Top 10 Animal Encounters

Where to have close-up encounters with some of the world’s most remarkable animals.

From the National Geographic book Secret Journeys of a Lifetime

1. Right whales, Bay of Fundy, Canada

Northern right whales are on the brink of extinction, but survivors arrive in the Bay of Fundy each summer (May through October) to feed east of Grand Manan Island. They are recognized by a broad back, no dorsal fin, and white callosities on the head, which distinguish them from other whales entering the bay.

Planning: Whale-watching tours operate out of Digby Neck peninsula on Nova Scotia and nearby islands, such as Brier Island, St. Andrews, Grand Manan Island, and Deer Island.

2. Grizzly bears, Alaska

Grizzlies like salmon. In mid-July and again in mid-August and September, grizzlies make for Alaskan rivers to hook out the fish with their formidable claws. The bears gather in large numbers at rapids and pools, sometimes fighting for the best sites. MacNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, and Fish Creek, near Hyder, have viewing platforms.

Planning: Most fishing sites are accessed by chartered light aircraft and a hike. Hyder is off the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.

3. Monarch butterflies, Sierra Chincua, Mexico

Each fall, millions of North American monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles to the oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Mountain Range, in the state of Michoacán, to overwinter. They cluster together on tree trunks, bushes, and on the ground on Sierra Chincua and four neighboring hills that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Planning: Chincua is one of two hills in the reserve open to the public from November through March.

4. Community Baboon Sanctuary, Belize

Black howler monkeys are called “baboons” in Creole. Two hundred landowners have pledged to protect their local population, an initiative started at Bermudian Landing and now covering more than 19 square miles (50 sq km) of rain forest along the Belize River. The community offers guided tours and night walks.

Planning: Less than one hour’s drive northwest from Belize City, or by boat from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker.

5. Humpback whales, Rurutu, French Polynesia

Snorkeling in waters with 98 to 196 ft (30 to 60 m) of visibility makes the island of Rurutu one of the best spots for whale encounters in the world. Between July and October it plays host to calving, nursing, and mating humpbacks. Boats leave regularly from the village of Moerai for three-hour trips to whale-watch and swim with mothers and calves.

Planning: Rurutu is a 90-minute flight from Tahiti. The island has limited accommodations, so book early.

6. Komodo dragons, Komodo Island, Indonesia

Landing on Komodo, you step back to a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth for, as ancient maps reported, “Here be dragons!” This mountainous volcanic island is home to the world’s largest living lizard—the Komodo dragon. You can hike to a viewpoint at Banugulung and watch as park rangers feed goat carcasses to the lizards, some of which are more than 10 ft (3 m) long.

Planning: Komodo is reached by boat from Bima (on eastern Sumbawa) or Labuan Bajo (on western Flores).

7. Snow monkeys, Chubu region, Japan

Snow monkeys—Japanese macaques—sit in hot tubs to keep warm in winter. At Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, in the central Japanese Alps, you can watch the monkeys taking advantage of hot mineral water bubbling into pools among the dark gray rocks. You can trek through the Nagano Woods to reach the site.

Planning: Reachable by a train to Yudanaka town, a bus to Kanbayashi, and a 30-minute walk to Jigokudani.

8. Synchronous fireflies, Selangor, Malaysia

A sampan trip down the Selangor River on a clear night will bring you to one of the world’s largest colonies of fireflies. The insects, which actually are beetles, flash their green-yellow lights so that the berembang mangroves along the riverside at Kampung Kuantan village resemble flashing Christmas decorations. Both males and females produce light, but it is the males that flash in synchrony.

Planning: Kampung Kuantan is 5.5 miles (9 km) from Kuala Selangor town and 35 miles (56 km) from Kuala Lumpur.

9. Giant pandas, Shaanxi province, China

With facilities at Wolong National Nature Reserve destroyed by the 2008 earthquake, there is an alternative at Laoxiancheng National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi, one of several reserves in the misty Qinling Mountains. An ecotourism project has guided treks into the bamboo forests here, where you might encounter giant pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and golden takin.

Planning: Laoxiancheng is 65 miles (105 km) east of Baoji. The best time to visit is May through September.

10. Wildebeest migration, Serengeti, Tanzania

Undoubtedly the world’s most spectacular wildlife sight is the annual wildebeest migration, when 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras and gazelles are on the move across the Serengeti plains. The animals chase the rain and fresh grass. Along the way, lions and hyenas stalk them, and crocodiles lie in wait.

Planning: The herds migrate across Tanzania from December through July, and then pass through the Masai Mara in Kenya in August and September.

For more hidden travel gems, pick up a copy of the new National Geographic book, Secret Journeys of a Lifetime.

Photo: Anne Gilliland/My Shot



  1. Chris
    Nova Scotia, Canada
    June 1, 2014, 8:20 am

    Gotta say our family was very impressed by an up close encounter with a centre line Bison in Yellowstone, WY. Magnificent animal we came upon travelling north to Mammoth Springs, one we passed within several feet of as we made our way around the park via car. A noble animal, almost extinct at the turn of the last century, that we were honoured to meet!

  2. Danielle
    February 18, 2014, 2:53 pm

    Would love to add other animal wonders:

    1. Sumatran Orangutan (critically endangered), Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia — witness them in their natural habitat along with their native companions (monkeys, macaques, peacocks, elephants, etc)

    2. Meet the critically endangered one-horned Javan Rhinoceros in Ujung Kulon, Java, Indonesia. They once existed in Indonesia and Vietnam, but now only remains in Java island, counting to only around 40 in the whole world.

