My top 8 animal encounters around the world 12


Since I was a tot, I’ve been overwhelmed with love for animals. While some women dread growing old and becoming crazy cat lady spinsters, I look forward to the animal hoarding phase of my life (though my companions of choice tend toward the canine).

I’ve sought out interactions with animals in my travels since before I can remember. But over time, my tastes have changed. After watching dolphins frolic in the open ocean, it’s hard to see the joy in watching them circle tiny cement pools, and after watching a jaguar stalk along a riverbank in the Amazon, it isn’t quite so exciting to see one in a zoo. Today, I seek out encounters with animals that are willing participants in sharing their space with me; one where everyone walks – or swims – away happy.

1. Diving with Manta Rays in Hawaii

Hawaii has more on offer than white sand beaches and fruity cocktails served with paper umbrellas (though it does admittedly have those in spades). I was drawn there by the waters off the coast of The Big Island’s Kona – one of the planet’s most reliable places to see manta rays. Divers wait until dark and descend with flashlights brought not just to provide light but also to attract plankton. Giant mantas, twenty feet in width, then happily descend upon the plankton buffet. Of course, any encounter with wild animals is guarantee-free, but local divemasters estimate there are only about five nights in a year that the mantas don’t show.

On the night of my own dive we were treated to more than twenty-five manta rays, as well as a pod of a dozen dolphins playing in our boat wake on the ride out. Tears of gratitude filled my mask.

Diving with Manta Rays

Diving with Manta Rays

Diving with Manta Rays

2. Feeding an elephant in Thailand

Riding an elephant is high on the bucket list of many travelers to Thailand. However, most don’t realize the trauma those elephants have been through in order to become domesticated enough to accept riders. At Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai, you can experience interaction without exploitation. Feed them, bathe them, walk with them, and enjoy seeing elephants happy and fear-free in their habitat.

While short and long-term volunteer opportunities are readily available, a day visit like I took to the park is incredibly rewarding and a perfect introduction to Thailand’s most sacred animal.

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

3. Riding an Icelandic horse in Iceland

You can ride horses in countless destinations around the world. Yet – as usual – Iceland likes to do things a little bit differently. Icelandic horses have remained a pure stock since arriving on the island with the Vikings in the 9th century, and at just over four feet fall are frequently mistaken for ponies. While most horse breeds worldwide have three gaits — walk, trot, and gallop —  Icelandic horses have an extra one, the tölt.

And horseback riding in Iceland is none of that mane-to-tail trail plodding you may have tried elsewhere. My own morning ride involved fording glacial streams, trotting past volcanic hot springs and tölting through lava fields.

Icelandic Horse

Icelandic Horse

4. Snorkeling with manatees in Florida

I spent a large part of my life assuming Florida had nothing more to offer than visits to my Tampa-based family and occasional trips to Disneyworld. On my most recent trip, I proved myself seriously wrong. Less than an hour and a half from Orlando, Crystal River serves up a unique opportunity to swim with migrating manatees from October to March.

While I’m still not quite sure how sailors once mistook manatees for mermaids, I can now attest to the fact that these bulbous creatures move with a surprising amount of grace. Braving the chilly winter waters? Worth every shiver to share a swim with these beauties.

Manatees in Florida

Manatees in Florida

Manatees in Florida

5. Spotting a Jaguar in Peru

Red howler monkeys? Check. Pig-like peccaries? Check. Toothy caimans? Check. On a week-long trip into the remote Peruvian rainforest, it felt like I had seen it all. When our guide called out “jaguar!” in a strained whisper during a boat ride down the Tambopata River, I assumed he was joking. Then I looked up.

Seeing two adult jaguars in the wild is a rare and special privilege. While I expected them to spot us and sprint, they retreated slowly from the riverbank, sauntering towards the jungle and throwing us a side-long glance every few paces. Hoping to get the same glance? Journey as deep into the jungle as you dare, and pack a pair of binoculars — and a lot of luck.

