Mark Carwardine's top 10 wildlife experiences

After a lifetime of seeking out great wildlife experiences, Mark Carwardine picks his all-time top 10.

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Opening spread of Mark Carwardine's top 10 wildlife experiences feature.

After a lifetime of seeking out great wildlife experiences, BBC Wildlife columnist Mark Carwardine picks his all-time top 10.

For the past few months, I’ve been compiling a selection of my favourite wildlife-rich corners of the Earth – the ones that have had the greatest impact on me, the ones I miss most when I’m somewhere else.

There are still vast swathes of the planet I have yet to visit, of course, and umpteen species I have yet to see.

I really should go to Cape May, in New Jersey, to witness the great bird migration there, for example, and I’ve wanted to dive with thresher sharks in the Philippines for as long as I can remember.

Yet my original list of favourite places included no fewer than 161 different hotspots – and I could have added more.

How I picked my final 10

Well, it was a struggle. How can you compare watching iridescent hummingbirds with the adrenalin rush of a face-to-face encounter with a great white shark?

But there is some logic to my reasoning. I’ve tried to pick a diverse range of species over a broad geographical spread and a wide variety of activities. I’ve also only selected one place for each red-letter species (eg gorillas in Uganda) and locations where the odds of good sightings are high.

Finally, all of the places had to be relatively easy to visit, with no need for special permission, chartered planes, sleeping rough or standing waist-deep in mosquito-infested swamps.

 

10 HANGING WITH FRUIT BATS Kasanka NP, Zambia

For two months a year, eight million straw-coloured fruit bats gather in a small clump of trees in Zambia’s Kasanka National Park.

It is the largest concentration of mammals in Africa, with an animal count four times greater than the Serengeti-Mara wildebeest migration. 

To make the most of the experience, I arrive before sunrise and watch as the sky fills with bats returning from a night’s feasting. They settle down for the day, hanging from every branch and trunk, noisily chattering until evening.

As the sun sets, all eight million bats fly out into the gathering darkness, a spectacle like nothing else on Earth.

Now you do it

  • The bats are only found at this roost from the end of October until Christmas.
  • Stay at Wasa Lodge. 

 

9 SNORKELLING WITH TURTLES Sipadan, Malaysia

You know the saying, ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’? Well, northern (Malaysian) Borneo is that other side of the fence.

You can see more wildlife here in two weeks than most people see in a lifetime, including orangutans, gibbons, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants and hornbills.

But my favourite corner is Sipadan – such a perfect tropical island that it makes you want to sing and dance. Just beyond the beach, a stunning reef wall plunges to depths of more than 600m, and there is marine life everywhere.

The stars of the show are green and hawksbill turtles: it is not uncommon to see 20–30 in a single dive or snorkel.

Now you do it

  • Diving at Sipadan is best between July and September.
  • Stay in a hotel on neighbouring islands Mabul or Kapalai. 

 

8 MEETING THE RELATIVES Bwindi impenetrable forest, Uganda

You’re only allowed an hour with the mountain gorillas – and there is an awful lot of travelling and trekking to be done beforehand – but it is likely to be one of the most emotional, humbling and exhilarating hours of your life.

Home to some 340 of the world’s 800 remaining mountain gorillas, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is my favourite place for dropping in to see the relatives.

My most memorable encounter occurred one afternoon when I happened upon the Rushegura group on a forest path immediately behind my lodge (I could almost have watched them from my bed).

In the few hours since my ‘official’ visit earlier that morning, one of the females had given birth.

Now you do it

  • Gorilla treks operate year-round.
  • Stay in one of the lodges, tented camps, community rooms or campsites in Buhoma.

 

7 FOLLOWING IN DARWIN'S FOOTSTEPS Galápagos Islands 

Probably the most famous wildlife-watching destination in the world, the Galápagos Islands need little introduction.

Within minutes – if not seconds – of landing almost anywhere here, you are face-to-face with some of the tamest wildlife on the planet, most of which is found nowhere else. But if I had to pick just one place, I think it would be Bartolomé Island.

Home to one of the most recognisable landmarks in the archipelago, an eroded volcanic tuff cone called Pinnacle Rock, it offers spectacular views and everything from blue-footed boobies and red-billed tropicbirds to marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs.

There is also some fabulous snorkelling with penguins, sea turtles, sealions and myriad tropical fish.

Now you do it

  • You can visit year-round, but snorkelling is best in the slightly rainy season (December to May).
  • It’s best to explore on a live-aboard boat.

 

6 CAGE-DIVING WITH GREAT WHITE SHARKS Guadalupe, Mexico

In my experience, the island of Guadalupe is the best place in the world for underwater encounters with the ultimate super-predator. Visibility is usually excellent – 30m isn’t unusual – and it has a well-deserved reputation for huge great whites.

The largest I have ever seen there was a beautiful 5m female, but others have reported individuals of 5.5m or more.

