THE BLOG
11/25/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Richard's Picks: Ten Best Wildlife Places for 2015

2014-11-25-leopard.jpg
photo by Didrik Johnck

What a wonderful medley of wildlife roams our world. But while our Ark still sails, a cabinet of the Seven Seas, it is faring through whirlpools that threaten to tip the boat and spill its precious cargo.

2014-11-25-elephantsmall.jpg

In the time it takes to read these sentences several species of animals may vanish from the earth forever. All life is interconnected, and the loss of one piece of the grand mosaic affects everything else. So, it is in our interests to let the animals thrive; to celebrate the diversity and our co-existence.

Besides, encountering wildlife up close, on its own terms, is thrilling...it dilates and elevates the soul; hearts beat faster; eyes widen in awe. And, it inspires us to join in the efforts to preserve these life forms and their ecological systems.

So it is that I have fashioned my list of the Ten Best Spots for Wildlife for 2015. Will visiting these places make a difference? The gravest scenario would be if those who read this tally long to see what I did but cannot because the animals are no longer there, and this is simply a reliquary, a reminiscence, a testimony to the way it was.

My greatest hope is that somebody who finds this account on a dusty screen a hundred years from now will be aroused to see the wildlife herein, and that he or she will find them still.

10) The Stingrays of Cayman Islands.

I catch a fishing boat named Heavenly Hooker and head out to find the scene of the slime. We cruise out to a shallow bank in the North Sound, drop anchor, and beneath crystalline waters see a dozen gray-hued underwater bats, the size of pterodactyls, gracefully circulating at our stern. Captain Stacy leaps into the waist-deep brine with a bucket of smelly squid. Immediately the rays lap him, coddle him; cats to catnip. The captain motions me to join, but I'm a bit hesitant, remembering too well Steve Irwin's untimely death by stingray barb in the Great Barrier Reef.

But what good is travel without a little fear? So, I take the leap, and though my mind is trembling on the edge of danger, the soft Portobello mushroom skin of the rays against my own is rather silky and sensuous.

This interspecies dynamic came about some years ago when fishermen, to avoid the once mosquito infested coastlines (so bad it was, they say, the mosquitos could suck a cow to bloodless death), started cleaning their catch in this calm off-shore channel, and the Atlantic Southern stingrays gathered to nibble at the gut scraps. Soon the stingrays began to associate the sound of a boat motor with food. Now, it's a daily ritual, and the wild rays have gone gentle, gliding about torsos, through splayed legs, planting hickies on exposed human skin while suckling for food, and wrapping wings around their guests in puppy-like hugs, all in symbiotic exchange for morsels of sea meat. "Oh, it feels good to be touched by a stingray," beams Captain Stacey. It is undeniably, ahem, a raydiant experience.

9) The Elk of Jackson Hole

The grand display in Jackson Hole is the American Serengeti, the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge, where up to 10,000 wintering elk make their grounds. The refuge was established in 1912 to ensure the survival of the herd after a combination of human development and severe winters took their toll. It now provides a non-enclosed sanctuary for the largest elk herd on Earth. I make my way to an entrance on the western side, just past a section of Flat Creek stirring with trumpeter swans. I jump on a horse-drawn sleigh, driven by guide Jeff Warburton, who entertains and informs as we jangle about the refuge wrapped in thick blankets, watching the elk aimlessly munch on staff-provided alfalfa pellets. Where else can you get this close to a 1000 lb. feral animal with a rack the size of a chandelier? The theory is that by encouraging children and parents to get close enough to look into the eyes of a wild elk, it is harder to take actions that might hurt them. In many cases, says Jeff, people fall in love, and people conserve what they love.

8) The Belugas of Hudson Bay

This seems crazy. In the stern of a Mark V Zodiac on the Arctic Sea I'm slipping into a dry suit, fitting into flippers, and adjusting a snorkel mask. Then Terry, the guide, instructs to jump overboard and turn on my belly, feet facing him. Once so positioned, he slips a lasso around my ankles, fires up the 60 hp Mercury engine, and pays out the line. "Don't forget to sing," Terry yells.

"What kind of music?" I garble.

"Try your national anthem, as long as you're not from a whaling nation."

So as I'm being dragged, backwards, through the cold water, I begin my playbook...Francis Scott Key, Tom Waits, Paul Robeson, Leonard Cohen, Barry White...but nothing happens. Then I remember Terry saying that women, with their higher voices, seem to get the best results, and so I switch to The Four Seasons and Michael Jackson, and boom....suddenly the space in front of my mask is filled with belugas, dancing, squeaking, chirping, and grinning at me. They bend and curve like ballerinas. There must be twenty that swim up, turn heads in a seeming greeting, and then dart away, like phantoms into the night. This is wild. This is wonderful. I'm being trolled for whales.

