Natural Selection: 20 of the World’s Best Wildlife Holidays
Whatever’s on your wildlife wishlist, I think I may have found the perfect holiday. From puffins to polar bears, koalas to king penguins, there’s nothing like an encounter with a truly wild animal to make your heart race and put a big grin on your face. It’s only natural.
I’ve been lucky enough to live a pretty wild life – not in the rock-n-roll sense you understand, but one that’s been as crammed full of wildlife encounters as I could possibly make it.
For a year to pass without hearing the whoosh of a whale surfacing would be unthinkable! Nothing lifts my spirits more than the natural spectacle of a seabird city. And as for predators – the bears and big cats – once you’ve met their smouldering gaze, you’ll be smitten for life. I’m also a softie for cute-and-cuddlies like koalas and meerkats, and I’ll happily travel half-way around the world for even a fleeting glimpse of a rare beauty, like a kiwi or African wild dog.
Read on for 20 of my favourite wildlife encounters, where and when to experience them yourself and how independent travel specialist Discover the World can help make them happen…
1. Puffin | Iceland
The encounter: Each spring, puffins flock to sea cliffs around Iceland to nest. Find a good (and safe) vantage from which to watch them coming and going – dapper in their black-and-white plumage, wings beating frantically and, if you’re lucky, multi-coloured bills stuffed with sandeels.
Best time: April-mid August
Also look for: Gannet, fulmar, guillemot, minke whale, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise
Take me there: Iceland Odyssey Self-drive full-circle around the country, linking puffin hotspots like the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, West Fjords, East Fjords and South Coast.
Also consider: Spitsbergen, Canada, Alaska
2. Polar Bear | Canada
The encounter: Seek an audience with the Lord of the Arctic near Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay where giant-wheeled Polar Rovers often provide incredible, close-up views. Waiting for the sea to freeze over so they can hunt seals, as many as 1,200 polar bears gather here each year.
Best time: October-November
Also look for: Arctic hare, Arctic fox, snowy owl, ptarmigan, caribou, wolf
Take me there: Classic Polar Bear Adventure Spend two full days and an evening excursion on the Arctic tundra in search of polar bears and other wildlife.
Also consider: Spitsbergen, Greenland, Franz Josef Land, Canadian Arctic
3. Cheetah | Namibia
The encounter: This fabulous, freckled feline can be seen up-close and personal at Okonjima where the AfriCat Foundation rehabilitates cheetah (and other predators) displaced by farming. Tracking the big cats on foot, watching them learn how to hunt, is a thrilling experience.
Best time: May-November
Also look for: Lion, leopard, caracal, brown hyena and a wide range of birds
Take me there: Ultimate Namibia Join an escorted tour featuring Okonjima, desert-elephant tracking in Damaraland and Big Five game-viewing in Etosha National Park.
Also consider: South Africa, Botswana
4. King Penguin | South Georgia
The encounter: A right royal gathering, 400,000 pairs of king penguins breed here – their massed ranks transforming entire bays into a monochromatic melee of sleek black and white bodies, speckled with the orange flashes of their ear patches and the shaggy brown coats of chicks.
Best time: November-March
Also look for: Chinstrap, gentoo and macaroni penguins, elephant seal, fur seal and several species of albatross (including black-browed, grey-headed, light-mantled and wandering)
Take me there: Antarctic Peninsula & South Georgia Embark on an incredible voyage in the Southern Ocean, packed with opportunities for penguin and whale watching.
Also consider: Falkland Islands, Macquarie Island, Tierra del Fuego
5. Orca | Canada
The encounter: Johnstone Strait, between Vancouver Island and the British Columbian mainland is one of the best places in the world to see orca – particularly in late summer when they follow the salmon run. Watching a pod approach – black dorsal fins rising and falling – is mesmerising.
Best time: Late July-September
Also look for: Grizzly and black bears, wolf, humpback whale, bald eagle, Stellar’s sea lion, Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphin
Take me there: Whales & Bears at Farewell Harbour Head to a wilderness lodge in BC, perfectly located for tracking down orcas in Johnstone Strait and grizzly bears in Knight Inlet.
Also consider: Alaska, Iceland, Norway, Antarctica
6. Koala | Australia
The encounter: Stroll through an Australian eucalyptus forest, scouring the canopy and checking every fork in the highest branches, and you might just meet the gaze of this endearing little furball. Notoriously shy and sleepy, a wild encounter with a koala is a happy but hushed moment.
Best time: Year round (joeys born June-August)
Also look for: Echidna, platypus, wallaby, wombat, kangaroo, sea lion, fur seal
Take me there: Wild About Wildlife Fly-drive between Melbourne and Adelaide, with a full-day tour of Kangaroo Island and time exploring the Tassie wilderness.
