Nothing puts you in your place faster than an up-close experience with wildlife. Whether you are swimming alongside a seven-metre minke whale, crouching in the undergrowth within attack distance of a solid silverback gorilla, or following the progress of a heavily muscled polar bear stalking across the ice, the sound you hear in your head will be the same: the sound of homo sapiens' sense of superiority taking one hell of a tumble.
Getting close to a truly wild animal – close enough to watch its whiskers twitch, close enough to smell its pelt, close enough to lock eyes with it – is an extraordinary experience. Just as meeting people from other cultures, observing their differences and discovering their similarities makes you feel more human, watching a wild creature up close, observing its moods, its sense of play and (in some cases) its predatory instincts, puts you in touch with your inner animal. In a world where so many of our experiences are defined by the way humans have shaped nature, wildlife encounters are a reminder that nature has also shaped humans.
Some people are thrilled by coming face to face with top predators, the wolf packs and the lion prides. For those who flinch from the red-in-tooth-and-claw side of nature, however, there are plenty of gentler experiences on offer, including many of those showcased in the Australian Wildlife Collection (see box). Our selection of the world's most memorable animal encounters, as selected by some of Traveller's top writers, includes both types, so you can take your pick.
KAYAKING WITH ORCAS, JOHNSTONE STRAIT, CANADA.
By Andrew Bain
From the seat of my kayak, the dorsal fin towers over my head. In the sea ahead, salmon burst from the water like popcorn, at times clattering down onto the kayak. But it's not these fish that I'm here to see. It's the deadly hunter behind them – the orca that has just surfaced a handful of metres from my kayak.
I'm paddling in Johnstone Strait, the narrow channel that separates the northern end of Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland. Each summer, up to 250 orcas patrol this underwater canyon to feast on salmon as they migrate towards the Fraser River, the world's largest salmon-spawning river.
It's also here, in Robson Bight, that orcas cruise to the shore to rub their bellies against the round stones, scraping away layers of old skin, a behaviour seen nowhere else on earth.
Kayaks and boats are banned from entering Robson Bight, but we paddle right to its edge, drifting to the kelp line that runs beside the shore. Downing the paddles, we each grasp a strand of kelp and simply wait and watch as orcas surface around us, their fins seeming to rise and fall in balletic unison.
Regulations prevent us from paddling within 100 metres of the orcas, but nothing prevents them from coming near to us. They surface 40 metres away, then 30 metres and then, this once, less than five metres away, disturbing both the water and, briefly, my equilibrium as the two-metre-high dorsal fin of a male killer whale suddenly looms beside me.
Each night we paddle back to our camp behind one of the strait's stony beaches, just a kilometre from the edge of the Robson Bight reserve. Sitting in the darkness, around a beach campfire, the sound of passing orcas fills the night – an explosion of air as each animal surfaces just metres away. We fall to silence, an awed hush at this sound from the sea that is far better than any campfire yarn. Tomorrow we will be paddling among them once again.
NEED TO KNOW
Despite the orca's fearsome reputation, there has never been a recorded attack on humans in the wild. The greatest risk here is falling out of the kayaks or being clobbered by an errant salmon.
North Island Kayak runs a range of kayaking trips through Johnstone Strait. The three-day Orca Sea Kayaking Safari operates from mid-July to September and costs from C$875. See kayakbc.ca
LION FEEDING FRENZY, KENYA
By Ute Junker
In Africa, everyone is a cat person. Giraffe are endearing, elephants are imposing, hippos can bellow like no one's business, but it is the big cats that are really mesmerising, both for their beauty and for their ability to eviscerate you should the mood take them.
Of all the cats, the lions put on the best show. Leopards and cheetahs are shy, solitary creatures; lions, by contrast, let it all hang out. They seem remarkably unperturbed by spectators, whether they are engaged in marathon mating sessions or just lounging around on a tree branch.
The most spectacular moment for a lion encounter is, of course, feeding time, and since lions spend several days feasting off a kill, plenty of safari-goers get the chance to gatecrash a meal. My favourite encounter came when our guide led us to two female lions and their three cubs as they tucked into the carcass of a freshly-killed baby giraffe.
