Where to have close-up encounters with some of the world’s most remarkable animals.
From the National Geographic book Secret Journeys of a Lifetime
1. Right whales, Bay of Fundy, Canada
Northern right whales are on the brink of extinction, but survivors arrive in the Bay of Fundy each summer (May through October) to feed east of Grand Manan Island. They are recognized by a broad back, no dorsal fin, and white callosities on the head, which distinguish them from other whales entering the bay.
Planning: Whale-watching tours operate out of Digby Neck peninsula on Nova Scotia and nearby islands, such as Brier Island, St. Andrews, Grand Manan Island, and Deer Island.
2. Grizzly bears, Alaska
Grizzlies like salmon. In mid-July and again in mid-August and September, grizzlies make for Alaskan rivers to hook out the fish with their formidable claws. The bears gather in large numbers at rapids and pools, sometimes fighting for the best sites. MacNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, and Fish Creek, near Hyder, have viewing platforms.
Planning: Most fishing sites are accessed by chartered light aircraft and a hike. Hyder is off the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.
3. Monarch butterflies, Sierra Chincua, Mexico
Each fall, millions of North American monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles to the oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Mountain Range, in the state of Michoacán, to overwinter. They cluster together on tree trunks, bushes, and on the ground on Sierra Chincua and four neighboring hills that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Planning: Chincua is one of two hills in the reserve open to the public from November through March.
4. Community Baboon Sanctuary, Belize
Black howler monkeys are called “baboons” in Creole. Two hundred landowners have pledged to protect their local population, an initiative started at Bermudian Landing and now covering more than 19 square miles (50 sq km) of rain forest along the Belize River. The community offers guided tours and night walks.
Planning: Less than one hour’s drive northwest from Belize City, or by boat from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker.
5. Humpback whales, Rurutu, French Polynesia
Snorkeling in waters with 98 to 196 ft (30 to 60 m) of visibility makes the island of Rurutu one of the best spots for whale encounters in the world. Between July and October it plays host to calving, nursing, and mating humpbacks. Boats leave regularly from the village of Moerai for three-hour trips to whale-watch and swim with mothers and calves.
Planning: Rurutu is a 90-minute flight from Tahiti. The island has limited accommodations, so book early.
6. Komodo dragons, Komodo Island, Indonesia
Landing on Komodo, you step back to a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth for, as ancient maps reported, “Here be dragons!” This mountainous volcanic island is home to the world’s largest living lizard—the Komodo dragon. You can hike to a viewpoint at Banugulung and watch as park rangers feed goat carcasses to the lizards, some of which are more than 10 ft (3 m) long.
Planning: Komodo is reached by boat from Bima (on eastern Sumbawa) or Labuan Bajo (on western Flores).
7. Snow monkeys, Chubu region, Japan
Snow monkeys—Japanese macaques—sit in hot tubs to keep warm in winter. At Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, in the central Japanese Alps, you can watch the monkeys taking advantage of hot mineral water bubbling into pools among the dark gray rocks. You can trek through the Nagano Woods to reach the site.
Planning: Reachable by a train to Yudanaka town, a bus to Kanbayashi, and a 30-minute walk to Jigokudani.
8. Synchronous fireflies, Selangor, Malaysia
A sampan trip down the Selangor River on a clear night will bring you to one of the world’s largest colonies of fireflies. The insects, which actually are beetles, flash their green-yellow lights so that the berembang mangroves along the riverside at Kampung Kuantan village resemble flashing Christmas decorations. Both males and females produce light, but it is the males that flash in synchrony.
Planning: Kampung Kuantan is 5.5 miles (9 km) from Kuala Selangor town and 35 miles (56 km) from Kuala Lumpur.
9. Giant pandas, Shaanxi province, China
- Nat Geo Expeditions
With facilities at Wolong National Nature Reserve destroyed by the 2008 earthquake, there is an alternative at Laoxiancheng National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi, one of several reserves in the misty Qinling Mountains. An ecotourism project has guided treks into the bamboo forests here, where you might encounter giant pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and golden takin.
Planning: Laoxiancheng is 65 miles (105 km) east of Baoji. The best time to visit is May through September.
10. Wildebeest migration, Serengeti, Tanzania
Undoubtedly the world’s most spectacular wildlife sight is the annual wildebeest migration, when 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras and gazelles are on the move across the Serengeti plains. The animals chase the rain and fresh grass. Along the way, lions and hyenas stalk them, and crocodiles lie in wait.
Planning: The herds migrate across Tanzania from December through July, and then pass through the Masai Mara in Kenya in August and September.
For more hidden travel gems, pick up a copy of the new National Geographic book, Secret Journeys of a Lifetime.
Photo: Anne Gilliland/My Shot