    3. Swim with friendly stingless Jellyfish at Kakaban, Kalimantan, Indonesia. These jellyfish exist only in Indonesia and Polynesia

    4. Dare yourself to swim with sharks (no cage required!) in Karimunjawa Island, Java, Indonesia.

  3. Georgia
    May 21, 2013, 7:21 am

    I haven’t been to any of these places and I would love to see all of the animals above. I would do anything to see a Giant Panda and a Grizzly Bear!!

  4. Emily
    April 28, 2013, 8:23 pm

    We were lucky enough to experience two of your top 5 animal encounters in the past 2 months (we travel full-time by sailboat and RV), and a third one last year.

    First was the monarch butterflies in Michoacan Mexico. Unbelievable – the butterflies were so thick it was like watching the leaves fall in autumn on a breezy day. And the trees seemed to be in bloom with orange blossoms (we have quite a few photos here:

    Then, a few weeks ago, we sailed into Banderas Bay (home of Puerto Vallarta) Mexico, and were suddenly surrounded by breaching humpback whales. It wasn’t Polynesia, but I imagine having a humpback breach a few meters from your boat is equally thrilling no matter what country you are in. We got some amazing photos of the breaching humpbacks here:

    Last year we discovered howler monkeys in the jungle outside the evocative Mayan ruins in Palenque ( We heard them first (that post has a link to hear their sound!). I was terrified, not having any idea what was making that noise!!!

    Thanks for an inspiring post and one that brings back some of my most thrilling memories. 7 more encounters to go — I think the Grizzlies are next on my list!!!!

  5. Richard Preston
    Chevy Chase, Maryland, USA
    March 2, 2013, 6:34 pm

    Katmai National Park and Brooks Falls in mid July is the best wildlife viewing in the world. Watching the giant Costal Brown Bears (really, large fish-nourished Grizzlies) fight with each other for the best fishing spot on the falls is a fantastic sight. I agree that there is plenty of good viewing in Southern Africa too. The Okavango Delta and Chobe in Botswana and Mala Mala outside of Kruger in South Africa are outstanding.

  6. […] See on […]

  7. Simon Richardson
    January 20, 2013, 10:58 pm

    Mine would be looking for snakes where they are most predominant ; eg. South America, Asia, Australia;
    Top 4
    1) Amethystine pythons of FNQ
    2) South Americas anacondas both green and yellow
    3) Reticulated pythons of SE Asia
    4) The island of snakes (near Brazil)

  8. Bodlagz
    February 9, 2012, 12:03 am

    Here is a wonderful encounter of my own, an encounter with a huge Hawksbill turtle, the video footage is simply amazing.

  9. Maureen McIlwain
    toronto, ontario
    December 15, 2011, 9:10 pm

    While I cheer to see the right whales at the top of the animal encounter list, I feel I must correct a tiny error. There are numerous (mostly named) islands in the fantastic Bay of Fundy, St Andrews (New Brunswick) cannot make that claim. It is a pretty wonderful peninsula, however, where wildlife expeditions abound, along with other splendours, like Kingsbrae Garden, The Fundy Discovery Aquarium, Atlantic Salmon Centre,. etc.. etc…

  10. Tom Cannold
    Orlando, Fl
    December 14, 2011, 10:43 pm

    The intimacy, exuberance and beauty of visiting gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda stunned me. It was both sacred and completely natural at the same time. My wife and I were on foot, just a few feet from these extraordinary beings in their natural environment. It changed us both.

  11. Jennifer Modigliani
    Nova Scotia, Canada
    December 14, 2011, 9:27 am

    I’d like to add to this wonderful list of places. Sacajawea Tours visits Sable Island and the Gully MPA where one sees the magnificent and very endangered North Atlantic Bottlenose Whale. This impressive underwater canyon (equivalent to the Grand Canyon in the U.S.) provides enormous biodiversity and is a feeding mecca for such creatures as the Bottlenose Whale. One is unlikely to see the gentle and inquisitive Bottlenose Whale anywhere in such numbers as here. There are in this area 160 individuals. Of course, Sable Island will be Canada’s newest National Park and has tremendous appeal for its marine mammals, birds, horses, and mysterious history, etc. Sacajawea Tours is going for the second time to both places this coming June 9 – 17, 2012 No one has ever been as a tourist (stopping and watching) to the Gully MPA and we took the first tour this last summer.

  12. Ng Sebastian
    Makassar and Flores - INDONESIA
    December 14, 2011, 3:45 am

    The Komodo Feeding have been stopped more than 10 years ago. As the feeding may cause unexpected impact on the Komodo lives. Visitors now can see the Komodo in its real natural habitat. The best places to see Komodo in Komodo National Park are at Loh Liang in Komodo island and at Loh Buaya in Rinca island.

  13. Mattcredible
    South Africa
    December 14, 2011, 2:18 am

    All the usual suspects, but don’t forget watching the Southern Right Whale from Hermanus South Africa and seeing the big 5 from any of the National Parks in South Africa.

  14. Greg
    December 13, 2011, 7:13 pm

    I, used to sail to Halifasx Nova Scotia duringm the 1980`s.It was magnificent to watch the whales off tyhje bows of the ship.
    Very fond memories
    Nice post

  15. BeccaV
    United States
    December 13, 2011, 4:45 pm

    You can also see the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in early June each year.