It is not a sight for the squeamish; if it's good manners you want, stay at home. Safari is life unedited and when animals feed, there is plenty of blood and guts involved – literally. However, it is fascinating to see a wild animal eat. I watch one of the mothers licking patiently at the stomach of the dead giraffe; surprisingly quickly, she manages to work her way inside its stomach, barely using her teeth. Turns out that lions' tongues are as rough as sandpaper, more than a match for the tender underbellies of their prey.
One of the most impressive things about life on the African plains is how many animals a single kill can sustain. Once the lions have taken their share of the carcass, other animals get a go. None will make a move while the lions surround the carcass, alternately dining and dozing, but a few metres away, a hungry horde eagerly positions itself, its members squabbling among themselves over who gets priority. The burly hyenas are top of the pecking order, followed by the slender jackals and finally the vultures. There will be enough for everyone, even if the poor old vultures have to make do with the least tempting morsels.
NEED TO KNOW
Kenyan safari camps offer twice-daily game drives under the supervision of expert guides. The best wildlife viewing happens between the months of July and October. Leave the littlies at home; safari requires the ability to sit quietly for long periods of time.
Mara Ngenche Safari Camp, an intimate tented camp overlooking a hippo pool, offers spectacular wildlife encounters. Room and board rates start from $US807 ($1075). See atua-enkop.com/mara-ngenche-safari-camp
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of the Kenyan Tourism Board.
SPOTTING CONDORS IN COLCA CANYON, PERU
By Ben Groundwater
There is an air of expectation among the people gathered on the cliff top this morning, a murmur of excitement passing among those huddled together in their warmest clothes. Soon, we're all thinking, they will appear.
Some people are gathered at the official "Cruz del Condor" lookout. Others have scrambled over rocks beside the yawning chasm below us to gain a better view. It's hard to see anything at the moment though, hard to imagine what lies beneath until the light slowly strengthens, the mist wallowing on the lip of the canyon dissolves, and that dizzying abyss, more than twice the height of the Grand Canyon, is revealed.
Colca Canyon. It would be famous for the landscape alone, for this tear in the Andean plateau sinks more than three kilometres deep. But everyone is here this morning for another attraction entirely.
We gaze into the depths of the chasm as the temperature rises, searching the space below, feeling warm air being forced out of the canyon, and then, without warning, there they are: condors. Huge condors, charcoal-black feathers and bare heads, easily seen from this short distance rising up out of the mist. With a three-metre-wide wingspan, they catch the updrafts as they sail just above our heads, dancing silently on the currents. There's one, then there's two, and then there are 10 of these magnificent birds appearing out of the chasm, catching the first rays of sunlight, preparing for the hunt.
You get used to the sight of condors in Peru, although they're usually just tiny black specks that dip and soar high above in the Andes. They're the world's largest flying birds, 15-kilogram beasts that rule the Peruvian skies, and yet they're always so far away, gliding gracefully on the breeze, watching from high above.
At Colca Canyon, however, they're right there. Right in front of you. You can hear the whoosh of feathers as they soar over your head, picking up the thermal currents, climbing higher. You can follow the gaze of their beady eyes as they scan for scraps of food, playing up to the crowd with this daily performance.
Camera shutters click, people smile and point and gape at this amazing sight – and then, just as suddenly as they appeared, the condors are gone. They're flying once again high in the air, just small specks above the Andes.
NEED TO KNOW
Though it's tempting to find your own private viewing point to see the condors at Colca Canyon, we would recommend staying within the walled lookouts.
You can spot condors in the early morning at Colca Canyon on most days throughout the year. The site is about a five-hour drive from the city of Arequipa (though lodging is available nearby), and entry costs $28. It's best to use a reputable tour company to get you there and back.
See chimuadventures.com.au for more.
POLAR BEARS ON THE ICE IN ARCTIC SVALBARD
By Kerry van der Jagt
At first it's just a cream smudge against white ice, but as our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, nudges closer the outline of a sleeping polar bear with two cubs begins to take shape. Closer still, the huddled forms look like a litter of Labrador puppies – all snouts and fur and folded haunches. Leaning against the bow rail I breath it in, letting the indigo light pour through me. All around there is nothing but ice and sky and silence.
The next instant my reverie is broken by the sighting of a lone male picking his way across the floes. Head down and paws pumping he is intent on one thing – cubs. Males are known to kill cubs to trigger estrus in the female for mating, or, as some scientists have suggested, to supplement their diet during lean times.
