I don’t tend to have a big animal focus in my travels. I think there may only be one animal-related item on my current travel wish list: I want to go to Stewart Island and try to see a kiwi in the wild. Sure, there are other animal encounters that I wouldn’t say no to – a photographic safari in Africa and a trip somewhere to see puffins come to mind – but they aren’t top travel wishes, as evidenced by the fact that I was in Cape Breton two summers ago and could have taken a boat trip out to see puffins but didn’t because other items got prioritized higher on our itinerary.
But even if animals are rarely a travel focus, I have had some good animal encounters. Here are my top five favorite wild animal experiences.
Surrounded by a Pod of Dolphins near Ventura
In March, 2004, we took a short trip to Ventura with a goal of going over to the Channel Islands for some hiking. We settled on a trip to Santa Cruz Island. The island itself was pretty, and we had a very nice hike. The highlight of the trip, though, came on our boat ride back to the mainland. The captain came on the loadspeaker and said “Folks, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we’re going to be a little late getting back into harbor. The good news is that the reason for this is that a pod of dolphins has decided to come play with us.”
And indeed, when we looked out to sea, there were dolphins as far as we could see, frolicking in the waves and our wake. It is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. We have pictures, but they don’t do it justice. This is the best photo we have. If you look closely, you can see the dolphins jump in and out of the waves, but it doesn’t really convey the sense of awe of being surrounded by a playful pod.
Bison in South Dakota
In the spring of 2000, I drove across country with my sister. Our route took us through South Dakota, and one of the stops we decided to make was Custer State Park. It seems an unfortunate name for the park, since its namesake is best known for his role in wars fought to take land from Native Americans, and the biggest attraction in the park is a free roaming herd of bison, an animal white Americans almost wiped out in our campaign to claim the West of this country for ourselves.
The bison herd in Custer State Park is definitely a cool sight to see. They are magnificent creatures and if you’re lucky they will stroll right past your car. You read about how big and powerful bison are, but you don’t really know it until you see one up close. (Note this picture was taken with a zoom… there is no way we would have dared get so close to the bison!)
Baby Turtles in Bundaberg
We couldn’t fit a proper visit to the Great Barrier Reef into the itinerary for our Circle Pacific trip in 2005. Looking back, that is hard to believe – but I think we assumed we’d make it back to Australia before too long. We haven’t.
However, we did make time to visit the very outer reaches of the reef via a boat trip from Bundaberg. One of the other things we did in Bundaberg was visit the Mon Repos Conservation Park to see the baby turtles hatch. At the time we went, you could buy tickets just a day or two in advance… it looks like that is not the case anymore, so I feel even more lucky that we got to have this experience.
Most of the experience is waiting around in an outdoor amphitheater for your turn to go out to see a nest of turtles hatch. It was well after midnight before our turn came, but it was definitely worth the wait. Watching the little turtles emerge from their nest in the sand and make their way to the sea was a special experience… but we also got to pet a baby turtle. If one of the turtles heads in the wrong direction, the staff picks it up and will take it down to the water to release. Before doing that, they let the visitors have a quick pet.
Deer in Tuolumne Meadows
Like most visitors to Yosemite, we spent our first day down in the valley, admiring the famous sites. We saw some deer in the village, which was fun but not particularly awe-inspiring. They seemed almost tame.
On the second day of our visit, we went on a short hike in Tuolumne Meadows. We saw a couple of deer near the mineral springs. The ranger had said we might – apparently the deer like the mineral water. That was a more wild sighting!
As nice as this picture is, though, it doesn’t capture our truly breath-taking deer encounter. As we walked back towards the parking lot, several large bucks ran just feet in front of us. None of us could get a camera up and snap a picture before they were gone, but it was definitely an encounter to remember. I don’t know if it was just the large antlers adding to their height, or if bucks really are much bigger than the does… but they were impressive creatures. We left that encounter feeling like we’d witnessed something truly wild.
A Moose Sighting
Speaking of large animals… Although moose are reasonably common in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, we didn’t really expect to see one. We weren’t doing any extensive hiking off the beaten track.
We got lucky, though, and came quite close to a moose on the famous Skyline Hike. A moose is a very large animal, and it was really cool to see one. Once again, this photo was taken with a zoom because after seeing how big a moose is, we had no desire to push our luck by getting any closer!
Honorable Mention: Koala Patting
I decided this list should only be animal encounters in the wild, so I couldn’t include our visit to the Billabong Zoo, where I got to pet a koala. But it was pretty cool!
Koala fur is surprisingly fuzzy, and not plush. But look at that cutie! “Koala patting” (as the experience was advertised) was definitely a treat.