When I first started visiting Guadalupe, almost a decade ago, the cages were more like a collection of wide open spaces and the gaps between the aluminium bars were big enough for the sharks to get inside (which they did on several occasions).

Nowadays, the cages are well and truly shark-proof and the experience simply inspires too much awe to leave any room in your mind for fear.

Now you do it

  • The best time to go is August, September and October.
  • You don’t need dive qualifications. Join a live-aboard boat – try San Diego Shark Diving. 

 

5 COUNTING PENGUINS AND SEALS South Georgia, Southern Ocean

With 50 million seabirds and more than 5 million seals crammed onto an island the size of Essex, it’s impossible to exaggerate the sheer wonder of remote and beautiful South Georgia.

A mere speck in the immensity of the Southern Ocean, it is home to the greatest density of wildlife on the planet.

But there is one particular site that takes my breath away whenever I visit: St Andrew’s Bay. Against a phenomenal mountainous backdrop, king penguins crowd the beach here in numbers that make it a real showstopper.

With no fewer than 150,000 pairs, the colour, the noise, the smell and the commotion of this extraordinary spectacle guarantee sensory overload at every turn.

If, like me, you occasionally find it all a bit overwhelming, try to find a quiet spot away from other people and simply sit down to drink it all in.

Now you do it

  • The South Georgia tourist season runs from October until February.
  • The best way to see the wildlife is to join an expedition cruise ship.

 

4 TRACKING JAGUARS The Pantanal, Brazil

When it comes to wildlife, the Amazon gets all the attention, but you see far more wildlife in the Pantanal – a giant wetland that resembles a vast, cage-less zoo.

This endless mosaic of rivers, lakes, lily-choked ponds, swamps, islands and wooded savannah is mind-bogglingly superb, with a huge variety of species including everything from giant otters to giant anteaters.

Many – including yacare caiman and wetland birds – occur in phenomenal numbers.

High on the list for most visitors is South America’s top predator, the jaguar, and this is probably the best place in the world for close encounters.

I’ll never forget camping near the Cuiabá River when a jaguar dragged a freshly caught caiman through the forest undergrowth and proceeded to eat it right outside my tent.

Now you do it

The best time to go is the dry season, from late April to early November.

Hotel Porto Jofre is the best place to stay. 

 

3 SEEING SHEATHBILLS, SHAGS AND SEALS Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

The scale and magnificence of Antarctica have a powerful magnetism: I have been visiting for 20 years and can see no end in sight.

The most accessible part of the great white continent is the Antarctic Peninsula, which offers a profusion of wildlife living
in a surprisingly mild climate. 

My favourite place is a particular rock high above Paradise Bay. The view is exceptionally breathtaking – even by Antarctic standards – and there are often humpback whales in the bay and crabeater seals sunbathing on floating pieces of ice.

Huge blue-and-white glaciers calve on the far side, and ‘my’ special rock is surrounded by avian species ranging from snowy sheathbills and giant petrels to kelp gulls and Antarctic shags. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Now you do it

  • The Antarctic tourist season runs from November to mid-March.
  • Join an expedition cruise ship.

 

2 SEARCHING FOR SPIRIT BEARS Canada

The Great Bear Rainforest is a breathtaking wilderness in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast. It is packed full of wildlife, including large numbers of both wolves and bears.

But the jewel in its crown is the spirit bear, or ghost bear. Predominantly creamy white, this enigmatic animal is a walking contradiction – a white black bear.

There are probably fewer than 400 lurking in the heart of the forest, but it is possible to find them on Princess Royal Island at the right time of year.

On my most recent visit this September, I spent over an hour with one particular bear as it fished for salmon less than 10m away.

Now you do it

 

1 WATCHING FRIENDLY WHALES Baja California, Mexico

Baja, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, is my favourite place in the world to go whale watching.

With a little luck, on a typical two-week trip you can tickle implausibly friendly grey whales under the chin, listen to humpback whales singing their haunting songs, enjoy unforgettable close encounters with gargantuan blue whales, travel with thousands of boisterous common dolphins, and see a host of other species from sei and Bryde’s whales to dwarf sperm whales and Dall’s porpoises.

Mark Carwardine photographed this blue whale female and her calf in Baja California © Mark Carwardine/Getty

I’ve seen Peruvian beaked whales several times and, on one memorable occasion, I even saw an incredibly rare North Pacific right whale.

It’s a destination where there are lots of guarantees, but almost anything can turn up and lots always does.

Now you do it

  • The best time to visit is February–April.
  • Join a live-aboard boat. 

 

 

Find out how BBC Wildlife editor Sophie Stafford got on when she visited Guyana in search of a jaguar, harpy eagle, morpho butterfly, giant river otter and Amazonian lily. 

Read Tales from the Bush: The Mountain Gorilla Breakfast Club and watch an incredible video of the encounter. 

View a British Columbia wildlife photo gallery by Neil Aldridge. 

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