Sure, you can go to a zoo or aquarium to have virtually any animal encounters you desire, but what’s the fun in that? There is something truly special seeing an animal in its natural habitat that makes you feel like a real explorer. In addition to UNESCO sites, seeing some amazing wildlife is one of my biggest draws to travel. Here are ten unique species and where I was lucky enough to have encountered them.
1) Bio-luminescent plankton (Noctiluca scintillans) – Alicoi, Ari Atoll, Maldives
Photos of this plankton make their way across the net every year during bloom seasons because, well, they are pretty damn amazing. However, you don’t have to wait for a full bloom to experience them. During my honeymoon last January, we stayed the night in the deserted island of Alicoi which gets its fair share of this protozoa. You can’t see it just by looking out to sea, but if you go on a night snorkel and slap the water at the right spots, watch them flare up. While they can be spotted in a number of places, they are most famous in the Maldives and the Caribbean.
2) Yellow-Eyed Penguins (Megadyptes antipodes) – Oamaru, South Island, New Zealand
When most people think of penguins, they naturally think of Antarctica where the emperor species likes to hang out. However, New Zealand is the place to spot this one, the world’s rarest penguin. The Yellow-eyed penguins make landfall in the evenings in Moeraki, near the town of Oamaru. Nothing quite prepares you for these little guys to wash in belly first and start their waddle inland.
3) White Tip Sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) – Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia
For any diver, seeing sharks is always one of those rushes that never gets old. Prior to my trip to the island of Sipadan last year, I had only seen a single shark in the distance in Komodo National Park. Nature is hard to predict and even in well known shark areas, it is quite possible they won’t show up. Sipadan is one of those few places where you’re pretty much 100% guaranteed to see many sharks because of the unique geography of the island which drops off sharply to 600 meters. White tips are so abundant, you can literally bump into them if you don’t pay attention.
4) Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) – Everglades National Park, Florida, USA
These fascinating reptiles which are endemic to the south eastern US are just a plague in the Everglades. Even in the wet season when they are less visible, spotting half a dozen in an hour or two is pretty easy and during the dry season, dozens crowd over the small patches of water. They may not really excite the local Florida man who struggles to keep them out of his back yard, but they are pretty cool to the rest of us.
5) Reticulated Pythons (Python reticulatus) – Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Reticulated pythons are found in many parts of South East Asia and are the world’s longest reptiles. This huge snake is not as easy to spot as any of the other entries on this list, but it is a pretty amazing one if you get lucky. After a leech filled five-hour hike through some dense parts of Khao Yai National Park, the girl taking the rear in our hike spotted this python no more than 2 meters above our heads. After the initial shock, I was able to take some pictures and the video above.
6) Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) – Channel Islands National Park, California Coast, USA
When my wife told me she had never seen a whale, I was incredulous. Come to think of it though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside of the California coast, but they are so common I almost took them for granted. Grey whales in particular are endemic to the California coast and are rather common on any trip to and around the Channel Islands National Park or Catalina Island. I recall seeing these growing up on school trips and they have never ceased to amaze me. Book either a specific whale watching trip, or just take a trip to the Islands and you’re sure to see them.
7) Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) – Komodo National Park, Indonesia
The largest lizard in the world had been on my ‘to see’ list for years before I finally got the chance to visit Komodo a few years ago. The two little islands of Rinca and Komodo have about 4000 dragons in total and seeing a couple in a hike is pretty much guaranteed. However, it doesn’t come without risk as the bacteria in their mouth is quite potent so make sure to follow the directions of your guides at all times. If you do get bitten, the anti bacterial medicine is all the way to Bali, a couple hours away by speedboat. Enjoy!
8) Iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) – Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
You may have had one as a pet when you were little, but chances are, it wasn’t this huge species of iguana found in Mexico and Central America. We almost take them for granted as they are pretty common place in any run of the mill reptile exhibit, but these guys are pretty damn cool when you come across one in the wild. The ones that hang around the Mayan Ruins of Tulum are said to hold the spirits of fallen Mayas.
9) Mantas Ray (Manta alfredi) – Dhigurah, Ari Atoll, Maldives
A staple at many good dive spots is a “Manta Point” which is a place where mantas are known to congregate and ride the currents. However, first two visits to these points failed and I didn’t even see a living one until visiting the Okinawa Aquarium in 2013. Learning about how smart these creatures are (possessing near mammal intelligence) made me obsessed but it kept eluding me for years until this last January. In the same trip to the Maldives mentioned above, we stayed in Dhigurah, a place where mantas are all but guaranteed. I was not prepared for how amazing it would feel to just jump into the ocean and swim beside one of them. I shouted “wooooow” and almost swallowed a ton of water.
10) Bat Exodus (12 species) – Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia
This last entry is a bit unique as it is not a single species but an event caused by 12 different bat species in Mulu National Park. Every night out of the Deer Cave near the Park HQ, a number of bat colonies exit in a 2.5 million strong stream that lasts over half an hour. If you look very closely, you can also see individual smaller groups go in and out along the main stream after they have had their fill. They are essential to the ecosystem, eliminating 30,000 kg of insects daily. It is really a pretty amazing event.