Collectively, we stare in stunned silence, mentally willing the sleeping beauty to waken. But she's as still as a crystal statue, thin from a poor season and weary from the need to travel further north in her endless search for stable ice. Through our binoculars the king of the ice draws closer.
It's midnight on day three of our exploration of Arctic Svalbard and we are well above 80 degrees north. Since departing Longyearbyen I've hardly slept, discombobulated by the white nights of the midnight sun and high on adrenalin. Already I've seen belugas and bearded seals, kayaked beside glaciers and watched fogbows lace the horizon, but today it is polar bears we're searching for.
While polar professionals will tell you that blood on the ice represents life, not death, I don't have the heart for it. Tonight the universe agrees. Under a pewter sky our ship swings on her axis, cutting off the path of the male and alerting the female, who leads her cubs in a mad dash to the water. Whether it was the wind, current, or some invisible force, tonight they are safe. For the next hour we watch as the bully boy paces from port to starboard – shaking his head, stomping on the ice – miffed as a petulant teenager.
NEED TO KNOW
Polar bear encounters are safe from the ship, but represent a real danger on land. By law guides carry rifles and guests must stay in single file behind them.
Lindblad Expeditions offers an 11-day Land of the Ice Bears trip from $13,621 from Oslo. Expeditions depart May and June. See expeditions.com
SWIMMING WITH MINKE WHALES, GREAT BARRIER REEF
By Louise Southerden
It's like a stretch-limo dolphin, seven metres of marine mammal that materialises out of the blue and glides past me, close enough to touch. Except it doesn't pass me. It stops, surfaces and fixes me with one dark eye. I try not to anthropomorphise, but there's no other way to say this: I feel "seen", as if I'm not the only one doing the watching.
Not much is known about dwarf minke whales. They were first seen in the 1980s from dive boats off the Great Barrier Reef north of Cairns, the only place in the world they gather and for just a few weeks every year, usually in June and July.
What is known is that they are intensely inquisitive and often attracted by boat engines. "You don't find the minkes," says marine biologist Dr Alistair Birtles, our trip leader. "They find you." Still, three days of our four-day live-aboard trip go by with only brief sightings.
Then, shortly after breakfast on day four, a shout comes, the one we've all been waiting for: "Minke!"
We hurry into our wetsuits, put on masks, snorkels and fins and slip into the water, then swim along the "minke line", a rope trailing behind the now-stationary boat, positioning ourselves at intervals along it like Christmas lights.
When the first minke appears, it's accompanied by snorkel-squeals of delight up the line. Within seconds, I count eight of these little whales beside, below and behind us. One does a pirouette on its tail.
I've swum with other marine mammals, with 300 dolphins off New Zealand's South Island, with sea lions in the Galapagos. This is different.
It's less frenetic, for one thing, more ethereal. It's also one of the most prolonged wildlife encounters I've had on land or at sea. We spend almost nine hours in the water with 16 wild minkes, only taking a short break for lunch on the boat.
"There's no other large animal on earth that keeps going around for hours and hours, looking at you," says Birtles.
Only when the light fades do we reluctantly swim back to the boat and clamber aboard. Even then, as the minke line is pulled in and the engine rumbles to life, we stand on deck wrapped in towels watching the whales swim back and forth across our wake, not wanting this to end. Well played, minkes.
NEED TO KNOW
Don't touch the whales, don't swim towards them, hold onto the safety line at all times, and if you have an underwater camera make sure the flash is turned off.
Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, the only dedicated swim-with-minkes operator in the world, runs four- to six-day live-aboard trips every June and July from $2900pp. See marineencounters.com.au
SPOTTING GORILLAS, UGANDA
By Jamie Lafferty
Gorillas have always driven us a bit nutty. How else to explain their roles in Tarzan, and King Kong, and Planet of the Apes – how else to explain the likes of Dian Fossey going almost insane when gorillas emerged from the mist.
And yet, for an animal that has dominated our thoughts for so long, mountain gorillas are now so rare as to be just a human war or serious disease away from permanent annihilation. They are five times rarer than tigers, three times rarer than giant pandas, and you absolutely don't come across them by accident.
Instead, in a very few places, including Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, tourists can go on expensive, organised treks to reach the dwindling world of the mountain gorilla.
