28 Amazing Wild Animal Encounters That Blew Me Away (+Selfies!)

March 25, 2024

animal encounters

The search for wild animal encounters has enticed travelers for decades. For me, the random and unexpected happenstances rank among my most memorable travel experiences.

I am opposed to animals in captivity such as traditional zoos, but not safaris and protected big-game parks which provide opportunities, while not guaranteed, to take photos with unbelievable species. With a bit of luck, you might find yourself eye-to-eye with some of the less shy or curious creatures!

There are also animal sanctuaries and rescues to be considered. While these are not random animal encounters, some of them do great work and can play an important role in wildlife conservation and education, but only when they serve the best interests of the animals. These venues would not use animals for entertainment or profit.

Below is a compilation of incredible animal encounters I’ve been lucky enough to experience over six continents. Each one was so incredible it was very difficult to rank them!


28 Monkeys

(Bali, Indonesia)

animal encounters

It’s not hard to meet monkeys in Bali. There are over 1,000 monkeys roaming freely around the Ubud Monkey Forest. Full transparency, while this is one of the most popular tourist attractions, it was far from my favorite animal encounter. The monkeys have become used to tourists and are very cheeky and even aggressive. They have no problem stealing food, water bottles, or anything loose or shiny. These monkeys can be dangerous and bites occur almost daily.

Click here to read 13 Things to Do in Bali. #8 is a Hoot. #12 is Insane.

27 Giant Tortoises


tortoise seychelles

Giant Tortoises can weigh 1000 lbs. and grow to be four feet long. Some tortoises have lived over 250 years, but most live between 80 and 120 years. They can only be found in two places in the world today, one of which is the central granitic islands in the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. Because they were hunted in vast numbers by European sailors, they are now officially listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and since 1974 have been protected under Seychelles law.

26 Crocodiles

(Puntarenas, Costa Rica)

animal encounters

I took an eco-jungle crocodile safari cruise in the mangroves of the Tarcoles River, home to one of the world’s most prolific crocodile populations. The big attraction of the boat ride is spotting the huge crocodiles that bask in the sun on the nearby clay banks, sometimes catching them with their mouths wide open.

25 Alligators

(Everglades, Florida)

animal encounters

About 30 miles west of Miami, Everglades National Park is a 1.5 million acre natural preserve of wetlands, mangroves, marshes, and saw grass prairies that host a diverse range of plant, fish, and animal species native to South Florida.

The most fun way to see the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site is on a propeller-powered airboat that can skim and seemingly hover over the surface of the water.

From the boat, I had a front-row seat to view resident alligators, some of which swam up right next to the (stopped) boat.

Click here to read Wild, Wacky, and Unique Things to Do in Florida.

24 Moose

(Canterbury, New Hampshire)

animal encounters

Unlike the other entries on this list, this one did not occur while traveling. It happened in my backyard. Our home, built in the 1700s, was situated on 13 acres of forest with a pond, providing a natural attraction for lots of wildlife. Nothing comes close to sitting in my sunroom with my two small children one autumn afternoon and seeing a massive bull moose come lumbering out of the woods, lankily strolling right past the wall of windows.

23 Stingrays and Nurse Sharks

(San Pedro, Belize)

dive belize

About four miles off the coastal town of San Pedro, Belize, in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is an area called Shark Ray Alley where you have the rare opportunity to snorkel beside a large number of southern stingrays and nurse sharks. Depth is only about 5 to 12 feet, so you can see everything up close. Nurse sharks are bottom dwellers that pose no threat.

22 Hippo

(Lewa, Kenya)

animal encounters

I was fortunate to be able to see a couple of hippopotamuses on the last game drive in Lewa Conservancy. Prior to that, they’d been elusive. Given that these heavy animals have a reputation for having a foul, aggressive temperament, we did not try to get close.

Click here to read Lewa Safari Camp Adventures.

