I was recently enjoying a drink with some friends in London, recounting tales of recent and upcoming travel adventures when one of them asked me a question:
“Do you ever go on normal holidays anymore”? My instinct was to answer “yes, of course” but then I tried to remember the last trip I enjoyed that didn’t involve carrying a heavy bag of photography equipment, exploring beautiful landscape and searching for unique wildlife.
I thought I’d always enjoyed a balance between “travel” and “holiday” but had to acknowledge the scales had tipped heavily in favour of photography led travel in the past twelve months – in particular, wildlife photography led travel.
And when I reflect on the incredible wildlife encounters I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in my recent travels to Antarctica, Arctic, Africa and Australia, I feel confident this new addiction is here to stay. Those European beach holidays may just be a thing of the past….
20 Wildlife Encounters
Antarctica & South Georgia
1. King Penguin Colony
There were moments last December/January that felt like I was starring in my own wildlife documentary and none more so than arriving at Salisbury Plain, home to the second largest king penguin colony in South Georgia. The scene in front of me created a sensory overland: thousands of penguins with a distinctive splash of yellow interwoven as far as the eye could see with the fluffy brown moulting adolescents, calls that created a penguin symphony of sorts and an odour that was thankfully overshadowed by the uniqueness of visiting these creatures in their natural, unspoiled environment.
2. An Angry Leopard Seal
One of the most rewarding ways to explore Antarctica is in a zodiac, the small inflatable boat that weaves through the mirror-like water, allowing you at times to get up close and personal with the animals that are unique to this part of the world. As we sailed around Neko Harbour we came across a leopard seal who was lying idle on an ice floe, seemingly ignorant of our presence. But as we floated closer his attitude changed and presented us with a growl to remind us that this was his world and we were the guests.
3. Penguin Chicks
It is only possible to visit Antarctica as a tourist between November and March and each month presents its own pros and cons. One of the benefits of visiting in December is the presence of newly born penguin chicks, still dependent on the care of their parents. These chinstrap penguin chicks at Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands were focused on one thing only – food from their mother.
4. Attack of the Skua
The gentoo is the fastest penguin underwater and is able to each speeds of 36kph. But this is no help when you are on land, protecting two chicks and being harassed by a hungry and aggressive skua. Visiting the world’s wildest and most unspoiled continent allows you a unique glimpse into a food chain that exists as nature intended – as harsh as this seems. This was a calculated attack by the skua and the sequence that began with him pecking at the penguin and ended with him digesting two chicks was over within seconds.
5. Whale Watching in the Antarctica
I’d been on whale watching cruises before in Australia and the USA but a lack of quality sightings resulted in my interest in whales being limited. All that changed in Antarctica with more sightings than I could count on two hands. In the continent where the silence is deafening, humpback whales are often heard before they are seen and move deceivingly fast underwater. Our final zodiac cruise near Petermann Island was shared with a group of five humpbacks, including this one who graced us with an incredible close up view.
6. Polar Bear
The prized wildlife sighting in the Arctic is that of the polar bear. The King of the Arctic evokes feelings of both fear and respect and the opportunity to get up close and personal with one is simply exhilarating. This bear was first spotted from the ship’s bridge, swimming towards us through the glass-like water near the ice cliffs of Nordaustlandet. His curiosity led him within metres of the ship, swimming laps as he seemed to make eye contact with each and every one of us. Magical!
7. Gull v Eider Duck
After I left the ship on the last day of our Arctic adventure I thought my wildlife photography opportunities had ended. I was wrong. Taking advantage of the 24 hour daylight with an evening walk along the water’s edge in Longyearbyen provided one final wildlife moment – and what an incredible one it was. After noticing four gulls eyeing off a group of nesting eider ducks, I sat back patiently to watch an aggressive attack unfold. Shortly after the ducks in this first photograph successfully thwarted an attack, something spooked them and they flew away, leaving one poor duck defending it’s nest on it’s own. The gulls saw an opening – and they took it.
