On my morning walk I passed a sign that read Warning: Bear in Area. My first thought was that it’s awfully early in the season. I didn’t end up meeting any big furry creatures, but it got me thinking about the wild animals I’ve seen during my travels abroad and on local adventures in western Canada. Just like memorable monuments, landscapes, or people, wild animals encounters have left indelible impressions on me—most of them positive, and a few not. So, in no particular order, here are my most memorable critter experiences.
Humpback whales in British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago
In the distance, we see mist from the whales’ blowholes. Our kayaking guide tells us to raft-up and give the whales space. Minutes later, a humpback unexpectedly surfaces just 10m (32 ft) from our kayaks. My close-up encounter with this marine giant in B.C.’s Broughton Archipelago remains one of my most inspiring (if a tad scary) animal experiences. In addition to humpback whales, this area is home to orcas, porpoises, eagles, bears, and many more animals. You can read about my kayaking/whale adventure with Spirit of the West Adventures here.
Komodo dragons of Komodo Island, Indonesia
My sister, me and other backpackers are being led along the trails by a “ranger” carrying a pitchfork-like thing that he uses to jab the dragons if they come too close. He looks like he is about 12 years old. One komodo darts towards us. I jump into my sister’s arms, feet off the ground, clinging to her neck. The ranger laughs; my sister is simultaneously terrified and annoyed. Even 30 year later, I remember my intense fear as we walked among the Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizard species, growing to 2.6 m (8.5 ft) and 91 kg (200 lb). Komodo Island is incredibly beautiful, but I don’t need to repeat my dragon encounter.
Mandarinfish, Bunaken Island, Indonesia
It’s dusk. Our small group of divers descends to 12 m. Every night, as the sun goes down, mandarinfish tentatively leave the safety of their coral sanctuary to engage in an elaborate mating ritual. They are very shy and even the slightest movement and camera lights can spook them. We are lucky. Several males emerge; their iridescent colour pattern is exquisite. They flutter their feathery fins and show off for the females. When a female sees a fella she likes, she attaches herself to one of his fins. Their mating dance is a perfectly choreographed ballet. I am completely transfixed. My mandarinfish dive was my favourite of many great dives around Bunaken Island, and perhaps my favourite dive ever.
The lions of Etosha Park, Namibia
We pull to the side of the gravel road after noticing that our rental car had a flat tire—the third on our Namibia trip. “Lions!” my son screams as he points to a pair gracefully walking through the golden scrubland. This is our first lion sighting and we are over the moon (flat tire temporarily forgotten). The lions make themselves comfortable right across the road from us. There are no other private cars or safari trucks, just us. Perhaps 20 minutes elapse, a few cars come and go, and the lions show no sign of leaving. The situation starts to sink in. This is pre-cellphone era. Finally, a ranger pulls up and Mike rolls down the window just enough to flag him down. The ranger radios a garage for us. We have another hour, much of it private, with the big cats of Etosha National Park.
The hippos of Kruger National Park, South Africa
We cycle past zebras and all kinds of antelopes on our guided mountain bike tour in Kruger National Park. The peaceful setting has mostly pushed away my fears of running into a big cat. Suddenly, the ranger at the back of our group yells, “Ride! Fast!” Adrenalin pumping, we follow instructions. Moments later, there’s a gun shot. Visibly shaken, the ranger informs us that a 2000 kg male, rogue hippo had charged him. There had been no alternative but killing him. I’m thankful that no one on our tour got hurt (or worse), but I hate that I played a role in the hippo’s death by being in his habitat. Our ranger tries to put it in perspective for us. It was the first time he had shot an animal while on a bike trip, and the third time in the over 2000 walks he had guided in the park. I’ll always feel sad about this animal encounter.
Sharks of Fulidhoo Island, Maldives
Our divemaster holds his hand straight up against his forehead—the signal for shark. I’m equal parts excited and stressed. We gather together to form a compact group along the top edge of a channel and watch the show unfold. At least a dozen grey reef sharks cruise by—all gleaming silver skin, torpedo-like-bodies, intense eyes. They are magnificent. The water around Fulidhoo Island, in the Vaavu Atoll, is known for its large shark population, but we also see eagle rays, moray eels, turtles and other creatures. Read more about what it’s like above and below the water at Fulidhoo Island.
The blue-footed booby (and all animals) of the Galapagos
The Pato Feo (the Ugly Ducking) is our home for seven days as we tour the Galapagos Islands. She’s not much to look at, but our crew and guide are exceptional. Every island has its unique charms and we’re introduced to blue footed boobies, marine iguanas, flamingos, giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins… The animals show little fear. We’re delighted by a blue-footed booby who flaunts his bright feet in a dance that would make any female swoon. That was back in 1987, and to this day the Galapagos Islands remain my favourite trip for magical, close-up animal encounters.
Sea lions of Los Islotes, Sea of Cortez, Mexico
A juvenile sea lion comes at me with lightning speed and then veers just inches from my mask. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was chuckling. Dozens of sea lions spin, swirl and backflip in an extraordinary display of underwater power and elegance. I’ve described my hour of snorkelling at Los Islotes, a tiny group of islands in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, as one of the best days of my life. Our Los Islotes snorkelling excursion was part of an outstanding kayaking trip we did with ROW Sea Kayak Adventures. You can read my original post here.
Gray langurs of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
I’m wilting in the Sri Lankan heat at the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. I plop myself down on some shady steps next to a short wall where a group of gray langurs are hanging out. I’m fascinated by how they groom each other, how they play, and how the moms are so protective of their tiny babies. I’ve had many special encounters with monkeys throughout my travels. They never fail to make me smile. Read more about Sri Lanka here.
White-phase black bear, Kananaskis, Alberta
What type of bear could this be? There are no spirit bears or polar bears in the Alberta Rockies. But this guy, looking down at us from high up on a ridge, has a white coat. It turns out that we had the great fortune of seeing a white-phase black bear. The American black bear has the widest colour variation (called phases) of any North American mammal. Don’t let the term phase fool you; this bear was born white and will remain white. This was my coolest animal encounter during the pandemic (so far). You can read the original story here.
I’ve had so many other interesting animal encounters, but this post is getting too long. I’ll leave you with photos of a few more memorable moments (all good ones).
Have you had a particularly memorable wild animal encounter?