21 Moray Eel

(Curacao, Caribbean)

moray eel

I took my teenage son on his first scuba diving adventure in Curacao. As we plunged into the 82-degree Fahrenheit crystal turquoise waters, the ethereal vibe of the sea juxtaposed against myriad coral, sea grasses, and marine life was captivating; trumpet fish darted from behind brain coral; lionfish splayed their multitude of spire-like fins; and let’s not forget the menacing grin of the moray eel protecting its domain.

Click here to read Dive Curacao: Mother & Son Diving Adventure.

20 Elephant

(Loisaba, Kenya with Elewana Collection)

african elephants

The Laikipia Plains are home to the largest population of elephants in Kenya. Elephants are very intelligent animals. They share 90% of the human genome and even experience some human emotions.

While staying in upscale Loisaba Tented Camp, this was one of our three elephant encounters. We saw three young adult elephants just off the left side of the jeep. As we stopped to take photos, the one nearest to us flared his ears and took one step towards us. Alison, my travel companion who was on the side of the jeep nearest the elephant screamed and dove down into the well between the seats, knocking my camera out of my ands nearly taking me down with her.

Our guide laughed. “Don’t worry. He’s not threatened and he’s not coming. He just wanted to let you know that he knows you are here. That one is not aggressive.” We were continually impressed by how much the local guides know about animal behavior!

Click here to read about our three elephant encounters and more: Adventures at Loisaba Tented Camp.

19 Grizzly Bears

(Chichagof, Alaska with AdventureSmith Explorations)

grizzly bears

While hiking on the island of Chichagof, we climbed up a steep ravine where, in the distance below, we spied a sow bear and her two calves at the stream.

We sat, hidden by bushes to watch them, unobserved and undisturbed. While they were a good distance away (hence the blurry photo), we were mesmerized as we watched the cubs frolic while their mother pluck salmon out of the creek for the three of them.

Click here to read Responsible Bear Viewing in Alaska

18 Manatee

(Crystal River, Florida)

swim with manatees

There’s only one place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees, and that’s in the Crystal River. During the winter months, more than 400 1000-lb. manatees migrate here to escape the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Swimming with these passive creatures is an unforgettable experience. While you should not try to touch them, Manatees are very curious by nature and often initiate interaction with humans. That’s what happened to me…

On the bottom of the river, about ten feet down, a large mama manatee was resting while her baby played nearby. Suddenly the baby spotted us and made a beeline for our group.

As I watched with my head in the water, hanging onto the side of the boat, the baby came up underneath me and flipped me onto my back!

Click here to read Wild, Wacky, and Unique Things to Do in Florida.

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17 Whales

(Inside Passage, Alaska with AdventureSmith Explorations)

baranof island

Chancing upon a large group of Humpback whales in the middle of the Frederick Sound was surreal. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by dozens of whales, everywhere you looked! Some were fairly close to the boat, and others were off on the horizon. We observed them breaching (flipping over the water), spy watch (head out of the water and they seem to be looking at you), and lunge diving (going head down with their tales the last to go down, lingering in full view). They seemed so playful, almost as if they were putting on a show for us! You can’t plan such a thing in the wild, and it will likely never be experienced by most people.

Click here to read 15 Reasons to Take a Small Ship Cruise in Alaska.

16 Baby Sea Lion

(La Paz, Mexico)

baby sea lion

La Paz was deemed “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau because of the abundance and variety of sea life cushioned within its depths. We took a short boat to the protected waters of Isla Epiritu Santo Island where we found a rocky outcrop hosting a colony of wild sea lions. After donning my wet suit and snorkel gear, I slid into the chilly water and after a few minutes, I was surprised to find myself face-to-face with two baby sea lions, playfully blowing bubbles and circling around me. So cute!

Click here to read La Paz Snorkeling: Baby Sea Lion Encounter.


Random, unexpected animal selfies can be a thrilling experience. Some places are conducive to trying to get a wildlife selfie, but never take a wildlife selfie if the animal is being held captive, hugged, restrained, or otherwise performing in a way that is not natural or clearly for making a profit.

