Destinations: Wild Things

Whether you are an animal lover or not, catching a live glimpse of earth's wildlife can be a truly majestic experience. From whales to wolves, parakeets to pythons, we've got excursions you're sure to love. Read on to find out how and where to see all kinds of fascinating creatures.

Swimming with Manatees: Florida

Nicknamed "sea cows," manatees are gentle giants. Swimming at languid speeds (an average of five miles per hour), these animals gracefully frequent coastal waters and rivers despite their massive size. Manatees are an endangered species, with only approximately three thousand remaining throughout the world, and Homosassa, Florida, is home to the world's largest number of wild manatees. From October through March, these docile creatures congregate by the hundreds in the 72 degree Homosassa and Crystal Rivers. Homosassa is the only place in the world where you can swim with and touch a manatee.

Manatee Safaris offers manatee lovers of all ages this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In tours of six to twelve people, swimmers are briefly trained in manatee awareness before a two-hour swim with the manatees. If you do not wish to swim with the manatees, you may remain on the boat and watch as the manatees surface about every fifteen minutes, or two to four minutes if the mammals are swimming (cost is $29 per person + $20 equipment rental if needed; visit manateetours.com or call 1-866-FLA-SWIM for more information). Manatee Safaris also offers a three-day dive training ($199 per person, minimum of four people).

While You're There

Rent a kayak or canoe and explore the area on your own ($35 for a half day; visit manateetoursusa.com to learn more). To encounter more wildlife in the area such as alligators, wild hogs, and river otters, visit the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (see floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings).

If you're up to driving to the Florida Keys, your options expand dramatically. In Key Largo for example, you may swim with the dolphins at Dolphins Plus ($165 per person; go to dolphinsplus.com to learn more). For a definite change of pace, you can take a relaxing stroll through a tropical butterfly paradise at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a home for sixty different species of butterflies (cost is $10 per adult, $7.50 per child over four years old, free for children under four; check out keywestbutterfly.com for more information).

Wolf and Bear Spotting: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho

Yellowstone, the first U.S. national park, was established in 1872. Vast, undisturbed land, rushing rivers, and breathtaking sunsets are just some of the sublime characteristics of this territory. Spanning Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, Yellowstone is a sanctuary for both grizzly and black bears, as well as wolves. Bison, moose, eagles, and elk also inhabit the area. May through July at either dusk or dawn is the best time to encounter these animals. You may explore this beautiful habitat on your own ($25 entrance fee for a private, noncommercial vehicle) or with a tour group. Yellowstone Tour & Travel offers guided tours which will teach you more about the wildlife and geology of the area ($69 per adult, $59 per child; private tours are also available for a minimum of nine people for $525; see yellowstone-travel.com).

For spotting bison, elk, and gray wolves, the best spot is Lamar Valley, although bison and elk can be seen many places in the park. For bears, general guidelines are to look in forested country for black bears and in wide, open meadows for grizzlies. In fact, in Rexburg, Idaho, you can find Yellowstone Bear World, a park replete with bears. Don't forget to read the safety precautions before going out!

While You're There

You can't leave Yellowstone without seeing the world's most extraordinary geyser, Old Faithful. You can also make the three-mile climb up Observation Peak or the twelve-mile Blacktail Deer Creek-Yellowstone River Trail hike, which drops 1,100 feet to the river below, to observe more wildlife and natural, majestic beauty. You can also go horseback riding in the mountains, fly fishing in the Madison River, or white water rafting in the Gallatin River.

Whale Watching: New England

It's no wonder that Herman Melville set Moby Dick in nautical New England. Cape Cod is the best place to see whales in the United States, and, according to the World Wildlife Fund, one of the top ten best whale watching destinations in the world. Hundreds of whales frequent the cold, coastal waters of New England from May through October. In these waters are found Humpback, Minke, Finback, Sei, Pilot, and North Atlantic Right (the rarest species in the world) whales. There's no experience like seeing a whale breech out of the water.

Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises offer you this opportunity with an unforgettable three-hour-long whale watching adventure ($40 per person; visit whales.net to learn more). On the cruise, you may also see Atlantic white-sided dolphins, sea turtles, and seals, which are also common in this ocean region. Hyannis offers a video recording of your whale watching expedition so that you will be able to relive your adventure for years to come.

While You're There

Climb the 30-foot Scargo Tower atop Scargo Hill in Dennis, Massachussetts. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Massachusetts mainland. This is the highest location on the entire cape and will offer a breathtaking aerial view of the region.

Elsewhere, in Harwich, you can take a free, self-guided tour of Cape Cod Lavender Farm. As one of the largest lavender farms on the East Coast, this plantation's twelve secluded acres, which overlook Island Pond, is replete with more than 14,000 beautiful plants. Their signature plant - the self-cultivated Harwich Blue - blooms beautiful dark lavender flowers in late June and early July.

