Whenever anyone asks us what is left on our bucket list. We always say “To see a mountain gorilla in Rwanda”. We've had the privilege of having many animal encounters around the world, but we're still holding out hope that we'll make it to central Africa one day soon. We are convinced it will happen.
Our answer used to be to see polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba and that dream came true last summer. As a matter a fact, all our animal encounters from around the world were once just dreams. They all eventually became realities. So while we dream of seeing gorillas one day, we take a moment to cherish and remember all the amazing wildlife encounters we've had on all seven continents. If you are planning on travelling and having your own animal encounter abroad, these are our suggestions of ones you cannot miss!
1. Polar Bears in Canada
We said it above and we'll say it again. Seeing the polar bears in Churchill was our greatest wildlife watching dream. It finally came true last summer with Churchill Wild. We boarded a small twin otter plane to a remote lodge on the Hudson Bay where we spent three days exploring the tundra in search of polar bears. Not only did we see polar bears, we had the honour of walking with polar bears. The incredible thing about this animal encounter is that you get out of the tundra vehicle and hike towards the polar bears where you stop a safe distance away, but are close enough to have an intimate interaction with them.
See our Polar Bear encounter in our video.
Read more at our Polar Bear Photos: Be Transported to the Wild Edge of Manitoba
2. Big 5 in Africa
When we first visited Africa in 2007, we spent five months on the continent and never experienced a true Big 5 safari. We went on a quick Chobe River cruise in Botswana where we saw a lot of elephants, but that was all we saw. The rest of that trip was spent cycling the continent. We always regret not doing a proper safari before our flight home from Cape Town. Lucky for us, we've had the chance to revisit Africa a couple of times and the first adventure on our list was a safari in Kenya.
See our African animal encounters at Kenya Photos, A Visual Journey
We spent two weeks going on safari after safari having countless wildlife encounters. Lake Nakuru was all about seeing the rhinos, buffalos and flamingos. Amboseli was the best place to see elephants and hippos and the Maasai Mara was where we saw the elusive leopard, as well as prides of lions. Kenya was an unforgettable place to see wild animals in their natural habitat.
Going on Safari? Check out our tips on TravelSmith for How to Prepare for an African Safari.
Check out our Wildlife Photography Gallery for all our animal encounters from around the world.
3. Orangutans in Borneo
One of the first animal encounters we ever had on our travels was visiting the Orangutan sanctuaries of Borneo. We went to both the Semenggoh and Sepilok rehabilitation centres of Borneo where we watched orangutans come in for a feeding. This was a magical experience as the Orangutans here are rescues that are slowly rehabilitated into the wild. They are free to come and go as they please and feedings are simply a way to ease them back into living on their own. Once they learn to take care of themselves, they stop coming to the feeding platforms and live out their days back in the jungle.
See all the wildlife of Borneo at Malaysian Borneo, a Nature Lover's Dream
4. Pandas in China
I don't think there is a cuter gentle giant than China's giant panda. When visiting Chengdu, the top attraction for us was visiting the Giant Panda Research Centre. Pandas are endangered and the panda research centre is doing its best to keep the species alive. Luckily, Pandas don't move much or take up a lot of space, but they do eat a lot. They have to eat up to 40 kilos (88 pounds) of bamboo a day! Walking through the centre lets you see pandas lazing in trees and munching on bamboo. There are baby pandas and red pandas too!
Read more about the pandas at The Pandas of Chengdu
5. Wildlife of Antarctica
Antarctica is a spectacular wildlife destination for animal encounters unlike anywhere else on earth. Wildlife in the Antarctic don't see a lot of humans so when you land on the island or paddle around the peninsula, animals come out to take a look and see what's up. Penguins are the most curious creatures and if you are very still, they will waddle right up to you and peck at your clothes. They may smell awful, but the penguins of Antarctica are the cutest of all the animal encounters we've ever had.
Read more at All the Pretty Penguins.
Other animals you'll see in Antarctica are also pretty spectacular. Whales will surface right in front of your zodiac or kayak and seals will ignore you as they bask in the sun while you float by in silence. When we camped on Antarctica, we had a huge leopard seal sleeping less than 20 metres from our camp. We heard it gurgling and burping all night long.
6. Tortoise in Galapagos
Next to Antarctic, the Galapagos is the next best place for up close and personal animal encounters. The wildlife in the Galapagos is also the most unique on earth. It is here that you'll see species that you won't see anywhere else in the world. The marine iguana is a one of a kind iguana found only in the Galapagos. The galapagos shark is native only to these islands and the only place you'll find the flightless cormorant is here. It lost the ability to fly because of the lack of natural predators. You can even find penguins in the Galapagos. The galapagos penguin is the smallest penguin in the world. But for us, the best animal encounter was seeing the giant galapagos tortoise. It's the largest tortoise in the world living up to 170 years old. You have to see their size with your own eyes, but the galapagos tortoise can weigh up to half a ton.
Read more at the Galapagos Tortoise A Gentle Giant
7. Whale Sharks in Mexico
They are the largest fish in the sea. Swimming among these gentle giants is an experience you'll never forget. Whale sharks can grow to 12 metres (40 feet) in length. They migrate off the coast of Mexico from June to September and tours take people out to their feeding grounds where you can jump in the water for a closer look. Whale sharks swim fast so it's work to keep up with them, but it's worth the effort. Even if it is chaotic above the water, it's serene and silent underneath as whale sharks silently swim through the sea.
See our entire experience as we Swim with Whale Sharks.
8. Great White Sharks in South Africa
Staying in the water, another spectacular animal encounter we had was in South Africa when we went cage diving with great white sharks. We dove with White Shark Projects who is very concerned about conservation and preservation. Sadly, sharks are the most misunderstood creatures in the world and they are at a great risk of extinction. Almost 40 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone to feed the Asian market’s desire for shark fin soup. Diving with sharks lessons the fear of sharks as you realise that humans are not the sharks' first choice in food and you can see just how intelligent and beautiful they are.
