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Unique Ways to Encounter Animals Up-Close

We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.

The world is home to millions of truly fascinating creatures. Few of us are fortunate to see them in the wild, and so we often rely on zoos, wildlife parks, and aquariums. But there are many other unique options that allow us to interact with animals safely and responsibly in their natural habitats. Explore your wild side with these eight bucket-list animal experiences you can try around the world.

8

Watch Turtles Hatching

Close-up of a turtle hatching from their shell.
Credit: slowmotiongli/ iStock

There are seven types of sea turtles, six of which are considered either vulnerable or endangered. They face many risks, including poaching for meat or their shells, loss of habitat, and getting caught in fishing equipment. Therefore, providing a safe breeding environment is all the more important for the protection of the species. Sea turtles spend much of the year living in the ocean waters, but once a year, the females come ashore and burrow into the sand where they lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the young make their way down the sands to the sea. It is essential that they are not disturbed by any lights or sounds that may interfere with their journey.

For this reason, many beaches where they are known to hatch may prohibit public access at certain times of the year. Las Paulas National Park in Costa Rica hosts tours for those interested in visiting during hatching season for leatherback turtles. Limited-size groups are escorted to watch as scientists carefully monitor the nesting mothers and gather information. Alternatively, visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. This education and rehabilitation facility offers interactive tours while protecting the local turtle populations.

7

Witness the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Monarch butterflies getting ready for migration.
Credit: JodiJacobson/ iStock

Easily recognized by their rich orange coloring, monarch butterflies migrate each fall, leaving the approaching winter in the U.S. and Canada for the warmer forests of Mexico. Several months later, a new generation begins the reverse journey. The young butterflies will only travel part of the way, though. It takes four generations of butterflies to make the full trip north, such is their short life span.

While you can see it in some U.S. states like California, your best bet for witnessing this migration in its full splendor is to travel to Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, located about 60 miles outside of Mexico City and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each year, the monarchs make their way back here — but scientists don’t quite understand why or how. The best time to visit is between January and March, when you can join tours that strictly limit their numbers to cause the least disturbance to the creatures. Choose from a multi-day tour of the region, also taking in local history and other attractions, or hire a guide for a day trip, during which you can ride on horseback into the mountains.

6

Walk With Polar Bears

A polar bear standing in their natural habitat in Manitoba, Canada.
Credit: AGF/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you want to see polar bears outside of a zoo, options are limited. With a shrinking habitat, these beautiful but highly endangered creatures are not easy to spot in the wild. Add in their natural ferocity, and this is definitely a trip to be taken under expert supervision.

Churchill Wild has been operating tours in northern Manitoba, Canada, for more than 25 years — in a town nicknamed the “polar bear capital of the world.” Their polar bear safaris offer the opportunity to stay on the edges of the Arctic Circle in remote eco-lodges. There, you will be able to walk with polar bears (under careful guided supervision, of course). Educational presentations add to your knowledge of these wonderful creatures and their isolated lives. Tours vary in length, theme, and time of year. While you’re keeping your eyes peeled for polar bears, don’t forget to also look out for seals, wolves, and a host of other Arctic wildlife, not to mention the incredible nighttime views of the northern lights.

5

Try Your Hand at Beekeeping

Close-up of a honey frame full of bees.
Credit: Andrew Aitchison/ Corbis News via Getty Images

Whether you prefer to keep your distance and learn from afar, or don a full costume and become a hands-on beekeeper, the best place to try this unique activity is in Slovenia. This small European country, known for its stunning mountain scenery, is the only member of the EU with policies in place to protect bees. The industrious honey makers are thriving here, thanks to a long cultural tradition of beekeeping.

With the rise in global concern about protecting these tiny creatures, bee-related tourism in Slovenia has taken off. In addition to taking tours that teach about the process of beekeeping, you can also enjoy a range of honey spa treatments, which even include massages with bee venom. ApiRoutes specializes in tours for both novice and experienced beekeepers; their eight-day tour of Slovenia includes visits to beekeepers and museums as well as day trips to local spas and wineries.

