Have you ever dreamt of swimming with humpbacks, diving with dolphins, or hiking with chimps? Every day this week, Matt, Meredith, Al, and Ann ventured into the wild to interact with some of their favorite animals in their natural habitats, and so can you. Journalist, adventure traveler, and host of public televisions "Wild Chronicles" Boyd Matson gave us the following recommendations for great trips you can take yourself to get up close an personal with animals in the wild.
Trip #1: Swimming with humpback whales in the Dominican Republic
For the last 17 years, Aquatic Adventures have given people the opportunity to swim with humpback whales in the Silver Banks off the Northeast coast of the Dominican Republic.
From late January to early April, the North Atlantic humpback whales migrate south. This is also their mating season, when males vie and joust to accompany female whales during the migration. This migration and mating dance is extremely surface oriented, allowing visitors unparalleled access to these majestic creatures.
Guests spend 7 days cruising the Atlantic (on the 80 ft. vessel M/V Nekton Rorqual) watching and swimming with humpbacks. The expedition costs $2895 per person (not including airfare), but it gives people the unique opportunity to experience a "soft-in-water" encounter with humpback whales. Soft-in-water means no scuba gear or diving expertise required. Because the whales are literally at the surface of the water, guests can swim and float alongside the humpback whales wearing only fins, a mask, and a snorkel.
The trip is all inclusive (except for airfare/transportation/hotel to the launch point) and children 8 and older are allowed.
Trip #2: Swimming with dolphins in Honduras
Thirty-five miles off the coast of mainland Honduras on the Bay Island of Roatan, Anthony's Key Resort (www.anthonyskey.com) operates a unique, natural dolphin lagoon complete with a living coral reef ecosystem on the world's second largest barrier reef. Guests have their choice of diving, swimming, or snorkeling with the dolphins, and physical contact is allowed. Part of the bay is sectioned off, giving guests the rare opportunity to swim with the dolphins in the ocean, as opposed to an artificial pool or tank.
All inclusive, 7 night packages start at $1160 per person in season (Jan to Aug), and individual dolphin excursions are extra, ranging from $84 for dives, to $73 for swimming/snorkeling. Children between the ages of 5-9 are an additional $899 each.
Trip #3: Meet penguins in Antarctica
Since 1979, Lindblad Expeditions has been one of the most renowned and respected providers of adventure voyages and eco-tourism in the world. While they offer various adventures that span the globe, one of the more spectacular is an all-inclusive expedition to Antarctica, the white continent.
Lindblad Travel pioneered the Antarctic adventure in 1966. In the 21st century edition of an Arctic Expedition with Lindblad, guests cruise aboard the 110 passenger National Geographic Endeavor ship from South America to Antarctica. Guests go ashore on Antarctica twice a day, receive guided raft tours, and are even allowed to kayak in some of the calmer waters. At the various stops, guests can mingle amongst hundreds of thousands of penguins, and observe a variety of seals and whales.
The all inclusive trip (which includes round-trip airfare) runs $9,530 per person for a 15 day / 12 night voyage, and can be done each year from November to February (summer in the Southern Hemisphere).
Trip #4: Tracking gorillas in Uganda / chimps in Tanzania
While everyone knows about the traditional big game African safari, a different, perhaps more intimate alternative is to track gorillas and chimps in the African jungle. (Just as a note, both trips, and particularly the gorilla tracking, require intense hiking over difficult terrain, and any guests must be physically fit and be able to hike for up to 9 hours a day). Boyd recommends booking both trips through a reputable American safari travel agency such as:Bushtracks Abercrombie & Kent, Inc. Micato Safaris Global Adrenaline
Mountain Gorillas in Uganda: One option is to track mountain gorillas at Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the natural habitat for just over half the world's last surviving population of mountain gorillas. Guests will stay at a luxury tented camp complete with queen bed, toilet, hot and cold running water, and bathtub.