The rules and regulations are extensive – a maximum of 24 people a day are permitted to see the apes, with interactions limited to an hour, so as not to over-familiarise the gorillas with people, and to cut down on the chances of tourists doing something stupid.
Although they're completely wild, gorilla trekking in Bwindi comes with a virtual guarantee of success, and a little hardship too. The morning I spent in Bwindi, I got lucky – not just with the sunshine, but with the trek, which lasted for only an hour before trackers found the Rushegura family.
In a leafy clearing, the family seemed utterly relaxed about we visitors, the adults and sub-adults looking right past us while variously breaking branches, wind, and our hearts. The same was not to be said for baby Nyamunwa, who came over to me, seemingly fascinated by my notebook, which hadn't even made it out of my pocket. Her huge wet eyes were impossible to meet, so instead I found myself focussing on her gentle hand – on its wrinkles, on the familiar cuticles. I wondered, too, what I would do if she stole the book and a week's worth of notes. On those tattered pages I had scrawled a quote from David Attenborough and the truth of it never felt more profound than in those electric moments with Nyamunwa:
"It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen them to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not, and that we are."
NEED TO KNOW
You're not allowed to get closer than seven metres from mountain gorillas, but that doesn't mean they won't get closer to you. When they approach, don't stare into their eyes too long and try not to bare your teeth – even if all you want to do is smile.
You can track gorillas year-round, although the height of the rainy seasons can make the conditions heavy going. The best times are in the drier months from about June to mid-September or December to February. African wildlife experts Asilia can help organise this unforgettable experience, either on its own or as part of a wider itinerary around Africa. See asiliaafrica.com
WOLF WATCHING IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, US
By Julie Miller
The Brothers Grimm have a lot to answer for. Slandered incessantly in fairytales, the wolf – big, bad and granny-chomping – is arguably the most vilified animal in history, demonised, feared and hunted to near extinction throughout Europe and the United States.
The last wolf pups of Yellowstone were shot in their dens by government-sanctioned rangers in 1926; but after seven decades of ecological imbalance caused by the loss of its apex predator, 31 Canadian grey wolves were reintroduced into America's first National Park between 1995 and 1996 in one of the boldest, most controversial and successful environmental experiments of all time.
Today, Yellowstone's population of around 100 wolves is back with a vengeance, with the former "bad boys" now holding celebrity status among tourists keen to catch a glimpse of this charismatic creature. In the northern Lamar Valley – known as the Serengeti of the US – large crowds gather daily to join professional and volunteer wolf researchers monitoring the park's 11 wolf packs, with their every move recorded in a bid to learn about their daily lives, breeding habits and impact on the eco-system.
Being territorial, wolves are surprisingly easy to find – just follow a traffic jam and pull over when you spot the paparazzi, lined up on a hillside with cameras and scopes. Leading the quiet frenzy is Rick McIntyre, a biologist who has been observing the packs for 20 years, earning him the title of "Pied Piper of the wolf watchers". On any given day, you can find McIntyre perched on a stool, eye glued to a scope scanning the hillside for action, sharing his knowledge and equipment with anyone who desires a closer look.
It's this generosity that makes wolf-watching in Yellowstone so popular – rather than being shooed away or treated as a nuisance, passers-by are encouraged to join in and share their own observations of the wolves, with their insights contributing to valuable data collection.
It's an experience that cannot fail to resonate with any nature-lover, with the misunderstood and persecuted wolf now a fascinating symbol of freedom and the wild. As I hear one little girl, trembling with excitement, gush to her parents: "I can't believe I've finally seen a wolf! We can go home now."
NEED TO KNOW
Like any wildlife-spotting experience in Yellowstone, common sense and respect is key when watching wolves. For safety reasons, do not venture beyond the line of wolf-watchers; listen to the advice of the professionals, and keep noise to a minimum.
You can observe wolves year-round, though winter and spring are optimum for visibility and action. Early morning sightings are most common. The experience is free with park entry ($US25 per vehicle), though guided tours with experts are also available. See yellowstonenationalpark.com
BAT MIGRATION, ZAMBIA
By Catherine Marshall
The sun is about to set, and when darkness descends I will be surrounded by 10 million wild creatures.