Also consider: Papua New Guinea for other marsupials, including tree kangaroos
7. Brown Bear | Finland
The encounter: If you go down to the woods today… you better keep your eyes peeled. Based in Finland’s ancient taiga forest, you stand an excellent chance of seeing bears and other wildlife using specially designed hides and making the most of up to 20 hours of Nordic summer daylight.
Best time: June to August
Also look for: Wolverine, wolf, lynx, elk, red-throated diver, black woodpecker, goshawk
Take me there: Wild Brown Bear Adventure Enjoy a short break with a night or two in a specially designed hide in prime bear habitat – perfect for photographers.
Also consider: Sweden, Canada, Alaska
8. Kiwi | New Zealand
The encounter: Join a nocturnal nature walk in one of North or South Island’s primeval forests and you might hear the short, piping trill of a kiwi – New Zealand’s haunting call of the wild. With luck, you might even glimpse a fuzzy ball, two legs and a long beak busily sifting the leaf litter.
Best time: October-April
Also look for: Other indigenous birds, including kaka, bellbird, tui, saddleback, yellowhead and rifleman, plus coastal wildlife (albatrosses, penguins, shearwaters, petrels, cetaceans)
Take me there: Wildlife Encounters Set off on a wildlife-themed self-drive, including a night-time kiwi-spotting tour and whale watching in Kaikoura.
Also consider: Australia, for the kiwi’s closest living relatives: the emu and cassowary
9. Walrus | Svalbard
The encounter: First glance and they resemble a mound of smooth boulders. It’s only when one twitches and lifts a moustached face above the quivering mass of blubber that you realise they’re walruses, lounging on the shore, snoring, belching and breaking wind under the midnight sun.
Best time: June-August
Also look for: Polar bear, Arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer, seals (ringed, bearded, harbour), whales (beluga, fin, minke, humpback, blue) and birds (pink-footed goose, fulmar, guillemot, little auk)
Take me there: Around Spitsbergen Board a small-ship voyage to circumnavigate the largest of Svalbard’s islands – with superb wildlife and photo opportunities.
Also consider: Franz Josef Land, Greenland
10. African Elephant | Namibia
The encounter: This is no ordinary elephant: the arid, achingly beautiful wilderness of Damaraland in northern Namibia is the place to spot the rare desert elephant. Special adaptions (like a smaller body mass) give these pachyderms the edge in such a parched environment.
Best time: May-November
Also look for: Black rhino, gemsbok, lion, cheetah, leopard, zebra, giraffe
Take me there: Ozondjou Trails Elephant Conservation Get a taste of the life of an elephant conservationist, as you track Namibia’s desert adapted elephants.
Also consider: Botswana, South Africa for the ‘normal’ savanna (or bush) elephant
11. Grizzly Bear | Alaska
The encounter: When rivers in Alaska squirm with juicy fish during the annual salmon run, grizzly bears smack their lips in anticipation. Dozens of bears gather at particularly good spots, like Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park where salmon sometimes leap straight into the jaws of waiting bears.
Best time: June-September (late June-late July for bears fishing at Brooks Falls, Katmai)
Also look for: Sea lion, sea otter, puffin, bald eagle, wolf, whales
Take me there: Alaska’s Grizzlies: Kodiak to Katmai Join a small group, expert-guided wildlife tour combining two of Alaska’s prime grizzly bear locations.
Also consider: Canada (Knight Inlet, Great Bear Rainforest)
12. Humpback Whale | Iceland
The encounter: They’re the big show-offs of the cetacean world, and that’s why we love humpbacks. From spy-hopping to tail-slapping, they’re fascinating to watch. With luck, you’ll witness a breach – 30 tonnes of blubber leaping from the sea – or bubble-net feeding when they corral shoals of fish.
Best time: Year round, but spring, summer and autumn usually offer the best conditions
Also look for: Orca, blue whale, minke whale, dolphins and harbour porpoise and various sea birds (including puffin)
Take me there: Around Iceland Take a classic self-drive on Iceland’s Ring Road, linking key whale-watching locations like the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Husavik.
Also consider: Norway, Canada, Alaska, Spitsbergen, Antarctica, South Africa
13. Meerkat | South Africa
The encounter: A meerkat encounter is more than a match for any Big Five sighting. Endlessly fascinating to watch, you might observe them doing anything from sunbathing to scorpion hunting. Sit quietly near a colony and one of them may even use your head as a vantage point for sentry duty.
Best time: Year round
Also look for: Ostrich, Cape Mountain zebra, Big Five in nearby Eastern Cape reserves, whales and dolphins along the coast
Take me there: Essential South Africa Self-drive to the wildlife hotspots of the Cape Peninsula, Garden Route, Little Karoo and Eastern Cape game reserves.