7) The One-Horned Rhinos of Assam

The prize of Assam is Kaziranga National Park, a place that pulses with feral life. It sprawls on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra, covering more than 400 square miles. It is here that at last I see, from the back of an elephant, my first rhino in the mist. With its thick panels of silvery-brown skin and prominent upturned nose, it seems like something out of a unicorn's dream. Imagination is stronger than knowledge--myth more potent than history--and this creature is a chimera come true.

There are over 2000 rhino here, and rising, and in the next days I am assaulted with a crash of sightings....at one point I walk over a ridge and came face-to-face with a giant tank of a beast, who paws the ground and stares me down, and then shifts into Charge. "Run!" I yell, mostly to myself, as I turn and speed away, while two park rangers drop to their knees and rattle their rifle bolts. Trains have been attacked by rhinos and even derailed. Despite their great bulk and stubby legs, rhinos can run faster than an Olympic sprinter.

The rhino halts, though, and stoops to graze again, and I keep my distance. This is his haunt, and I am trespassing. It is as it should be.

6) The Swimming Iguanas of the Galapagos

Darwin wrote in his notorious book, The Origin of Species, "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Sailors always knew these islands were different - they were called Las Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands, the name by which Herman Melville knew them.

Without predators for tens of thousands of years, the creatures here grew up without fear. It's an Ark of distinctive wildlife, from blue-footed boobies to red-billed tropic birds, to cormorants that don't fly, and iguanas that swim. This is the place to find the marine iguanas, and you can plop down next to them without any hint of fear, on either side. But expect this....they expectorate like voters in New Jersey...early and often.

5) The Whale Sharks of Cancun

In the bath of early morning light I board a boat heading out to find the whale sharks. We motor miles out into the open sea, well beyond the Great Maya Reef, second largest barrier reef in the world. Finally, beyond any trace of land, we see the notorious dorsal fins cutting through the surface. But, rather than retreat to safety in the middle of the boat, we don wetsuits, adjust masks, and slip over the side into a sea stirred gently by circling fins. Immediately I come face-to-face with the gaping maw of a 30-foot-long shark, sprouting upwards as though about to swallow me whole, man-brunch. I mumble something panicky into my mask, madly flip my flippers to get out of the way, and the giant glides past, body rippled and dotted, open-mouthed surging to the surface. The world's largest fish, thankfully, feeds exclusively on plankton.

First, there was one. Then another. And another. Quite soon I'm surrounded by a score or more of the gentle beasts, each with a mouth the size of a steam shovel. Some sashay sideways; others go "botella," rising vertically to the surface to gulp down fish eggs and bubbles. Gills flow like ribbons; their bodies showcase Jackson Pollack-like splatter spots, where little cleaner fish cling. Calmer now, I hear only the whooshing of the water around me, my amplified breathing through the snorkel, and the sound of awe.

4) The Elephants of Etosha

An American trader, G. McKeirnan, who visited Etosha in 1876, said "All the menageries in the world turned loose would not compare to the sight I saw today."

Things haven't changed that much.

As our wheels crackle along there are masts of giraffe, passing in the middle distance like ships on the horizon; springbok bounding like rubber balls. There are impala pelting around neurotically, vast almond eyes on slim necks. Kudu collars are lowered to the ground as they crop. At various watering holes and vleis we see the gleaming eyes of lion, the bullet heads of spotted hyena, and at one, a crash of five endangered black rhino. By one hole, fed by a pump, two elephant face off, long tusks glistening like drawn swords. They lower their heads and put forehead to forehead. We watch the powerful neck muscles bunching under the skin, the sunlight brushing the straining haunches. It is a slow-motion struggle, and each combatant holds his ground well. At last, one seems to tire. His hind legs begin to give way, and he is forced back. He gives up, and the other slashes his tail in triumph. There may be an elephant holocaust in Africa, but here, in Etosha, the beasts are protected and on vivid display.

3) The Sea Turtles of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a diving haven, but perhaps the best offering is The Wall, a cliff of coral some 22-miles-long dropping down to a depth of over 1 500 feet. My friend Lisa Niver, who has dived throughout the world, but never Puerto Rico, is all sparkle and grins returning from a plunge down The Wall, describing the reefs, the brain coral, the caves, the green moray eel, the angel fish, the porcupine fish, the lobster, the reef sharks, and the sea turtle named Lola, and all else that brushed past her in the 100' dive. "I've dived in six continents. This was the best dive ever," she blurts.