African Safari: Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania

Traveling to Simba's stomping ground provides a truly once-in-a-lifetime trip. From majestic birds to fierce predators, Africa holds countless wonders for the adventuresome family. One popular location for first-hand encounters is Stanley's Camp at the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where families can walk alongside semi-habituated elephants (who might just stretch out a welcoming trunk to you). Further south, in Kenya, visitors can find the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Aside from being one of the traditional homes of the Maasai people (who still live there), Masai Mara is home to a July through October migration of zebra and wildebeest so big that it is called the Great Migration. A visit here also affords you the opportunity to see numerous lion prides and to mix with the Maasai warriors, who share some of the oral history of the tribe with visiting children.

Neighboring Kenya to the south is Tanzania, home to the Ngorongoro Crater, which has an incredible variety of animals and the densest population of mammalian predators in Africa, particularly lions. Other animals include elephants, zebra, gazelles, leopards, and black rhinoceroses.

While there are numerous expedition companies to choose from, Maniago Safaris (maniagosafaris.com) has distinguished itself as a wonderful purveyor of child-friendly safaris. They can organize itineraries throughout the continent. Differences in accommodation quality and group size make rates vary significantly.

While You're There

If you want to go whole-hog on your trip, stop by Giraffe Manor (see giraffemanor.com) in Nairobi, Kenya, to have breakfast with the beautiful animals that give the inn its name. With an impressive farm of endangered Rothschild giraffes, this 1930s Scottish manor offers guests the opportunity to watch, photograph, and even feed the giraffes. Additionally, warthogs, bush buck, and more than 180 species of birds can be found on the 140-acre estate. Because the manor has only six double rooms, availability is limited. (Double room, full board - including breakfast, lunch, and dinner - runs $655/night; single room, full board runs $425/night; specials for children are available.)

Surf and Turf Adventure: Australia

There's a reason why Australia is called the Land of Wonder. There are thousands of things to do in this country-continent, and thousands of species for the animal lover to observe.

The first place to go is the Great Barrier Reef - the first site ever named to UNESCO's World Heritage list, and a place that is disappearing at an alarming rate. Some experts speculate that ninety-five percent of this great marine treasure will be gone by 2050. So, if you've wanted to see it, and want your little divers to see it, there's no time like the present. Most boats for snorkeling leave from Cairns, Port Douglas, or Cape Tribulation (where the reef comes right up to the coast). The Low Isles and Heron Island, both off the coast of Queensland, are also great places for a fish-filled experience. At the Low Isles, you can swim alongside sea turtles and other large fish, and Heron Island is so close to the reef that you can simply stand on the beach and admire the wildlife.

Next, try visiting the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Port Douglas, Queensland. Although visions of green rainforest don't come to mind when one thinks of Australia, Queensland's northern area is tropical. At the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, you can have breakfast with the birds, lunch with the lorikeets, and hold or touch all sorts of animals, including pythons, parakeets, tree frogs, koalas, and crocodiles (called "living fossils"). To give you an idea of the birds, the only Victoria's Riflebird in captivity is at the sanctuary. There are multiple free tours and activities available after admission (adult, $29; children ages 4-14, $14.50; family of 2 adults and 2 children, $72.50), although breakfast or lunch with the animals costs extra.

Finally, to get your animal-encounter fill, travel to Southern Australia, where Kangaroo Island - Australia's third largest island - waits to win you over with its beauty and charm. The name of the island comes from its estimated one million native Kangaroo Island Kangaroos, but don't let that fool you. There are plenty of other animals to see - echidnas (porcupine-like creatures), seals, platypus, goannas, and wallabies. The island is an excellent example of unspoiled beauty, as a quarter of the island is protected, more than half of its vegetation has never been cleared, and most animals can be seen naturally throughout the island. Seal Bay, Flinders Chase National Park, and the Marine Center in Kingscote are all great places to visit.

While You're There

Cairns, Queensland, is home not only to a bustling port but also to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (tjapukai.com.au), a 25-acre spot of native land where visitors can see, learn about, and experience aboriginal culture. With the companionship of indigenous guides, guests can enjoy aboriginal face painting, dance classes, instruction in the circular breathing necessary to play the didgeridoo, and theater shows that tell the Tjapukai creation myth and native stories. (adult, $31; child, $15.50; family, $77.50)

For your trip . . .

Close (and Careful) Encounters

Being in close proximity to wild animals is exciting - probably partially because of its forbidden nature. As you and your children have fun with your animal encounters, follow these guidelines to keep you - and the animals - safe.

  • Let the animal move naturally; don't block or inhibit the animal from natural behavior.
  • If swimming with animals, try to do it in the wild; captive situations are dangerous and stressful for humans and animals alike.
  • Allow marine animals or animals in close proximity to come to you.
  • Avoid camera flashes, perfume, loud noises, and rustling clothes, which can disturb wildlife.
  • Never poke; it can bait the animal and, in some cases, harm or (as with sponge) kill.
  • Be patient; encountering what you want is never guaranteed, and impatience can lead to foolish decisions. Enjoy everything you experience.
  • Always read additional animal care information provided by the facility or guide.

Ever Heard of This Kind of Herd?

While researching for this article, we found some very interesting terms for groups of animals. Here are some of the most poetic:

A crash of rhinoceroses A pride of lions A pod of whales A tower of giraffes A troop of kangaroos A leap of leopards A sleuth of bears A trogle of snakes A turn of turtles An exaltation of larks Visit askoxford.com/asktheexperts/collective to find more.

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