Read about our best shark encounters around the world
9. Sharks in Belize
Outside the cage we've also had our share of shark encounters. From scuba diving in Mexico to snorkelling with the galapagos shark. But it was our first experience in Belize that sticks with us. Swimming with sharks and manta rays in Shark Ray Alley is an experience you'll never forget.
10. Vultures in Spain
We didn't expect to have an incredible animal encounter in Europe. It's not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of wildlife. But in the Pyrenees of Spain we visited a vulture hide where we could watch these birds of prey feed in their natural habitat. There were hundreds of vultures feasting on goat meat. Watching from within the hide allowed us to view them without them even noticing, letting spectators see exactly how the frenzy of birds reacts to a feast.
Read all about our experience at Vultures in the Pyrenees
11. Moose in Canada
My favourite Canadian animal is the moose. They are just so huge and dopy looking. Don't let their gangling awkwardness fool you though, moose can be vicious and when encountering them in the wild you must show respect and keep your distance. The way to view moose in the wild is definitely by canoe. In Algonquin Park, Ontario, moose are plenty and if you go with the right guide you'll see dozens hanging out on the water's edge or even swimming in the water at sunrise and sunset.
12. Beluga Whales in Canada
Paddling with beluga whales playing under our boats in Manitoba was the most uplifting animal encounter we've ever had. They were little darlings rubbing their noses on our boats, popping up whenever we sang and swimming all around us. The more you sang the more curious they became. And once they spotted your boat, if you paddled hard, they would play in your wake and follow you everywhere.
Check out the entire experience at Kayaking with Beluga Whales
13. Swimming with Dolphins in Australia
We were a little nervous to swim with dolphins in South Australia. We'd swam with them before, but these were the same waters that we went cage diving with great white sharks the day before. We were particularly nervous when our dive master put on an electric transmitter that apparently keeps the sharks away and told us to not stray too far from him. Plus, the water was freezing. A mere 16 degrees Celsius (about 60 Fahrenheit). But once we were in our dolphin experience in Baird's Bay, it was the best we'd ever had. I couldn't believe how playful these little guys were. What we love about swimming with dolphins in the wild is that it is completely up to them if they want to swim with you or not. If they're having fun, they'll stick around. Our dolphins clearly loved us because they stuck around for a really long time and we got out of the water completely thrilled.
Check it out at A Dolphin Swim in Shark Country
14. Wolves in Canada
In our home province of Ontario, Canada there is a wolf sanctuary in Haliburton Forest. It's an amazing way to observe wolves in their natural environment. There is no interaction with the wolves. They are outside in a large sanctuary while you look on from inside a building behind a large glass window. The wolves are free to roam the property and only come in for feedings. They let the wolves interact as they would in the wild, complete with the hierarchy of the Alpha Male to the poor Omega.
Read all about it at the Grey Wolf Sanctuary of Haliburton Forest
15. Wolf Dog in Alberta
They may not be wild, but the Yamnuska Wolf Dog Sanctuary in Alberta is an uplifting experience. People often adopt wolf dogs thinking it would be cool to have a dog that is part wolf as a pet. Unfortunately most people don't do the research needed to actually take care of a wolf dog and end up abandoning or neglecting them. The sanctuary rescues wolf dogs and rehabilitates them and tries to find them new homes or sanctuaries to live out their days. Visitors can go into their habitat and sit with the wolf dogs. Once they feel comfortable enough, they may come and let you pet or feed them for just a minute or two.
Watch our Wolf dog video.
16. Grizzly Bear in the Yukon
We finally saw a grizzly bear in the wild this summer in the Yukon. We were on a base camp adventure with Canada Parks and all week we had seen grizzlies in the distance, but just as we were about to catch our bush plane out, a grizzly mama with two cubs walked right by our camp and spent a good 15 minutes swimming in the water, burrowing in the ground and frolicking with her cubs. It was magnificent.
Check out our video of the Grizzly Encounter.
17. Koalas and Kangaroos in South Australia
Check out more photos at Koala Cuteness in South Australia
18. Crocodiles in South Africa
19. Sea Turtles in the Maldives
Who doesn't love sea turtles. They look like cute little old men. We've snorkelled with sea turtles a few times, but it was in the Maldives that we had the best sea turtle encounter ever. On a reef just off shore from Cinnamon Dhonveli we went snorkelling with sea turtles for a solid hour. We saw nearly a dozen sea turtles during our time on the reef. It was wonderful.
See: 10 of the Best Things to do in the Maldives
20. Toucans in Brazil
We're not much into birds. Often times when guides point out birds, we say, “that's nice” and move on. But the Bird Sanctuary at Iguazu Falls was actually quite awesome. They rescue birds from traffickers and the black market and give them a sanctuary to live out their days. While seeing all the amazing birds like parrots, macaws, and parakeets, it was the toucan that we were most excited about. Seeing them up close was a beautiful experience, but seeing them in the wild all over Iguazu Falls was spectacular. We'd never seen toucans before and now we were seeing them at every turn!
So there you have it. Our best wildlife encounters since our first travels in 2003. We've been to a lot of places and seen a lot of wildlife and these are our favourites. We still want to see the gorillas and we'd love to see the Komodo Dragon. I wish we weren't so lazy when we were in Bali. We sat on the beach for a month instead of taking a trip to Komodo. Trust me, don't put off doing something you should be doing in your travels. That trip was in 2004 and we still have yet to see the Komodo Dragon. But we have faith, it will happen one day. After all, we eventually got back to Africa for that safari!