2) The Manatees of Bradenton

The South Florida Museum is the largest natural and cultural history museum on Florida's Gulf Coast. It's a coffer for erstwhile eras, and features a creature that seems from a gentler time: Snooty, oldest known manatee in the world.

Snooty was born when the first monkey astronaut was launched into space. The world has changed since then, but not Snooty, except for a few added pounds, and a better pool. He has the same Wilford Brimley snout, the same rounded body and flat tail, and the same ageless appeal. He's beautiful, but not in any classic definition of the word. It's hard to believe sailors, even after months at sea, once mistook manatees for mermaids.

Here, in his 60,000 gallon pool, begirds the celebrated lumpy charmer, closest living relative to the elephant, and official mascot of Manatee County. At 65, the boy seems to be enjoying the retired life, shamelessly sashaying about, waiting for lunch. He eats about 80 pounds of Romaine lettuce a day, sustaining his 1,000-pound body. His diet and spa-time seem to have done him well. The average manatee lives only to about 13, due to mostly man-made threats, such as boat propellers, loss of habitat from coastal development, poaching, errant fish hooks and crab trap lines, and cold weather, all the more common with global climate change.

Snooty shares his tank with two fresh-faces, Longo, rescued off of Longboat Key, and Cheeno, rescued in the Caloosahatchee River, both suffering from "cold stress syndrome," a condition akin to frostbite in humans. The Museum serves as a second-stage rehabilitation facility, and provides temporary home for the new manatees while they heal. So far, Snooty has fostered 26 manatees that needed special care until able to be released back into the wild. The manatee is an endangered species--less than 5000 survive-- and looking into Snooty's whispered, trusting eyes it is impossible to not become a rooter for the mammal's rights to well-being.

1) The Polar Bears of Nanuk

The white giant stands up, and begins to amble in our direction on large, silent feet. Her face is inscrutable, though the eyes say someone is home. She taps the air with her Roman nose, which has a better sense of smell than a bloodhound. I imagine everyone is thinking the same as me...if she attacks, who will be the slowest runner. The bear keeps stepping towards us. The Arctic air suddenly seems hot from the flame of risk. I expect Andy to back up, but instead he steps towards the bear....a face off.

Andy has two small rocks in his hand, which he clicks, a sound meant to keep the bear a little off-balance. And Andy speaks to her, a note of mysticism in his voice. "Hi Beautiful. We're just here to say hello. How is your day?" He speaks in a low monotone, which he says sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher to the bear. It is meant to be non-threatening, and mildly confusing. The bear and Andy keep moving closer, and we obediently stay behind, and formally still. I look around to scope an escape route, but there is nothing. We're a kilometer from the taiga forest, which doesn't have a tree worth climbing anyway.

On the other side, the second largest bay in the world, named for doomed explorer Henry Hudson, with water deadly cold, and bears are faster swimmers anyway. Behind is a loamy coastline, desolate as the mare on the moon, and polar bears can out run a race horse from a standing start. I recall a bit of advice I heard from a guide years ago on the Seal River: "Most polar bears are left-pawed, so if the beast charges, leap to her right." But I used to be a guide, and know the adage true: "How do you tell if a guide is lying? His lips are moving."

Regardless, all bets are on Andy. He continues to step forward, facing the bear, eye-to-eye. He clicks the rocks. Slung around his shoulder is a 12-gauge shotgun; on the belt of his camouflaged chaps, a starter pistol and a can of pepper spray.

Finally, less than 20 meters from one another, the bear turns, and plods away, like a bulldozer back to the yard. It would have taken her seconds to leap forward and rip off Andy's head. But she chose something else. We all let out sighs. It was, all and all, a sublime encounter, an agreeable kind of horror.

So, all these wildlife encounters above showcase the audacity to believe in preservation and promise; the will to invest in growth that doesn't cheat the children. The core values that underpin sustainable development -- interdependence, spirituality, equity and personal responsibility--are the foundations of wildlife success. But it will take more...it will take the emotional connections and commitments that come from first-hand encounters from visitors...just as such visitations helped stem the decline of mountain gorillas. Nothing happens unless first we dream. And these places are dreams awakened. By seeing, we understand; and by understanding, we shape a future that allows a continuum of awe and wonder of the natural world, and without which we cannot continue to exist.