There’s a reason “The Lion King” is one of the most beloved Disney films of all time. And it has nothing to do with the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack. Humans have always been fascinated by wildlife. Since childhood, we’re taught to respect (and fear) the creatures cohabiting Earth with us. Still, it's possible to get close to them – responsibly. You just have to be in the right place at the right time.
From blue-footed boobies to blue whales, here are 10 once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters you can safely experience.
Blue-footed boobies - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
A lone blue-footed booby stands on shore in the Galapagos — Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten Expeditions
World-famous for its unusual wildlife, the Galapagos is home to the head-turning blue-footed booby. According to Hurtigruten Expeditions, whose new Galapagos cruises introduce passengers to the "Big 15" (the archipelago's answer to Africa's Big 5), sightings are pretty much guaranteed, year-round.
These birds with electric blue feet start courting in June, with the mating season lasting through August. To attract females, males show off their feet in a dance best described as stepping.
Sandhill cranes - Platte River Valley, Nebraska
Sandhill cranes flock to Nebraska's North Platte River Valley — Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism
In February, thousands of sandhill cranes start descending upon Nebraska’s Platte River Valley. By early April, their numbers peak with experts estimating the population to be 500,000. And that’s just in one 80-mile-long stretch! While you can see the cranes on a self-guided drive, the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary offers a variety of birdwatching tours as well as overnight photography packages.
Whale sharks - Ningaloo, Western Australia
Hundreds of whale sharks congregate each year at Ningaloo Reef — Photo courtesy of Tourism Western Australia
Coral spawning at Ningaloo Reef attracts hundreds of whale sharks. Fortunately, they congregate at the reef to feed on the surplus of plankton, not the travelers who embrace the opportunity to swim alongside the world’s largest fish. According to Western Australia’s tourism board, there is a 97% chance of spotting them between late March and late July. You do, however, have to book a boat tour.
Wolves - Yellowstone, Wyoming & Montana
The best time for seeing wolves in Yellowstone is during the winter months — Photo courtesy of Scott Thomson
“Spring marks the beginning of ‘puppy season’ for Yellowstone's wolves,” says Grant Johnson, Lead Guide for Yellowstone Safari Co. who offers a wolf-watching package for guests at Bozeman’s Kimpton Armory Hotel. “This is when we get to witness how remarkably nurturing and caring one of America's most iconic apex predators can be.”
Each litter usually has four to six pups. According to the latest Yellowstone National Park Wolf Project Annual Report, 62 puppies were counted in the park in 2020.
Primates - Borneo
The proboscis monkey is easy to identify by its odd-shaped nose — Photo courtesy of InsideAsia Tours
For ideal weather, shoulder season prices and practically no crowds of tourists, visit Borneo in spring. According to InsideAsia Tours, who specializes in itineraries visiting Asia’s largest island, it’s the fruiting season, so there’s plenty of food for Borneo’s extremely entertaining primates. They include the elusive orangutan, but also the proboscis monkey, easy to identify by its odd-shaped nose. In all, the island boasts 13 different species of primates.
Sea turtles - Watamu Marine National Park, Kenya
Most people don't associate Kenya with sea turtles, but it's home to popular nesting sites — Photo courtesy of Ker & Downey Africa
Sure, Kenya has safaris, but did you know it’s also home to five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles? According to the experts at Ker & Downey Africa, whose Kenya itineraries can include sea turtle encounters, April through November is the best time to visit Watamu Marine National Park. It’s a nesting haven where green turtles, olive ridley, hawksbill and leatherback turtles all come ashore to lay their eggs.
How to book an ethical safari: 10 things to consider
How to book an ethical safari: 10 things to consider
Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota
The birth of the first bison calf in Custer State Park is a cause for celebration — Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Every year, the arrival of Custer State Park’s first bison calf makes headlines. This typically occurs in March or April. The park’s healthy herd of 1,400 bison roams freely across more than 70,000 acres. Still, they’re never hard to find. Simply drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway or sign up for a two-hour Buffalo Safari where an open-air Jeep takes you off the beaten path into the bison’s natural habitat.
Whales - Dana Point, California
Dana Point is the self-proclaimed "Whale Watching Capital of the World" — Photo courtesy of Grayden Fanning/Capt. Dave's Whale Watching
Dana Point has more dolphins per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Whales, however, are the biggest draw during April, when you can catch the end of the gray whales’ migration and the beginning of the blue whales’ migration. There’s a good chance of seeing both massive mammals (blue whales can reach up to 100 feet long) on the same day.
While it’s possible to see whales breaching from shore, the best way to get a feel for their size is to book a boat excursion with Capt. Dave's.
Leopards - Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa
Leopards are elusive creatures, but sightings in Greater Kruger National Park are not uncommon — Photo courtesy of Pondoro Game Lodge
Reynard Moolman looks forward to April and May each year for one main reason: leopards. “Because afternoon temperatures are cooler, they tend to become more active earlier in the afternoon,” says the safari guide at Pondoro Game Lodge in Greater Kruger National Park. His photo of a leopard “playing with an impala” went viral in 2020.
He also says it’s easier to spot them during the dry season, May through September, when their prey is likely to be congregating near water holes.
Greater sage-grouse - Walden, Colorado
The greater sage-grouse is North America's largest grouse — Photo courtesy of Wayne D. Lewis
Lewis & Clark called them the “cock of the Plains.” Two-hundred years ago, the explorers’ party was just as transfixed by greater sage-grouse as the current birdwatchers, who flock to North Park, Colorado every April to witness their annual mating ritual. To attract females, males fan their spiky tail feathers and puff up their breast-like air sacs. The unusual popping sound they make can be heard from miles away.