Sloth-spotting, hanging out with gators, swimming with whale sharks – we’re pretty sure these animal encounters would be on any self-respecting wildlife lover’s bucket list. Here are the best places in the world for taking a walk on the wild side…
1. Swim with wild whale sharks in Mexico
They may share a name with their infamous Jaws cousins, but whale sharks come without the rows of fear-inducing teeth, so swimming with them is totally safe. Hundreds gather off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula from May to September, when snorkellers and divers can swim alongside these gentle giants. The easiest place to clock them is on a daytrip to Isla Mujeres – a 20-minute ferry ride away from boisterous Cancun. They’re the biggest fish in the sea, growing up to a whopping 12 metres in length. Don’t worry – whale sharks are filter feeders, so plankton and tiny fish are the only foodie delights they’re interested in. But, they’re speedy swimmers, so you’ll have to keep up…
2. Spot sloths in Costa Rica
Monkeys, crocs, tree frogs, tapirs – Costa Rica’s got animals coming out of its ears. But there’s one cute mammal that really hogs the limelight – the slow-moving sloth. There are shedloads of sanctuaries and wildlife refuges where you’re guaranteed to clap eyes on the tree-dwelling animals. If you fancy a bit more of a challenge, though – make tracks for Manuel Antonio National Park. Here, you can hit the trails on your own or hire experienced guides, who know a thing or two about spotting sloths. Our best advice? Listen for rustling leaves and look up – these snoozy animals spend most of their time in the treetops.
Check out Playa de Matapalo – it’s only a 40-minute drive from Manual Antonio
3. Help turtles in Cape Verde
Cape Verde has the third-biggest population of nesting loggerhead turtles on the planet. So, it goes without saying that it’s a top-notch place to glimpse the little reptiles. If you’re super-keen to spot some, time your visit between July and October. This is when the turtles nest on the islands of Boa Vista and Sal. You can drop in on conservation projects, like the Project Biodiversity Turtle Conservation Hatchery, in Santa Maria, where you can learn about their work. In August, there’s also the chance to join guided night walks and see the turtles nesting.
4. Kayak with alligators in America
Swap noisy airboats for a kayak – and you’ll blend right in as you glide through Florida’s Everglades on the lookout for the park’s famous reptiles. Now that they’re protected, American alligators are making a comeback, with numbers estimated at around the million mark. So, you can expect plenty of blinking eyes as you paddle your way through the waterways. Talk about a back-to-nature experience…
5. Snorkel alongside manta rays in the Maldives
The Maldives is made up of 99% water, so it’s hardly any surprise that it’s up to its neck in marine life. We’re talking whale sharks, sea turtles and the mammoth manta ray. As a rule of thumb, the best time to spot manta rays in the Maldives is from November to April in the western atolls, or May to October in the eastern atolls. Basically, these huge beasts of the sea follow the plankton, so they’re more interested in feeding, than you. You don’t need to dive to see them, either – snorkelling trips are on offer, too. If you’ve earnt your PADI stripes, though – it’s worth hitting up the Addu Atoll, where the rays can reach a supersized five metres. Plus, the atoll’s shaped like a heart… honeymoon, anyone?
6. Watch whales and dolphins in Madeira
Madeira might be a Portuguese archipelago, but you’ll find it bobbing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Because of this, it’s one of the best places in Europe – and the world – to see all kinds of whale and dolphin species year-round. Pilot and 12-metre-long sperm whales hang around the region’s water the whole time, along with pods of acrobatic dolphins. You can also see the smaller minke whale on boat trips from June to August. And humpbacks and orcas have even been known to drop by.