Also consider: Namibia, Botswana
14. Elephant Seal | Falkland Islands
The encounter: There are few things in nature more magnificently grotesque than a male elephant seal – 2,000kg of blubber, a battle-scarred face and that extraordinary snout. Head to Sea Lion Island in the Falklands to witness these giants fighting over their harems.
Best time: October-April (Oct-Nov for fighting males and pupping season)
Also look for: Penguins (king, gentoo, Magellanic, rockhopper), sea lion, striated caracara, imperial shag, black-browed albatross
Take me there: Wildlife of the Falklands Island-hop to some of the Falkland’s best wildlife locations, including Sea Lion Island, Pebble Island and Volunteer Point.
Also consider: South Georgia, Antarctica, Argentina
15. Chilean Flamingo | Chile
The encounter: Pretty in pink, the Chilean flamingo is one of three South American flamingo species to strut its stuff in the Andes. Attracted by the microscopic algae that flourish in high-altitude salt lakes, they make a surreal sight against a backdrop of the volcano-pimpled Atacama Desert.
Best time: October-March
Also look for: Puma, guanaco, alpaca, vicuna, pudu, huemul, condor, rhea, sea otter, sea lion, elephant seal, whales (blue, humpback, sperm)
Take me there: Best of Chile Encompassed Explore two of Chile’s most spectacular and contrasting environments: Patagonia and the Atacama Desert.
Also consider: Namibia, South Africa, Argentina
16. African Wild Dog | Botswana
The encounter: These charismatic canids live in packs of 30 or more. Highly endangered, the Okavango is one of their last strongholds. A sighting is a rare privilege. Although their hunting prowess is legendary, you’re more likely to see them resting in the shade or socialising at communal dens.
Best time: Year round (June-August for denning season)
Also look for: Elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion, leopard, spotted hyena, cheetah, roan, sable, Chobe bushbuck, hippopotamus, crocodile
Take me there: Botswana Focus Wildlife wonders of Chobe National Park, Okavango Delta and Khwai River, plus time at Victoria Falls.
Also consider: Namibia, South Africa
17. Whale Shark | St Helena
The encounter: It’s the ultimate big fish story: a 12m-long ocean wanderer cruising near the surface, its letterbox mouth agape as it sieves plankton from the water. Whale sharks visit St Helena when the plankton blooms. Spot these gentle giants on boat trips – or, for the ultimate thrill, snorkel with them.
Best time: January-March
Also look for: Wirebird, devil ray, dolphins (pan-tropical spotted, bottlenose and rough-toothed), humpback whale (August-November)
Take me there: St Helena with the Locals Fly to the remote Mid-Atlantic island of St Helena for guided tours of the island’s rugged coastline, forests and marine life.
Also consider: Western Australia (Ningaloo Reef)
18. Tasmanian Devil | Australia
The encounter: Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is one of the best places to see native Australian mammals. Bennett’s wallabies and wombats can be glimpsed during the day, while Tasmanian devils, quolls and pygmy possums emerge at dusk.
Best time: October-March
Also look for: Little penguin, platypus, wallaby, possum, wombat, echidna, spotted tail and eastern quolls, wedge-tailed eagle, white goshawk
Take me there: Western Explorer: to the Edge of the World Explore Tasmania’s national parks and world heritage areas, including the pristine Tarkine wilderness.
Also consider: New Zealand, St Helena and Falkland Islands for indigenous island wildlife
19. Chinstrap Penguin | Antarctica
The encounter: Chinstraps often breeds in vast colonies of 100,000 pairs or more. Inquisitive and utterly captivating, they’ll give you an intimate insight into their lives, from courtship, brooding and feeding to making the daily commute to the sea and back to catch fish.
Best time: November-March
Also look for: Other penguins (Adelie, gentoo, emperor), elephant seal, seals (Weddell, leopard, crabeater), orca, humpback whales, various albatrosses and skuas
Take me there: Classic Antarctica Ideal for first-timers, join an exciting voyage to the White Continent, choosing from a range of departure dates and expedition ships.
Also consider: Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Chile, New Zealand or Australia for a variety of penguin species
20. Hector’s Dolphin | New Zealand
The encounter: Endemic to New Zealand, Hector’s dolphin is one of the world’s smallest cetaceans (just 1.4m in length), but it’s a little beauty, with distinctive black and white facial markings. Akaroa, South Island, is the place to see them, along with Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay on the Catlins Coast.
Best time: November-March
Also look for: Sperm whale (Kaikoura), dusky dolphin, New Zealand fur seal, blue penguin (Akaroa), other seabirds
Take me there: Whale and Dolphin Explorer Almost half of the world’s cetacean species are found in New Zealand waters and this self-drive takes you to some of the best locations.
Also consider: Various dolphin species can be spotted in: St Helena, Australia, Canada, Alaska, South Africa, Iceland and Norway