While many people are content to see animals from the safety of a vehicle or from behind a fence, there is nothing quite like being able to reach out and touch some of the world’s most beautiful creatures. For those who have a bucket list full of up close and personal animal encounters, there are some fantastic interactive animal experiences you can have around the world. From swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas to feeding kangaroos in Australia, here is a great selection of the best places to have a once in a lifetime animal encounter.
Swim with dolphins
There are several great tour operators that give you the opportunity to swim with dolphins in the beautiful Bahamas. The most popular of these up-close-and-personal experiences takes place on Blue Lagoon Island, which a is specially developed 3-acre habitat for dolphins and one of the Bahamas biggest tourist attractions. Palm trees fringe the pristine beaches of the privately owned island which is home to coral reefs and hidden lagoons. Dolphin Encounters offer various packages that allow you to shake a fin, get a kiss and swim with these playful creatures. Not only is it a fantastic, emotional experience, it’s also an educational one. Unfortunately, as with most close-up animal encounters, it comes with quite a steep price tag.
If you’re heading to South Africa for a safari, you can’t miss the opportunity to spend time with the world’s fastest land mammal – the cheetah. There are a few educational projects near the major tourist areas that offer you the chance to get up close and personal with these endangered beauties, but the best of these is a small conservation and breeding centre that is near Bloemfontein, in the middle of the country. The Cheetah Experience offers big cat lovers the opportunity to have a hands-on, educational tour that includes cuddling cheetah cubs. The Cheetah Experience tours aim to promote the conservation of cheetah and other endangered species through education. This isn’t just a place where you can interact with these beautiful animals; it’s a place that really wants to make a difference. The cheetah is not the only big cat you’ll find here – if you’re lucky you may even get to cuddle some lion, leopard or caracal cubs. For a fee of less than £10 for adults it’s worth every penny.
The kangaroo is the unofficial symbol of Australia and no trip to the country would be complete without having a kangaroo encounter. Cairns Tropical Zoo, Australia Zoo, The Billabong Sanctuary, Rainforest Habitat, Parndana Animal Park on Kangaroo Island, and Caversham Wildlife Park are just some of the many places where you can feed and pet kangaroos. Caversham Wildlife Park is a great option if you’re visiting Perth. The park provides complementary kangaroo pellets and you are free to walk through the large kangaroo enclosure and spend as much time as you’d like with the friendly kangaroos. Other up-close experiences on offer at Caversham Wildlife Park include Meet the Wombat, where you can pose for photos with a wombat on your lap, and Meet the Koalas, where you can have your photo taken standing next to a koala, but no cuddling allowed.
Help orangutans in Borneo
If you’re looking for an animal encounter out of the ordinary that really makes a difference, then Indonesia may be the perfect destination for you. The northern region of Borneo is the only place on earth that is still home to wild orangutans. Sadly because of the demand for palm oil their natural habitat is being destroyed and many baby orangutans are left orphaned. International Animal Rescue is in the process of constructing an orangutan rehabilitation centre in Ketapang. Volunteers can help the IAR Orangutan Project with the construction of the rehabilitation centre where rescued orangutans will be trained to survive in the wild. Although most of your time is spent working on the actual construction, there are also days you’ll be able to spend working with the rescued orangutans currently housed in the temporary centre. It’s an expensive experience but this challenging project is very rewarding.
Swim with stingrays
There is no other place in the world where you can experience an up close encounter with dozens of stingrays the way you can in Stingray City. It’s located in the shallow waters off the coast of the Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. Sandbars have created calm, shallow water where stingrays gather by the dozens, giving it the nickname Stingray City. The docile stingrays can be fed by hand in the water which is only 3 to 5ft deep. The shallow water means that even kids can see these amazing creatures up close. There are several tour operators that arrange boat trips to Stingray City, but if you want to beat the crowds it’s best to go as early as possible. Many people combine this with snorkelling at Coral Gardens Reef, where there is an amazing variety of marine life.
Do an elephant-back safari
The elephant has to be one of the most majestic animals on the planet, and while there are dozens of places around the world that offer close-up encounters with these magnificent mammals, there are very few where the elephants are truly well cared for. If an elephant encounter is on your bucket list, one of the best places to experience this is on an elephant-back safari through the African bush. At Abu Camp, which is located in a private reserve of 180 000 hectares (400 000 acres) in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, you can experience magical and educational moments with the resident family of African elephants, who have very special bonds with their gentle handlers.
Cage dive with great white sharks
Coming face-to-face with one of the world’s most fearsome predators is not for the faint of heart. If your nerves can tolerate such an experience then you should head to False Bay or Gansbaai, just outside Cape Town, where you can go cage diving with Great White sharks. Tour operators like White Shark Diving Company, Apex Shark Expeditions and White Shark Projects offer tourists the chance to be lowered into a cage that sits just below the surface after the water has been chummed. Hold your breath and wait in the safety of the cage for an encounter of a lifetime.