15 Giant Grasshopper

(Shibaozhai, China)

animal encounters

“Aaarrrggghhhh,” I screamed when I felt something crawling on my head. “What is it?”

“It’s a giant grasshopper,” said Alison. “Wait a minute, hold still. I want to get a picture.”

“Get it off! Now!” I bellowed

“No, leave it. It’s good luck,” she insisted.

While giant grasshoppers do not bite or sting, they can be disconcerting if they land on your body. You should avoid handling them as they can spray foul-smelling foam as a form of defense.

Click here to read Adventures in China with Viking River Cruises.

14 Bison

South Dakota, USA

bison in SD

Custer State Park is a wildlife reserve in the Black Hills of the United States. The rolling prairies found along Wildlife Loop Road are home to the majority of Custer State Park’s wildlife.  1,400 gigantic bison (aka buffalo) free roam the park’s 71,000 acres

It’s common to experience a “Buffalo Jam” while driving Wildlife Loop. While at first glance they may appear as gentle, don’t be fooled, they are deceptively fast and dangerous, so do not get out of your car. For guaranteed buffalo encounters, book a Buffalo Safari Jeep ride where they take you off road straight into the herd!

13 Cassowary

(Kuranda, Australia)

animal encounters

While exploring the ancient rainforest in Kuranda, I was surprised when a wild cassowary came out of the lush forest to see who was in its neck of the woods!

Click here to read Discover Queensland, Australia.

12 Turtle Release

(Amazon River, Peru with AdventureSmith Explorations)

amazon turtle release

In the Amazon, the yellow-spotted river turtles are now endangered. The Peruvian government is taking steps to protect the eggs from their natural predators – vultures, iguanas, lizards, and fish. I got to participate in an amazing baby turtle release from the hatched eggs.

Click here to read about my Adventures on the Amazon.

11 Reef Sharks

(Bora Bora, French Polynesia)

sharks bora bora

Just a short boat ride from my overwater bungalow to the shallow reef brought this intrepid traveler face-to-face with a bevy of blacktip reef sharks. Not to worry though, because the blacktip is generally docile and does not feed on human flesh; indeed, it is not unusual for them to swim in close proximity to snorkelers.

Click here to read Adventures in Bora Bora.

10 Camel

(Doha, Qatar)

doha camel

In the old town of Doha, we got a peek at the royal camels in a wide open area. As I was setting up to take a selfie with the camels in the background, I felt a nudge at my back. Sure enough, the culprit was a camel – I swear it was smiling to photobomb my selfie. I snapped a few but then walked away as he seemed to be eyeing my blonde hair as if it were hay!

Click here to read 10 Best Things to Do in Doha, Qatar.

9 Boa Constrictor

(Amazon River with AdventureSmith Explorations)

boa constrictor

The biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest makes it a great natural habitat for boa constrictors. While most people are afraid of boa constrictors, they are not known for attacking humans. However, getting photobombed by one is a hair-raising experience!

Click here to read about my Adventures on the Amazon.

8 Alpacas

(Hucahuasi, Peru with AdventureSmith Explorations)

Huacahuasi alpaca

From the village of Huacahuasi, we embarked on an easy but scenic hike, about 2 hours roundtrip, to a set of waterfalls. I was ahead of the rest of the group, and as I rounded the path, I was surprised to be joined by a herd of alpacas that were grazing directly next to the path. They were just as curious about me as I was about them!

Click here to read Inca Trail Hikes.

7 Tarantula

(Amazon River with AdventureSmith Explorations)


Our young local guide was astute at discovering the Amazon’s diverse creatures, which to the untrained eye would remain well-hidden by their natural camouflage. From big, hairy tarantulas hiding in trees or lounging on giant leaves to minuscule poison dart frogs – he found everything.

Click here to read about my Adventures on the Amazon.

