are less accessible to hunters and hazards.
25. Visit the Asa Wright Centre in Trinidad
With around 166 species of birds and more than 400 or so in the park at any given time, the Asa Wright Centre is a birder’s paradise. If you catch yourself seeking out birds wherever you go you’ll need to add this place to your bucketlist. Hummingbirds are especially popular here and you’ll find many other bird watchers here to share sightings with.
Fun Fact: Bill Oddie called it “the best place to watch birds in the world”.
26. See Grizzly Bears in Canada
There are a number of places and tours in Canada that take you to see grizzly bears. The Yukon and British Colombia are popular spots for sightings, some easier to reach than others. If visiting a lodge rather than going on a tour you’ll find some interesting arrival transportation such as boats, seaplanes and helicopters, for the more remote spots.
27. See Pandas in China
While it’s a little hard to see pandas in the wild there are many sanctuaries in the Sichuan province of China where you can see these rather large bundles of fur. You can visit these sanctuaries on their own or you can arrange a tour with a driver to visit.
Tourists can even pay to take a tacky photo with these creatures in what resembles a cheap blue rain poncho, however I decided to pass on my visit. This is one of those great animal experiences for children too as they can get relatively close to the pandas, without actually interacting with them.
28. Crocodile Cage Diving in Australia
Yes, this is actually a thing!
And you’ve probably guessed correctly that the place you can do this in is Australia – the land of animals that want to kill you. Visiting Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin you will have the opportunity to hop in a circular cage and spend 15 minutes up close with the dinosaur-esque creatures.
Hot Tip: Enjoy your experience in the “cage” as the company has their staff taking pictures of you so you don’t have to!
29. Snow Monkeys in Hot Springs in Japan
If you’re visiting Japan in winter for a ski vacation take a day (or a few) off and visit Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. This place is heralded as the only place in the world to watch monkeys soak in hot springs. It’s not the most centrally located but is well worth the trip if you are in the area.
There is my massive bucketlist of wildlife experiences for travelers. Which one is at the top of your list?