By Wendy Worrall Redal
While travel to dramatic landscapes and different cultures is entrancing, nothing in my book compares for sheer exhilaration to an encounter with wildlife at close range.
A passion for observing wild animals in their natural environs has brought me eye to eye with a silverback gorilla in the African rainforest, nose to nose with a polar bear peering on his haunches through our Polar Rover's window on the Canadian tundra, mask to whiskers with a curious sea lion while snorkeling in the Galapagos and skin to skin with a huge gray whale in the waters of Baja's San Ignacio Lagoon. She was what the locals call a "friendly," swimming right up to our skiff and allowing us to reach out and commune with her at arm's length.
As more species become endangered in the face of human impact, habitat loss and climate change, there is no better time than now to see the world's wild creature. To get you started, here are eight iconic wildlife experiences that should top any nature traveler's bucket list.
The Galapagos Islands
Lying 600 miles off Ecuador's coast, this isolated archipelago harbors a multitude of unique species found nowhere else on earth, which led Darwin to formulate his theory of natural selection during an 1835 visit to the islands. Galapagos wildlife is famously nonchalant about human presence. You can swim with playful young sea lions, snorkel alongside sea turtles, step carefully over colonies of marine iguanas basking on sun-warmed lava and delight in the whimsical courtship dance of blue-footed boobies.
The Mountain Gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda
Profoundly endangered, some 700 mountain gorillas remain in the rainforest-cloaked mountains of central Africa. Small groups led by an expert tracker press through a maze of vines and foliage till they spy them: 10 or 12 gorillas sitting in a forest clearing, several more in the trees. A few feet away is a massive silverback -- twice the size of the females, he sits on massive haunches, stripping leaves from a branch and holding your gaze with liquid brown eyes. Something primal connects you in that moment, on this rarest of primate encounters.
The Gray Whales of Baja
The world's longest annual mammal migration culminates each year as the gray whales return to the warm, protected waters of Baja California from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Whales breed and mothers bear their young in San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay from December to March, the best time for whale-watching excursions. Occasionally, friendly whales approach the open skiffs and interact directly with enchanted visitors, often swimming within arm's length and showing off their babies.
The Polar Bears of Canada
Perhaps no animal is more closely associated with the threat of climate change than the polar bear. These magnificent Arctic beasts -- the largest terrestrial carnivore -- are endangered by melting sea ice, yet they still congregate in impressive numbers each fall near Churchill, Manitoba, waiting for the ice to freeze on Hudson Bay and seal-hunting season to begin. See them from the warmth and safety of Polar Rovers, custom vehicles designed expressly for polar bear viewing on the tundra.
The Monarchs of Mexico
Another astounding migration takes place each winter to the highlands of central Mexico, as tens of millions of monarch butterflies come from the northeastern U.S. and Canada to nest and breed in the oyamel forests. Tours depart from the former silver-mining village of Anguangeo into the mountains, where guests continue on foot or by horseback into the butterfly sanctuaries. In cloudy weather, the monarchs blanket the trees like autumn leaves; when the sun warms them, they take to the air in a swirl of orange, fluttering in such tremendous numbers that the air vibrates with the sound of their translucent wings.
The Wolves of Yellowstone
Among the planet's most charismatic predators, the gray wolf has made a comeback in Yellowstone National Park. Set out in the quiet of winter to see the packs against a frozen white backdrop, often in pursuit of elk or moose. Excursions into the Lamar Valley at dawn and in the waning light of late afternoon are most likely to reveal the wolves, and their eerie howls rending the air are the ultimate sound of the wild. Many wolf-watching safaris also include a snowcoach ride offering a chance to see the park's geysers and thermal features steaming in the frosty winter air.
The Elephants of Botswana
Kenya's Amboseli and Tarangire National Park in Tanzania may be best known for some of Africa's greatest elephant herds, but Chobe National Park in Botswana is a definite rival, with impressive conservation policies and fewer crowds. During the dry season it's common to find herds up to 300 strong, but even when the Chobe River is high and water is abundant, elephants abound in great numbers along with a host of other African game and predators, including large prides of lion.
The Brown Bears of Alaska
Most everyone has seen images of Alaska's massive brown bears -- the world's largest grizzly -- snagging salmon in their jaws as the fish leap up Brooks Falls on their annual spawning journey. But many would-be Alaska travelers may not know that they'll never see such an arresting sight from a standard cruise ship itinerary. To witness brown bears in action, you have to travel to Katmai National Park or Kodiak Island, where they forage on the salmon runs from rivers and beaches. This is a more remote side of Alaska, which is still true wilderness -- and the abundance of huge bears makes that sense of the wild feel palpable.
Wendy Worrall Redal is the Editorial Director for Natural Habitat Adventures, a wildlife and nature tour operator based in Boulder, Colo.