We asked our GOT contributors to share their most memorable wildlife watching experiences, and they replied with stories revealing the magic of such encounters, whether in the wild or in a controlled environment.
Elephant seals in California
My husband and I were so glad we stopped by Elephant Seal Vista Point after touring Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. The contrast between over-the-top, man-made, hilltop splendor and nature in the raw on a sandy shore five miles away made the experience especially memorable. As we made our way from the parking lot to the vista’s viewing platform, we stopped in shock when we spied our first massive elephant seal sunning by himself in the sand. And then we experienced real awe as we turned a corner and saw thousands of them—huge and small—lying chock-a-block on a small beach cove. For many millennia, these enormous mammals have traveled thousands of miles back to this Pacific beach twice a year to spawn and molt. We felt very lucky to see this natural migration in action.
Eagles in Haida Gwaii
On a summer journey to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), I communed daily with eagles nesting in the twisted branches reaching over the beach. One morning, while heading out fishing with our guide, a local fisherman, we set crab pots. En route back, we collected them for a crab boil on the beach across from his home. His wife had prepared homemade seafood sauce, corn on the cob, and salad. Within an hour of being taken from the sea, the crabs were boiling. As we enjoyed wine, a dozen eagles gathered in the trees lining the beach. They knew what we were doing and were looking forward to feasting upon crab leftovers.
Wolves in Quebec
Owner-wolf protector Gilles Granal instructs me to crouch down after I’ve entered the 40-hectare enclosure at Parc Mahikan, part wolf sanctuary, part eco-adventure camp, in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec. Once my knees settle on the well-scratched ground, two curious grey wolves, Luna and John, amble over to sniff me and tug at my sleeves. My heart is pounding– but an unexpected face lick forces me to squash a giggle. Guests at Parc Mahikan can pet the wolves (if their mood is right) and listen to their nighttime howling from nearby cabins. Some wolves may even want a belly rub. Adventuraid Park Mahikan.
Birds of prey in Idaho
While planning a trip to Boise, Idaho, we discovered the World Center for Birds of Prey, a nature preserve that’s also home to the Peregrine Fund conservation, education, and exhibition center. Here, we viewed many birds of prey and learned about the conservation efforts to save the California Condors. If you’re lucky enough to visit in the fall, you can experience the bird’s natural flight behaviors. A 45-minute program allows you to watch the birds in flight. They get so close that you can feel the wind swoop as they fly by.
Grizzlies in Alaska
Hey Bear! Hey Bear! The by now familiar call echoed in the forest, hopefully alerting any predators at the top of the food chain who might be within earshot. Excitement increased exponentially as our guide discovered a half-eaten salmon carcass nestled in the soft pine needles below a giant cedar. The fish was fresh, indicating we might be close. Our group of seven, all passengers on the small ship MV Westward, were tracking grizzlies on Baranoff Island. The location is known as one of the ABC’s of primo habitats for bear populations in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Gushing water reverberated in the nearby falls, and there, through the clearing, we saw our first sleuth of wild grizzlies. Five of them, oblivious to our presence, insatiably snaring salmon amongst the rocks as the sun disappeared into the woodland.
Great Egrets in Texas
Peering from the classroom-size heronry blind, we observed hundreds of great egrets nesting in cypress trees on the edge of Ruby Lake. The gossamer-winged creatures protecting their fuzzy infants provided an intensely intimate encounter that even a novice bird watcher could appreciate. The best time to enjoy the birds from this hidden and wheelchair-accessible vantage point is March through May, which coincides with an abundance of pink and red blooming azaleas. The Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center is in Orange, Texas. Named for the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, this unexpected oasis includes a trio of green houses, a children’s garden, a boardwalk over a marsh, and the 1,200 years old Survival Tree.
Polar bears in Manitoba
“Look! Flying polar bears!” I followed my guide’s gaze skyward to a helicopter trailing a cord with three white bundles attached. A mother and two cubs were being air-lifted out of Churchill, Canada. Who knew my first polar bear encounter would be so peculiar? Since that winter day, I’ve seen them snuggled in snow drifts, guarding cubs on a mighty iceberg, even stalking beluga whales. One hot summer day in Churchill, another unusual sighting occurred. The tables had turned, and I was the helicopter passenger. Below me, three polar bears chilled out in Hudson Bay, only their black noses protruding above the water.
Leatherback turtles in Trinidad
Matura Beach on Trinidad’s northeastern coast hosts one of the world’s largest colonies of leatherback turtles. A 2013 trip to Trinidad and Tobago included a rare wildlife watching opportunity: witnessing a giant leatherback deposit her eggs, after digging a nest in the sand. To be able to stand behind her, watching golf ball sized eggs drop down to fill the sandy hole, was an unforgettable experience that left me with an increased reverence for these incredible creatures. After covering her precious progeny with sand, using her body and rear flippers, she made her slow, shuffling return to the sea.
Crocodiles in Mexico
Croco Cun Zoo, a quiet, noncommercial, woodsy place, is unlike any zoo I’ve ever visited. Though originally the area was a crocodile sanctuary, the mission was broadened later to house other rescued indigenous animals. Refreshingly personal, admission comes with a private tour guide—who is also a trained biologist—ensuring the experience is intimate, since the guide responds to any questions you have. The tour is interactive, allowing you to pet baby crocodiles, for example. The guide is also critical for safety, as the tour takes you into an area where uncaged old crocodiles lie sleeping lazily in the sun.
Bison in Manitoba
Watching the herd of 40 majestic Plains bison (distant cousins to buffalo) roam the 500-hectare expanse of grassland at the Lake Audy Bison Enclosure is not merely a wildlife-viewing experience. It’s also a history lesson. In the 1800s, Plains bison in North America numbered at least 25 million. Near extinction followed. The bison enclosure is found within the 3,000 square-kilometre “island of wilderness” known as Riding Mountain National Park in southern Manitoba. Visitors can observe the bison (some weigh up to 2,000 pounds) from their vehicles or from an elevated viewing platform. The herd includes females, bulls and calves.
Bird banding in Manitoba
When we were invited to go to the Oak Hammock Marsh in Winnipeg we were beyond excited. Not only is this one of the most active bird viewing areas in North America, but they also have a unique bird banding experience, “A Bird in the Hand.” This is the thrill of identifying a bird, banding it with a tiny bracelet band, then holding it ever so gently and letting it fly free.
This intimate birding experience provides invaluable information to researchers as they study migration paths and bird populations. This hands-on encounter with a bird friend you’ll be talking about for a long time.
Wild horses in Arizona
From my inflatable kayak, I scanned the river and mountain-backed shorelines ahead, occasionally dipping my paddle into the lazy waters more to provide direction than propulsion. Just outside of Phoenix, the Lower Salt River flows through the Tonto National Forest. The Salt River wild horses—likely descended from horses Spanish missionary Father Eusebio Kino brought here in the 1600s—call these Sonoran Desert lands home. Paddling downstream with friends on a trip outfitted by Arizona Outboack Adventures (now part of the REI-Co-op Adventure Center), I wondered if we’d see any of these wild, free-roaming horses. Then, a friend gasped, pointing to a white horse, belly deep in the river. With whispering winds and gurgling waters as background music, we floated by more horses, both on the banks and in the waters, savoring the moment’s magic.
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