I recently spent four days in The Galapagos for Dan’s 27th birthday. The wildlife viewing was some of the best (if not the greatest) of my life. To understand how his birthday gift paralleled some of my previous experiences, Dan asked me to compare the wildlife viewing to other locations I had been to. Here’s the list of top wildlife experiences I’ve finetuned over the last several days.
1. The Galapagos, Ecuador
Regarding aquatic wildlife experiences, I’m not sure you can get much better than The Galapagos Islands. I’ve visited the Great Barrier Reef (albeit in the off-season), and you’ll note it doesn’t even make this list.
We visited for just over a long weekend in The Galapagos for logistical reasons. It costs a pretty penny to travel here, and the Wi-Fi is virtually non-existent, which made work pretty impossible. Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone who lives on the island accesses the internet.
Still, this is far and away the coolest wildlife experience I’ve had to date. I’d recommend this to anyone. Swimming with sea lions was my favorite part of the trip while Dan’s was unequivocally spotting dozens of dolphins (not a common feat) on his birthday. I saw tons of animals that I’d never seen in the wild before, and I hope to return to the Galapagos for a longer trip (most likely a cruise) in the future.
Read more about our time in Country #77: Ecuador (The Galapagos) here.
2. Zanzibar, Tanzania
I think so fondly of my time in Zanzibar, and this is probably one of my most talked about experiences with Dan. I had a big goal to swim with dolphins in the wild because I don’t think that it’s humane to swim with them in captivity. I knew that you were able to do this in Zanzibar, so I decided to book an excursion to do this on my Year 5: Africa trip with my brother, Jake.
I’ve started a tradition of gifting him an excursion for his birthday instead of a physical gift each year. I believe this was the first year I did it. I didn’t tell him what we were doing. I just told him that I booked an ethical tour for us (a group that wouldn’t scare the dolphins with boat motors or get too close). It required we leave at 4 AM. He was bewildered, to say the least. We left our hotel before the sun was up, and I didn’t have a ton of information about where we were going. I just knew we needed to be in the water early before there were a ton of boats out there scaring the dolphins.
Our guides would find the dolphins and instruct us to jump in when we were just over a passing pod. The dolphins would swim so incredibly fast that we’d be able to glimpse them for just 10 or 15 seconds before we were swimming back up to the surface to get back on the boat and start the process all over again. It was exhilarating. The rest of the day consisted of snorkeling and eating a fresh seafood lunch (lobster, calamari, and squid) on a sandbar. Incredible!
3. Big Island, Hawaii
For my 25th birthday, Dan surprised me with a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii to go snorkeling with manta rays at night. We had friends who did this exact same excursion, and they said it was one of the best experiences. Dan is all about wildlife experiences, especially if they’re in the water. So, he couldn’t wait to gift me something that got us both out into the water on a new island.
I had never done nighttime diving or snorkeling experience. I’m not sure I would typically love it, but there was something so peaceful about the manta rays. The tour groups attract manta rays by placing bright lights under flotation devices. These lights attract plankton that the manta rays like to eat. The group then grabs ahold of the PVC pipe attached to the flotation device. We all hung out like “like supermen” for an hour just watching the manta rays swoop and dive.
I wrote all about the weekend — beginning to end — in My 25th Birthday Trip to the Big Island.
4. The Serengeti, Tanzania
This was another aspect of our Year 5: Africa trip (dang, we did it big!). Going on Safari was actually our main event and the dolphin excursion was just an add-on that we happened to strike gold on. The one thing that perhaps made the Serengeti pale a bit in comparison was that we got stuck in the mud for 7 hours. Our driver was a bit reckless on the second day we were on the Serengeti, and we were stuck without help on the grassland for several hours. During that time, not a single animal happened to pass. Seems like it’s out of a movie, right?
Still, despite that mishap, we still managed to see most of the Big 5 while we were out there, so it makes the list in terms of top wildlife experiences. I have great memories of safari, and I’d love to go back to Africa at any opportunity.
5. Royal Hlane National Park, Eswatini
This is one of my top wildlife experiences simply because it was so absurd. I went on a group trip in February 2020 that covered Kruger National Park, Mozambique, and Eswatini. In Eswatini, we stopped at Royal Hlane National Park. We were supposed to go on what was essentially a nature walk. In all honesty, it seemed like it was going to be pretty lame. We were going to learn about the flora and fauna in the park, but we weren’t going to see many animals (if any at all). However, shortly after starting the walk, our guide named Maxwell started to see signs that there were animals nearby.
He attempted to stay calm, but everyone in the group could tell by his demeanor that there was almost certainly immediate danger in the vicinity. Within minutes of starting to walk back to the vehicle, we saw a mama rhino and a baby rhino not even 50 meters from us. They clearly smelled us and were moving toward us (though their eyesight is terrible).
Maxwell had us crouching in bushes and behind trees to try to get them to move past. But they were probably within 15 feet of us at one point. It was a wild experience.
Those are my top wildlife experiences, and there are many more I could name! Times like diving the Great Barrier Reef and heading into the Amazon Rain Forest didn’t even make this list. When it comes to travel, I think heading into the great outdoors is a valuable way to spend time (even if camping and nature are 100 percent a personal challenge for me!).