29 April 2014

My top-10 un-ordinary wildlife encounters

I love animals and nature and through my travels I always try to visit parks and wildlife sanctuaries or to participate in any sort of animal encounter. These are my run down of the best moments with nature in no specific order

1. Swimming with the humpback whales in Tonga

Speechless, you are in such awe you forget how scared you might be. Read more about my review here

2. Great White Wall in Fiji 

Diving after this will never be the same. See more details in my write up about the experience here 

3. The Penguin Parade on Philip Island - Australia 


Philip Island is off the coast of Melbourne, about 2h drive from downtown. There are a few activities available on the island but the most famous is a visit to the Penguin centre to watch the penguin parade, that is, the hundreds of penguins that every evening night come out of the water and into the beaches to feed their little ones. Penguin nests dot the island as there are more than 30,000 of them so you can imagine the chance of seeing them is 100%. 

Sadly, in order to preserve their safety, you are not allowed to take any photos. The one above is from the Sydney's Aquarium where they have all the different species of penguins. 

Phillip Island penguins are the little penguin species which is only about a foot long and they are the cutest animals.

Apart from the parade which basically involves sitting at a stadium like grade to watch them come out, there are other more personalised options like the one we chose. You can join a smaller group of maximum 10 people on what is called the Explorer eco experience to go on a remote beach sit down on the sand and watch them come out. The difference with the parade is that there are no floodlights illuminating the beach and you are in completely darkness. You get given night goggles and infrared to see them and they may walk quite close to you. On the way back to the main building you see them everywhere and only a meter away. We must have seen thousands on that one evening.

It was very endearing to see them come out the water. All of a sudden you see a wave of penguins in the water which slowly make it to the beach shore. From there, they first assess whether it is safe to get out of the water before they make a move to quickly cross the beach. If they feel that it is not safe they may return to the water to take a second chance at approaching the beach. At times, some were at the shore between water and sand and shaking their heads up and down as if discussing internally whether it was a good idea to come out or not and if threatened they plunge belly first onto the sand to hide. It was pretty hilarious to see them do that James Bond style.

Viewing platforms for the Penguin parade

4. Echidna experience at Healesville, Australia

Australia is just an extremely rich country for wildlife. At every zoo or park there is some new, fascinating animal and endemic animal to take a look at and, in some cases, you can cuddle or feed them. 

In this case, we got to feed and touch the echidnas.

Equidnas are very strange looking animals part ant eaters, part hedgehog, part dinosaur, they look very prehistorical. On our trip to Tasmania we saw them in the wild and went up to pat them. But as soon as you get near them they turn into a ball and are all spikes and no animal. 

In the zoo however they were habituated to humans and allowed us to feed and pat them without getting scared.

Together with the fascinating platypus they are the only mammals who lay eggs. They eat ants with their very long and thin tongue and curl up into a ball when threatened. However, they have very poor eyesight so if you sit down next to them and stay quiet they quickly come out of their hiding and don't even notice you are still there. We found this quite an entertaining game when we met them in the wild. 

Echidnas lay eggs directly into their pouches and the little ones suck milk from the mother's pores, they have no nipples.

Echidna encounters

5. The shark and the turtle - American Samoa

The turtle
"The legend says that during a time of famine a grandmother and granddaughter were rejected by their families as too much of a burden, and so they threw themselves into the ocean to cast their fates upon the whimsy of the life giving sea. Transformed through magic into a turtle and shark the grandmother and granddaughter sought out a new home. Long did they travel and many times were they turned away until they arrived on the shores of Vaitogi. Defined by high cliffs and a rough coastline, the inhospitable shores were inhabited by a compassionate and generous people, and the old woman and her granddaughter, transformed back into their human form, were welcomed, fed and offered that they should make this village their new home.

Moved by the unexpected generosity the old woman agreed, but she still heard the call of the sea as well. Unable to stay on land, she informed her hosts that she and her granddaughter must return to the sea, but that they would make the village waters their permanent home. She gave the villagers a song to sing from the rocks and a promise that when they sang the song she and her granddaughter would come"

When I was there with my new found friend from the tourism office (see here for the incredible act of generosity she had which restored my faith in humanity) she called the locals to come sing for us and, to my incredible surprise, as the song went on and on and more villagers joined in all of a sudden, the turtle and the shark came to the surface, no joke!

Imagine my face of amazement when I saw first the turtle and then the shark appear on the surface. The locals looked at me and smiled. It was quite a moment. And they did it just to show me.

6. Sipadan Jack fish tornado - Malaysia

Jack fish tornado

Sipadan is seen by many as one of the best dive spots in the world, yet I was quite disappointed at the experience. 

This was a combination of terrible service at the resort, a feeling of being taken advantage of and also a sense that although diving was good it was by no means better than Fiji. I felt that I had been terribly oversold the place. But perhaps I was unlucky. This is not to discourage anyone from going but to manage expectations.

The fact that the daily number of divers is limited means that even if you go there you may only, if lucky, dive Sipadan once. Mind you to get there you have already taken at least 2/3 flights so once you arrive, you expect something truly life changing and Sipadan just didn't cut it for me.