The gorillas here have undergone an extremely delicate process that has gradually made them used to the presence of humans. With the help of experienced guides and porters, guests will track the gorillas in the wild for anywhere from 30 minutes to 9 hours until the group is found. Once there, guests are given a maximum of one hour to view the gorillas. The hour time limit for viewing is because although the gorillas have been habituated, they are still wild, and will not tolerate human presence for more than an hour a day.
A four night inclusive package (not including air travel) costs $4000 per person. Guests can track every day if they choose, however there is a $500 gorilla permit fee for each day of tracking. Children under 11 are free, but children must be at least 15 years old to track gorillas.
Getting to Uganda is also not easy. Guests must take a 16+ hour, non-direct flight through Europe, and then a two hour flight by light plane and another 45 min drive. Travelers should allow 2-4 days for the journey.
Chimps in Tanzania: If smaller apes are more your speed, you can head to Tanzania to track wild chimpanzees at Mahale Mountain, the world's largest known population of chimpanzees, with approximately 1000 individuals inhabiting the Mahale Mountains National Park.
Guests stay at the luxurious Greystoke Mahale lodge, an intimate camp that features six luxury suites on the beach of Lake Tanganyika. Each day guests can venture out into the forest to observe and commune with the nine species of primate (of which the endangered chimpanzee is the most famous), as they groom, wrestle and forage across the leafy floor. Sixty chimps live in the mountains close to camp, and have become habituated to human presence over two decades of contact.
At the camp itself, each luxury banda is an open fronted room, adorned with local fabrics, and large beds with crisp sheets; with dressing room, and private bathroom behind and 'chill-out' deck above - all that the most demanding castaway could ask for.
A 4 night inclusive package (excluding airfare) ranges from $4,300 per person in peak season to $3,700 out of season. Chimp permits are an extra $80 per person per day in order to track. Children must be 8 or over to visit Greystoke, and at least 12 to track the chimps.
Tanzania is also a non-direct, 16+ hour flight from the US via Europe, a 3 hour light plane flight (including a refueling stop) drive, and then an hour boat trip to the camp. Again, travelers should set plan for a 2-4 days of one-way travel.
Trip #5: Help save cheetahs in Namibia
For those who want to volunteer and give back to nature on their animal adventure, the Earthwatch Institute provides volunteer eco-tourism vacations that offer the opportunity to have a hands-on, scientific experience with a wide variety of animals around the world.
One of their most amazing trips is volunteering with cheetah's in Namibia, home to the world's largest remaining cheetah population. Guests work closely with scientists at the Cheetah Conservation Fund to help preserve the dwindling number of cheetahs from local extinction.
Volunteers help with almost every activity around the camp, including wildlife surveys, feeding and caring for captive cheetahs on-site, and data entry. If wild cheetahs are captured during your trip, guests collect biomedical samples to assess the health of wild cheetahs, and then release them back into the wild. Additional duties may include 24-hour waterhole wildlife surveys, assisting in the day-to-day operations of the farm, and spreading the word about cheetah conservation among local farmers and schoolchildren.
While the first four trips on our list offer luxury accommodations, a volunteer vacation with Earthwatch can only be described as roughing it. At the Cheetah Conservation Fund, guests stay in two-person bungalows, or rondavels, with sinks and beds with mosquito nets. In a separate unisex bathhouse, guests will find showers with limited hot water and flush toilets. While there is a staff cook and meals are included, guests may be expected to help with the communal cooking duties.
While the trip is an amazing experience, it is still a working vacation. The workday begins every morning at 7:30am with breakfast and ends after night game count. As far as fitness is concerned, volunteers must be able to sit for up to 7 hours per day, bending for up to 5 hours, walk and hike for up to 5 hours per day, and carry loads of up to 150lbs (people help each other) for short distances.
The 15 day adventure requires a contribution of $3749 and is all inclusive (except for airfare). While this particular trip is for adults only, Earthwatch offers a variety of vacations for whole families and for teens as well. Also, just like the previous two destinations, simply getting to Africa can be a time consuming task, requiring a 16+ hour flight and a 3 hour drive to the camp.