Jaguar Spotting in Peru

Jaguar Spotting in Peru

6. Mooing at highland cows in Scotland

Scotland has a number of iconic symbols – kilts, haggis, and highland cows all come to mind. During my summer spend in the United Kingdom, I developed what some might say was an unhealthy obsession with the latter. I often found myself pulled over on the side of the road, dangling over a fence and mooing out to my newfound friends. And did they ever talk back! Should you ever want the attention of a field full of coos, as the Scottish call them, don’t be shy – just lean over and give them a moo.

Highland Cow

Highland Cow

7. Volunteering with dogs in Grand Cayman

I’ve contributed to or volunteered at shelters in my hometown of Albany, New York, as well as in my temporary homes of Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands and Koh Tao, Thailand. While volunteer opportunities in far flung locations with exotic species often come with hefty price tags, offering to help out with man’s best friends rarely comes with such a fee.

At the Cayman Islands Humane Society, I took photos of animals up for adoption. While it was a struggle not to stuff each and every one into my camera bag at the end of the day, it was a beautiful way to fulfill my puppy lust at a time I was in no position to adopt.

Cayman Islands Humane Society

Cayman Islands Humane Society

8. Hanging with monkeys in Indonesia

Monkeys begin to lose their novelty quickly as one travels through Southeast Asia. Lose a lens cap or other grab-able item to one and the charm begins to dissipate too. But at the The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali, the magic comes back quickly. Here, lush jungle has begun to reclaim the beautiful temples, and an army of wild cheeky macaques have made the Tomb Raider-reminiscent setting into their playground.

Entrance is just 20,000 rupiah (about $2) – but it might cost you more if you don’t keep an eye on your valuables.

Monkey Forest in Ubud

Monkey Forest in Ubud

What has been the most rewarding animal encounter of your travels?


About Alex Baackes

Alexandra Baackes is a travel writer and blogger with a passion for aquatic adventures. A New York native with a background in design, she's spent the past three years living nomadically and sharing her stories of hopping across the globe. You can find her spilling secrets on Alex in Wanderland, talking sea creatures and security lines on Facebook, and posting photos of fried rice and festivals on Instagram.

12 thoughts on “My top 8 animal encounters around the world

  • Raj D

    You would love to snorkel with whale sharks off the coast of Mexico Holbox Mexico!

    Maybe snorkel with penguins, sea lions and Marine Iguana’s in the Galapagos!

    • Alex

      You’re right — swimming with the whale sharks in Holbox is on my bucket list! I have been lucky enough to see them in Thailand, Philippines, and Panama, but it is never enough 🙂

  • Renuka

    This is nice and interesting. I love the monkey pic. I am glad to know about the Elephant spine thing, because I haven’t sat on an Elephant in my life so far and after knowing the trauma they go through I wouldn’t ever.

    • Alex

      I’m glad to hear that, Renuka! I think the reason the elephant riding industry thrives is because people don’t understand what they have gone through.

  • Michael

    One of the reasons we travel is to see animals in their natural habitats. Seeing sloths in the wild will stay with me until I’m a very old man!

  • Shane

    I’m going to have to disagree about the monkeys in Ubud – they’re evil little buggers. I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time chasing after them to get my girlfriend’s bag back. Walking a (small) lion would be my highlight.

    Also thanks for the link to the Cayman Islands Humane Society. I have a free or cheap volunteer work abroad site so will be investigating them further later.

    • Alex

      Wow, where did this lion walking happen?! And I have found that you can volunteer for free at animal shelters almost everywhere in the world — just show up and offer your skills and your time.

      • Shane

        You’re right, animal sanctuaries are a good source of volunteering without having to pay an expensive fee.

        The lion walking (and a tiger too) was with Safari Volunteers in Kanchanaburi. There is a fee of around £9 a day to volunteer with them, though this does include meals and accommodation.
        For volunteering with glamorous animals like leopards and lions I felt this was pretty reasonable.

  • Claire @ ZigZag On Earth

    I love seeing wild animals too. Namibia gave me a great taste of it!
    More recently I spotted a wild platypus in Australia. Not much to see but I was so excited!!!
    Great list Alex, especially that shot of the 2 elephants!

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