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