6 Giraffe

(Nairobi, Kenya with Elewana Collection)

animal encounters

Established in the 1970s and run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the Giraffe Center is a breeding, research, and conservation center for endangered Rothschild giraffes found only in the grasslands of East Africa. Once down to only 130, thanks to this facility where they rehabilitate and release giraffes, there are now over 300 gorgeous Rothschild giraffes safe and breeding well in the wild in Kenyan national parks and conservancies.

If you want a face-to-face encounter, walk up onto the viewing platform and stand at the edge. Even the youngest members are not shy and will come over to you! Giraffes are beautiful and amazing creatures and this experience is unparalleled.

Click here to read Top Things to Do in Nairobi.

5 Lions

(Neru, Kenya with Elewana Collection)

animal encounters

One of the first animal encounters on my Kenya safari was a couple of lionesses just lazing around on the ground. I could not believe how close they were to the jeep!  While they appeared to be unaware that we were there, I soon realized that wasn’t the case. I half-stood up and reached over to get my other camera, which I wasn’t supposed to do – no quick movements, but I was caught up in the moment. One of the lions did not like that movement and rose onto her two front legs and stared at the jeep. My guide appropriately and kindly reminded me to stay seated. The lions stayed for a few minutes and then skulked off.

Click here to read What to See in Meru National Park.

4 Sea Turtle

(Great Barrier Reef, Australia)

sea turtle

Diving in the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, we encountered an extremely curious and friendly Hawksbill sea turtle. After circling us a few times, he ventured closer. I stretched my hand out, offering the piece of swaying seaweed I was holding. He started swimming toward me and I released the seaweed just before he grabbed hold of it. He continued to swim around us, seemingly enjoying the camaraderie.

Click here to read Great Barrier Reef Sea Turtle Encounter.

3 Llamas

(Peru with AdventureSmith Explorations)

I had three llama encounters in Peru…

llama encounters

(1 and 2) The Lamay Lodge, an eco-friendly hotel deep in the Peru countryside, has several llamas that wander freely around their property. Not exactly “wild” animals, they are used to humans and not afraid of them. The first encounter was when a llama photobombed my selfie in the outdoor hot tub. It’s even smiling! Hilarious.

llama peru

The second encounter was with sweet baby Domingo, who came near me and nearly kissed me. So sweet! I wanted to take him home!


(3) Machu Picchu is known to have wild llamas that wander the ancient site. At one viewpoint, a curious llama edged her way toward me. I crinkled a plastic bag in my hands, and being a curious creature, she came quite close, although not quite as close as it appears in the photo, and I did not touch her.

Click here to read How to Explore Machu Picchu.

2 Whale Shark

(Cancun, Mexico)

whale sharks cancun

Recognized as the largest fish in the sea, whale sharks can grow to a length of over 40 feet and live up to 100 years. These docile giants are not carnivores and are harmless to humans. They are classified as filter feeders and dine on plankton through their ginormous mouths.

Snorkeling next to gentle but humongous whale sharks is one of the most thrilling adventures you can experience and one you will never forget.

Click here to read Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Cancun.

1 Rhino

(Lewa, Kenya with Elewana Collection)

rhino at lewa

During a game drive on my Kenya safari, we also got unbelievably close to a rhino. Or, actually, the rhino got close to us. Take note, you should never chase after an animal in your game-drive vehicle. On this occasion, we noticed the white rhino up on a hill so our guide stopped so we could watch. The rhino started down the hill, grazing all the way. As she got closer, she raised her head to look at us, decided we weren’t a threat, and continued grazing, coming right up next to the jeep, literally within arm’s length.

Click here to read Lewa Safari Camp Adventures.


I endeavor to only engage in ethical animal encounters, free from animal cruelty, which prioritizes the best interest and well-being of wildlife.

I don’t touch, feed, chase, ride, or harass wild animals. In the case of riding domesticated animals such as horses, camels, or donkeys I only do so when I can ascertain they appear to be in healthy condition and not abused.

I never purchase wildlife souvenirs such as ivory that fuels poaching or eat products from endangered or threatened animals (i.e. sharks, puffins, sea turtles, etc.).

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of the “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.

She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the next few months.

Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.

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