4

Practice Falconry

Man training falconry with a Harris Hawk.
Credit: Murilo Mazzo/ Shutterstock

Humans have practiced the art of training birds of prey for thousands of years. Thought to have originated in Asia or the Middle East, falconry became a popular pastime among European nobility during the Middle Ages. There is something undeniably elegant about having a hawk swoop down to land on your gloved hand, so for an interactive bird experience, why not try your hand at falconry?

There are numerous centers and rescues both in the U.S. and overseas that allow visitors to learn about raptors, to watch them in flight, and to practice working with them. Options range from hour-long workshops to longer training courses. Ashford Castle is home to Ireland’s oldest falconry school and offers workshops and hawk walks on the estate grounds. For more in-depth learning, head to the United Arab Emirates. Dubai’s Wild Flight offers intensive courses in Arabian-style falconry, comprising eight hours of lessons and a final exam. Closer to home, Sky Falconry in Southern California has a range of classes and walks.

3

Ride a Mule in the Grand Canyon

Mule riders going down the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon National Park.
Credit: ClassicStock/ Archive Photos via Getty Images

To experience a different perspective of the Grand Canyon, try riding to the base of the canyon and back on a mule. Trips are available year-round departing from the South Rim, and from May through October from the North Rim. Mules have been transporting visitors down the rocky edges of the canyon for over 130 years. The creatures have the size and strength of a horse but are as sure-footed as their donkey relatives, a trait that comes in handy on this uneven terrain. Guides lead the pack of mules down to the very depths of the canyon, offering an entirely different view of this natural wonder than you get from standing at the top.

At the bottom, Phantom Ranch is the only lodging available. Visitors arriving by mule can stay one or two nights before saddling up for the return trip. For those with less time, consider a two-hour mule ride along the Grand Canyon rim instead. Those traveling to the bottom should be aware that they are limited in terms of what they can and cannot bring (the mule has to carry you and any baggage) and should be prepared for extreme temperature swings.

2

Check Out the Red Crab Migration

Red crab migration on Christmas Island in Australia.
Credit: James D. Morgan/ Getty Images News via Getty Images

To see what renowned naturalist David Attenborough has called one of his greatest TV moments, you will need to head to a remote part of the Indian Ocean. Christmas Island is a territory of Australia, which — aside from its festive name — is known for its annual red crab migration.

The most colorful of the island’s land crab species, they gather in their millions during a specific point in the moon’s cycle and make their way to the beaches to spawn. Although land-based and unable to swim, the crabs must lay their eggs in the sea, and so for a few nights every November or December, the beaches of Christmas Island are a mass of red. The crab larvae then hatch and attempt to make their way to the land. During the mass migration, the number of crabs is so great that many roads are closed to prevent them from being harmed. You may also see locals helping them on their journey to the beach with a broom. Exact dates of the annual migration are difficult to know in advance; however, island authorities post estimated dates online to assist with trip planning.

1

Swim With Sharks

A tiger shark swimming over a group of scuba divers on a sandy bottom in the Bahamas.
Credit: wildestanimal/ Shutterstock

Swimming in shark-infested waters can be an adrenaline-filled way to experience these magnificent ocean creatures — and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. However, a number of companies around the world offer the opportunity to see sharks up close without endangering yourself or the sharks.

In the U.S., Florida has some of the best shark-viewing locations. The coastal waters are home to several species, including hammerhead, tiger, and lemon sharks. For those who prefer to keep a safe distance, boat trips with an experienced guide can take you to the best spots to observe and learn. More adventurous types can also try cage-diving or free-diving. No experience is necessary, so whether you are a novice or a trained diver, the trips allow you to see the sharks in their natural habitat. Further south, in the waters around Cancun, Mexico, try swimming with whale sharks who, despite their name, are gentle giants. For the ultimate adrenaline rush, however, go cage-diving in South Africa to see the Great White while learning about conservation efforts for these magnificent creatures.

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