Up the adventure quotient on your next family excursion by traveling in search of gray whales, Komodo dragons, whale sharks and stingrays.
Taking a family trip can have its challenges, particularly trying to please all parties involved. Sometimes cruises work for those who can bare the food trough and mass humanity; amusement park-based trips involve too many long lines and more bad food; and sport adventures can be fun if everyone agrees on the selected activity. But when was the last time you planned a trip based on a wild inhabitant of that locale rather than the destination itself? There’s something provocative about having a goal, a mini Holy Grail of a wildlife sighting that fuels the anticipation level and adds to the adventure of any trip. It charges up the kids and lends a treasure hunt-type of exhilaration to your vacation. I have slinked through the jungles of Costa Rica in search of sloths. I have waited patiently for sea turtle eggs to hatch in Hawaii. I’ve kayaked frigid waters to spot bald eagles in the San Juan Islands and had the good fortune to end up face to face with baby sea otters in Monterey Bay. Now that I have a small child, the lure of animal spotting or interacting with nature has infiltrated our travel. We plan many of our trips around what furry critter or aquatic acrobat we might stumble upon as we traverse the globe.
Here are a few fun, exotic locales with magnificent creatures waiting for you and your brood.
Gray Whales in Magdalena Bay, Baja, Mexico
It’s not the easiest place to get to, but as they say, The harder the journey, the greater the reward. In February and March, gray whales migrate to Baja, hopefully to birth, though the number of calves born here has dropped drastically due to “skinny whale” syndrome and a drop in food supply for these gentle leviathans. But Magdalena Bay is teeming with adults breaching, spy hopping and leaving perfect concentric footprints throughout the massive protected bay. Fly into La Paz and travel over to Puerto San Carlos where you can hire your own private panga boat. The day we set out we saw over 35 whales, many of which passed extremely close to our boat; one even swam right under us to my daughter’s shrieking delight. It is an exhilarating afternoon of wide-eyed delight and a humbling experience to be so close to such magnificence. It’s preferable to stay at a whale camp on the far point of the bay on Isla Magdalena, where you can sleep on cots in tents and enjoy local cuisine. By nightfall, all of the fishing boats and tourists vacate, so you and your crew have the entire place to yourself under a trillion stars. On the ride home to San Carlos, after more splashy shows from the grays, stop by the white sand dunes and run about—it’s like the Sahara desert with its expansive sense of desolate, striking white sand against the blue sky and mesmerizing vistas.
There is something to be said for a creature that has its own island named after it. The Komodo is a rare and slightly frightening-looking creature living in Indonesian archipelago on the islands of Flores, Rinca, Gila Montag, and Komodo. These muscular six- to-nine feet monitor lizards dominate their ecosystems with no real predators, feeding on carrion and the occasional tourist so be careful! (In all seriousness, attacks are extremely rare: four in almost as many decades). Many believe they are the living relics of a large population of lizards that once roamed the earth, but died out with human contact. Luckily, they are protected under Indonesian law, and Komodo National Park, now a World Heritage Site, was founded to help protection efforts. They first came into the western psyche in the early 1900s when the Dutch spotted these large “land crocodiles.” An expedition in 1926 by W. Douglas Burden led to the capture of two live ones and several stuffed species ended up in the Natural History Museum. Burden’s trip also inspired the 1933 version of King Kong. In addition to the excitement of spotting Komodos in the wild, the island of Komodo is known for its spectacular diving on the East side so you can have two adventures in one. The Park includes a rich marine environment with over 1,000 species of fish, some 260 species of reef-building coral, and 70 species of sponges. You’ll find dugong, sharks, manta rays, at least 14 species of whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. And if you have traveled to this far-flung spot on the globe, a trip to Bali is in order, with a visit to the Monkey Forest a must. But beware as these cackling simians like to steal unsuspecting tourists sunglasses and wallets.
Whale Sharks off Utila, Honduras
You’ve seen the picture. The miniscule diver suspended underwater next to the world’s largest fish. While they can be a little intimidating, whale sharks, in fact, are harmless, docile creatures. These slow-moving, filter feeding sharks eat plankton and small crustaceans while traveling epic distances solo. During the months of March-April and August-September, these migratory beauties can be found along the coast of Utila, a small island off Honduras. It’s one of the few spots in the world the whale shark passes close to shore, so it’s a great destination for this wildlife encounter. Utila’s tropical waters teem with underwater life, an ideal spot for phenomenal diving and snorkeling. Fingers crossed you will be a fortunate enough to swim in their soul-stirring presence. And your kids will talk about it for the rest of their lives.
Stingrays in Antigua
Antigua boasts myriad white sand beaches, stunning teal-hued waters and friendly local residents. But off shore, another denizen holds court. Visitors can blast out in open-air speed boats to Sting Ray City, a beautiful patch of shallow Caribbean Sea where Southern Rays gather to play with humans. The “puppies of the sea,” are also quite harmless—stories of people being killed and struck by their barbs may ring true but it’s only out of defense when someone tries to ride them or accidentally lands on them like poor Steve the Crocodile Hunter. Off the northeastern shore of Antigua, these friendly rays gather and greet you when the boat arrives. (Yes, they know it’s meal time!). Donning snorkeling gear, you can feed, hold, hug and cuddle these smooth slippery creatures out in the middle of the ocean. While you cavort with nature, your kids learn to respect these creatures and their environs. Then, of course, it’s time to head to shore for some rum punch for the adults!