I can sense them already from my perch atop a great old African ebony tree: they grow restless, shifting and and twitching and tossing so that the swamp forest heaves with their presence. They grow vocal, too, whining and grunting in ones and twos and threes and fours and then in clamorous unison so that the air is soon thick with the sound of 10 million animals straining to break free.
Now the sun has slipped away and the scouts have emerged, checking to see that daylight has indeed been extinguished. And right on cue, in obeisance to some primordial instinct, the creatures arise from the forest, staining the dusk-streaked sky a primeval shade of black. These are the fruit bats that migrate annually from all over equatorial Africa to a tiny mushitu swamp forest in Kasanka National Park in remote north-eastern Zambia.
They spend around three months here, feeding at night on the fruits of the surrounding bushland – sour plums, jackal berries, wild mangos – and roosting during the daytime in the cramped mushitu forest. Sometimes the collective mass of their featherlight bodies is too much for the trees to bear: branches crash to the ground, where opportunistic snakes and crocodiles lie in wait. But those that have survived another day now soar into the twilight, delirious with purpose.
From where I sit high in the ebony tree I can look them in the very eye. They seem crazed at first, ducking and diving and soaring and whirling and feverishly flapping their silken wings. They surge this way and that, loathe to settle on a path. They shriek wildly, as though darkness has triggered their voice. Any minute now these bats will organise themselves and fly off to the far horizons; but for these precious, confused moments I am trapped inside the world's biggest mammal migration: a vortex of heat and noise and movement and scent created by 10 million bats, with me at its very core.
NEED TO KNOW
Despite their numbers, the bats are unlikely to come into physical contact with humans. Visitors should nonetheless caution against touching or otherwise interfering with them and should only view the bats from the park's four designated hides. A reasonable level of fitness is required for the climb up sometimes rickety ladders to the canopy hides.
The bats start arriving at Kasanka around mid-October each year, and have left the forest by mid-January. The Classic Safari Company's seven-night bat safari starts at around $6500 per person and includes three nights at Nkwali in South Luangwa National Park, three nights at Kasanka National Park, one night in Lusaka, and all internal flights. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
AUSTRALIA'S BEST WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS
By Ute Junker
Playful sea lions, menacing crocodiles, adorable koalas – Australia is home to some of the world's most remarkable wildlife. Have an unforgettable encounter with one of these members of the Australian Wildlife Collection.
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Every year between March and August, whale sharks head to the world's largest fringing reef. Swimming with these gentle giants is Ningaloo's signature experience, but Exmouth Diving Centre's other memorable encounters include swimming with humpback whales. exmouthdiving.com.au
You Yangs and Great Ocean Road, Victoria
Those famous limestone stacks aren't the Great Ocean Road's only attraction. Echidna Walkabout Tours explore nearby habitats ranging from grasslands to rainforest, where you may encounter everything from kangaroos to echidnas, as well as some of the best koala-spotting in Australia. echidnawalkabout.com.au
Kakadu, Northern Territory
From soaring sandstone escarpments to floodplains and wetlands, Kakadu's extraordinary landscapes make it one of Australia's most remarkable destinations. Lords Safaris showcase the area and the creatures that live there, from saltwater crocodiles to birds such as jabiru, magpie geese, whistling ducks and royal spoonbills. lords-safaris.com
Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
Plunge beneath the waves that wash the Eyre Peninsula and you may see anything from dolphins and leafy sea dragons to southern right whales and giant cuttlefish. Goin' Off Safaris offers a selection of underwater encounters, with the most popular options including the chance to get close to playful Australian sea lions. goinoffsafaris.com.au
Maria Island, Tasmania
The World Heritage-listed Maria Island is one of the best places in Australia for wildlife encounters. Sign up for the four-day Maria Island Walk and you may spot everything from wombats to Tasmanian devils, along with many of Tasmania's endemic bird species. mariaislandwalk.com.au
WILDLIFE DO'S AND DON'T'S
obey your guide's instructions. They are much better at reading animal behaviour than you are.
try to touch or feed animals – and that includes birds. You risk changing their natural behaviour and making them dependent on humans.
speak quietly and move slowly. When an animal is startled, it runs.
try to capture every movement with your camera. Snap some Insta-worthy shots, then enjoy being in the moment: you will notice a lot more.
keep your expectations realistic. Wild animals don't stick to a schedule. Be patient, and embrace the journey into the unexpected.