Zodiac cruising in the Arctic waters of north-east Svalbard gave us the unique and exhilarating experience of sharing the sea with more than thirty walrus. They were just as interested in us as we were in them and delayed their return to shore as they inspected us a little more closely. I have to confess I find the walrus endearingly ugly and intimidatingly large.
The “penguins of the north” were a regular sighting in the Arctic and proved to be an aesthetically pleasing photographic subject on both ice and snow.
10. Arctic Fox Cub
One of the most elusive animals in Svalbard is the Arctic Fox, so we all appreciated how special an unexpected sighting was on the last landing of our voyage. We watched two cubs feeding on a bird, peering out from a cave, resting, frolicking with each other and crying out for their mother – a moment that softened even the hardest of hearts.
11. Baby Rhino
One of the benefits of spending a month volunteering on a photography project on a South African game reserve is the opportunity see the same animals more than once. We had first seen this baby white rhino a week earlier, a shy little creature who didn’t move far from his mother and was spooked by nearly everything. When we saw him again on this particular game drive, it initially appeared he had grown more confident, bravely approach another game vehicle. But as he lifted his head and realised he was less than a metre away from the humans, he promptly turned around and ran away, seeking the comfort of his mother. Baby steps…!
12. Lion Feed
One of the harsh realities of life in the African bush is that one animal’s demise is another’s survival. Whilst a nearby wildebeest herd had one less member on this fateful day, this lion cub was growing stronger as a result. I particularly like the “licking of his lips” in this photograph – it appears wildebeest is one of his favourite meals.
13. Lioness & Cubs
When we first encountered this lioness and her two cubs, they were enjoying a relaxing start to the day, a yawn being the most energetic thing they did. But the mood changed drastically when their incredible sense of hearing highlighted the fact that another creature had walked into their territory. The lioness’ ears immediately pricked and she scoured the landscape looking for the intruder. It was a hyena who had unfortunately crossed her path and seeing the lioness jogging towards him was all he needed to run to another part of the reserve. Content with his departure, the atmosphere relaxed and the lioness and her cubs walked off into the sunset.
The game reserve I was volunteering on didn’t have any hippos, but a visit to St Lucia one weekend certainly made up for it. I’m not sure what is going through the mind of this particular hippo but his eye certainly catches my attention.
15. Cheetah Feed
Having already seen lions feeding on a zebra and again on a wildebeest, interrupting two cheetah’s eating the nyala they had hunted earlier in the day felt like a bonus. They took it in turns, one feeding and the other keeping watch for predators who may try and get a free feed.
16. Red Kangaroo
One of my favourite quotes is from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I found myself reflecting on this constantly during my four months back in Australia this year, the country I was born and lived for the first 26 years of my life. I found myself chasing the landscape and wildlife that I took for granted as a child, including this red kangaroo in the Flinders Ranges.
Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island is home to a colony of Australian sea-lions. As these sea-lions have an 18 month breeding cycle, they are present on the island all year round. This made visiting the island outside the tourist peak season a real treat, walking alongside the sea-lions without any other travellers.
The koala bear that is not a bear is an iconic Australia animal. Seeing one on Kangaroo Island was a highlight in itself and watching it be uncharacteristically active during daylight hours a real bonus.
19. Yellow Footed Wallaby
Yellow-Footed Rock Wallabies have been threatened with extinction but attempts to save them are being successfully made by initiatives such as Bounce Back. There were only 50 wallabies in the Flinders Ranges in 1990 but their population has ‘boucned back’ to more than 1,000 in the area today. Having visited regions where so much of the environment and wildlife is threatened, it was uplifting to encounter this wallaby who was part of a rare success story.
20. Wedge-Tailed Eagle
I never really understood the fascination of birds until I watched a pair of Light-Mantled Sooty Albatrosses performed a mating ritual in South Georgia. I was fascinated and have looked at birds differently ever since. And on a recent trip to the Flinders Ranges I was keen to observe Australia’s largest bird of prey in their natural environment – and I had no shortage of opportunity! They have a wing span of up to 2.5 metres and have quite an intimidating look about them. Watching them glide above you in the thermals is quite a majestic sight.
Have you been to any of these regions? What was your favourite wildlife encounter?
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