Up-Close Animal Adventures

In southwestern Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park dominates a 124-square-mile section of the planet in an undulating expanse of rugged, emerald woodland full of fantastic flora and fauna. For some, it’s sufficient just to know that half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas lives in this landscape. The imagination is a powerful thing, and some are content to dream, filling in the gaps with images gathered from television and magazines. But others will crave more. The bold adventurers, those who more often abandon the well-trodden trail for the boundless backcountry, the ones who willingly exchange the touristy for the restricted, or just those who want to swap a pair of skipped heartbeats and stolen breaths for an irreplaceable moment spent staring into the eyes of a wild animal in its natural habitat, will seek out places like Silverback Lodge where “gorilla tracking” through Bwindi’s forests is actually part of the agenda.

Such adventurers will forgo the controlled security of a zoo-type environment and step into an undiluted habitat to be in the company of some of the world’s most spectacular animals. Take Zambia for example. Some 40,000 hippos call Zambia home, and most of them congregate amid the tributaries of the Lower Zambezi. You could see them from the backseat of a safari truck and snap your photos from a distance, or you could join Chongwe River Camp, operated by Chongwe Safaris, and float right through the middle of them at nearly eye-level in a canoe. Or take &Beyond’s Mahua Kothi Jungle Lodge near India’s Bandhavgarh National Park, where you will spend your days on elephant-back game-viewing expeditions and your nights glamping amid a lush tiger-dense wilderness.

Rather than dipping your toes in this up-close animal experience, dive right in with the big boys. Get off the couch and stop drooling on your remote during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Instead, head to South Africa for a shark diving safari with Big Fish Expeditions and swim with more than 10 species of sharks including great whites, makos, blues and catsharks, and experience firsthand the chumming, hunting and breaching most only get to see on their flat screen. The weeklong adventure includes in-shore dives through kelp forests, free time with lively cape fur seals near Pyramid Rock and the occasional visit of a dolphin or passing whale. If you’re looking for a less frightening underwater encounter, Big Fish Expeditions also guides snorkeling excursions with humpback whales in the Dominican Republic, or you can meet up at Isla Mujeres to dive with whale sharks and manta rays during their annual migration through the warm waters off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

When it comes to land animals, few can argue that Alaska is one of the world’s best wildlife adventure playgrounds. Unfortunately, few ever truly experience the wildest parts of that playground. Each year countless tourists board the same tour buses and cruise ships and walk the same trails to the same scenic overlooks in hopes of catching the same furry photo ops. But few can boast the kind of immersive nature experience that Natural Habitat Adventures provides. Leave the crowds behind for a real Alaska safari and join local naturalist guides for close-up grizzly encounters deep in the heart of Denali National Park’s remotest wilderness. Then explore Alaska’s coastal grizzlies at Katmai National Park before heading inland to hang with the salmon-fishing bears at Brooks Falls. When you’ve had your fill of brown bears, follow Natural Habitat Adventures to the polar bear migration route near Churchill, Manitoba. You’ll stay at the remote tundra lodge and tour polar bear country in the Polar Rover.

Yellowstone National Park is another premier wildlife experience, but it’s also a great place to meet a dense crowd of tourists or sit in long lines of traffic or view nature through the tinted window of your climate–controlled minivan. Since 1933 the Yellowstone Association has been a dedicated steward of the park and a visitor’s best chance of occupying the secretive world of Yellowstone’s wolf population. Through a number of multi-day course offerings, guests of all ages will learn from biologists and researchers about wolf ecology, behavior, communication and predation while spending plenty of time in the field observing these elusive animals in their own habitat. The Yellowstone Association also offers courses on the park’s grizzly bears, birds and river otters with loads of field observation time accompanied by knowledgeable researchers.

While most up-close animal encounters benefit the human counterpart only, some, like the wildlife volunteering opportunities with Elevate Destinations, offer a shared advantage. For example, the Mexico Sea Turtle Conservation Adventure contributes to the study and protection of endangered green sea turtles in the Sea of Cortez. As a volunteer, you’ll work with expert naturalists on the tiny, secluded shell island of Conchalito in Magdalena Bay—your basecamp and turtle-monitoring site. From there you’ll work with local fishermen setting and checking nets; you’ll work with conservationists learning about sea turtle biology as you weigh, measure and tag sea turtles; but most of all, you’ll spend your vacation making a difference. Elevate Destination offers many other conservation adventures including Namibia, where you’ll spend time with desert elephants; Peru, where you’ll work with exotic species in the Amazon; and South Africa, where you’ll track cheetahs and black rhino.

Not all animal encounters need to be with the big guys though, and not all need to be multiday excursions in the wild. Carmel Valley Ranch is a luxury resort in the middle of Monterey County wine country. Visitors here can play golf, enjoy mountaintop yoga, explore vineyards and even hang out with honeybees. That’s right. The whole family can actually don those spaceman-looking bee suits and step into the apiary to play the role of beekeeper amid 60,000 Italian honeybees. But you won’t just sit back and watch the experts work; instead, you will partake in all the duties of honey harvesting in addition to feeding and inspecting each colony all while learning about these fascinating animals.

In the end, we can all find contentment by observing our planet’s wilder inhabitants from afar, and some would argue that the distance is preferred. But there’s something special about momentarily stepping out of our innocuous routine of the day-to-day and immersing ourselves in a less familiar experience. It’s the difference between viewing killer whales from the stern of a crowded tour boat and setting out from a seaside basecamp with a Spirit of the West Adventures guide to sea kayak amid resident orcas. It’s jungle camping with Pioneer Expeditions in the Sumatran Rainforest, spending your days trekking through an elephant sanctuary in Tangkahan or exploring an orangutan sanctuary in Bukwit Lawng. But most of all, it’s reconnecting with some long-lost bond we once had with the environment that, like a whispered secret, can only be heard when we step in close to Mother Nature herself.

Silverback Lodge (silverbacklodge.com)
Chongwe Safaris (chongwe.com)
&Beyond (andbeyond.com)
Big Fish Expeditions (bigfishexpeditions.com)
Natural Habitat Adventures (nathab.com)
The Yellowstone Association (yellowstoneassociation.org)
Elevate Destinations (elevatedestinations.com)
Spirit of the West Adventures (kayakingtours.com)