This is also partially my fault and my very high expectations. I am truly spoilt and I have seen too many white powder beaches to be blown away by yet another beautiful one. I still enjoy it very much and still can't have enough of it but I am also increasingly looking for the unexplored and new and Sipadan felt very much over exploited and too used to squeezing money out of tourists at every occasion. I did not enjoy the poor accommodation (our room did not even have shower curtain and we were paying USD1,500 for 4 days / 3 nights 3 people sharing), terrible & repetitive food consisting of cabbage, carrots and some random meat, the extra charging for everything and the underwhelming dive masters that looked like they were bored of taking tourists and no longer passionate about their job or the incredible waters of Sipadan. 

I had read a lot of bad and mediocre reviews about the accommodation but I chose to ignore them. 

Not to make this a negative review it is in this list because diving also had a couple of magical moments. The dives are more to see big fish and lots of them rather than for beautiful corals, or at least that was the case for us. That being said, there are hundreds of diving sites in the area so there must be something for everyone.

One of our finest moments which made the entire trip, the effort, the long journey (despite we live nearby in Singapore) and putting up with bad service worth it was the jack fish tornado at barracuda point. We did not see the barracuda tornado which made the dive spot famous but we had the jack fish instead and that was also quite incredible. I could have stayed there surrounded by thousands of jack fish forever. They were calm, slowly moving in circles and not scared at all or minding us entering the eye of the tornado or staying inside. It was very humbling to see so many fish allowing us to be a part of their show.

The video below was shot by another diver in our group and although it only shows it from outside we got to get in and stand there until we ran out of air. 

Go to Sipadan if only to experience this moment of peace.

7. Tarsier monkeys in Bohol, Philippines

Sleepy Tarsier monkey

Tarsiers are very cute yet very funny looking animals. They are tiny measuring only 15cm with very large eyes (1.5 cm) as big as their brains. They also have extremely long hind limbs twice as long as their bodies made for clinging onto tree branches and jumping up and down. They need them to hold their disproportionately large heads which host their large eyes, get it?

I had spent a long time in the Philippines for work but it was only at the end of my time there that I finally made it to see the Tarsiers. 

They are mostly found in and around the Bohol area making it a nice weekend trip combining a visit to see them with the Chocolate Hills, an extremely pretty almost surreal mountain range that is perfectly round and looks like someone planted it there. Tarsiers are nocturnal animals and so when you visit the parks to see them you are going to find them attached to a branch and asleep. They have very good hearing so from time to time they might open their eyes to check out what happens around them. 

You are not allowed to touch them and you only get to about 1m from them but this sanctuary in Bohol is apparently the only place that has managed to reproduce them in captivity and may be one of their few chances of survival as the species is endangered.

8. Koalas and kangaroos in Australia


My friend the wallaby

Australia is by all standards, the place for wildlife fanatics. Everywhere you go there is a park or similar where you can get up and close. In this case, I was in Adelaide where you can pat and feed kangaroos and where, more importantly, you can hold and hug a koala. Amazingly furry, soft and nice. So exciting!

Where can this be done? At Cleland park
At first, feeding the large kangaroos can be a bit daunting, they are quite big animals after all, but after a while and after seeing the little kids doing it I felt too ashamed to be scared. Apart from the larger kangaroos I enjoyed feeding the wallabies more they are smaller and much cuter.  

You can buy ice cream cones full of food or even simple cookies which almost all the animals in the park eat. It may not seem like the most balanced diet but it surely gets them interested to get close to you, although you may have chase a few of them because with so many visitors they are pretty well fed!

And the star of the park? the koalas which, as opposed to most other parks, you can actually not only pat but also hold and cuddle at Cleland. That was truly the highlight of my visit. The queue was not even long and you didn't have to pay extra. At certain times the koalas come out, they are placed on a small tree branch and then you get a couple of minutes to hold them and take photos. It was so cool!

Cuddling a koala

9. Elephant polo in India

It is indeed a weird sport. As weird as it looks.

Elephant polo is played in Rajasthan, Nepal and Sri Lanka and two people ride the elephant, the "driver" and the player, who tells the driver sitting on the elephant's neck, where to go. 

Because elephants are slow animals the field is smaller than that of regular polo. 

Elephants are important in Rajasthan and Jaipur in particular so it was only natural that the sport of the kings incorporated the animals. No festival or celebration in Jaipur happens without elephants nicely and colourfully decorated with all sorts of paraphernalia.

The referee

Being able to partake in a game of elephant polo is rare. The games are played throughout the year in Jaipur yet usually guests can only be spectators. I was very lucky to visit India on the Maharajah's Express train journey which included an afternoon of lunch and playing elephant polo. We could take as many turns as we wanted riding them and playing and it all carried on until we all had had our dose of regal sporting. 

I must say it is quite hard to hit the ball because the bamboo stick is very long so having control of it requires strength and then the animal doesn't always move the way you wanted him to and you are already focusing all your energy on not falling down but it was an incredibly fun experience.

10. Gorillas in Uganda

It is a pity that I have lost all the original high res photos of that experience and I am now only left with facebook's update but that doesn't change the fact that it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. 

If you want to read all about it get on the post here

 What are your un-ordianry wildlife encounters?


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