Original shutterstock 127295609.jpg?1496865842?ixlib=rails 0.3

Get ready for a huge dose of perspective.

Atlanta-based traveler Gloria Colley got to snorkel alongside these massive fish in Mexico—an experience so powerful, she made the sharks part of her life back home.

I was lucky enough to go on one of the first excursions offered by EcoColors Tours. My husband and I met the company’s founder, Kenneth Johnson, in Mexico in 2000, and soon after that he started leading snorkeling trips out to Isla Holbox, an island 40 miles north of Cancún. I jumped at the chance to join. The island is a well-known hangout for whale sharks from June to August.

That first trip, it was just us, Kenneth, and his family. The whale sharks were large and intimidating, but I trusted Kenneth. He’d taken me out on the water so many times, I was comfortable anywhere he brought me.

The sharks really are gentle giants. Some can be the size of a school bus—so you always swim to the side of them, and never go near their mouths. You don’t want to get pulled in! They’re mysterious animals. We still don’t know a lot about them, like how they mate or why they travel all over the world. But we do know that they can be found from Cancún all the way up to Florida, as well as in Madagascar, Australia, and the Philippines. Like humans, they seem to prefer tropical waters.

Being near them is incredible.They’re very, very quiet. They just stay near the surface and feed on plankton—a collection of algae, small sea animals, and bacteria. That’s also why they like Isla Holbox so much: Right there, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, the conditions are perfect for plankton, and therefore for whale sharks, too. You can observe the sharks as long as they linger, but you’d better be fast getting in the water once you spot one. After the food is gone, they don’t stick around for long.

I was so moved by the experience—which I have repeated several times since that first trip, including last season—that I started volunteering at Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, where we have four whale sharks in a football-field-size tank. People can swim with the sharks in this controlled environment, but it’s nothing compared to seeing them in the wild. —as told to Sarah Purkrabek

Make your dream come true: Whale-shark excursions with EcoColors Tours start at $144 per person. For more info, visit ecotravelmexico.com.

Legends of the Wild
13 Awesome Animal Adventures
Collected by Ariel Ramchandani, AFAR Contributor
  • 1 / 13
    Legends of the Wild
    Olá, Panama
    Save Place
    Legends of the Wild’s 11-day research expedition has one mission: Trap a jaguar deep in the jungles of Darién Gap, Panama, fit a GPS collar around its neck, and then release it back into the wild. Guests will accompany naturalist guide Ricardo Moreno, traveling by foot, canoe, and helicopter to the ruggedest corners of the Cana Valley and Pirre Mountains. Proceeds from the journey help fund conservation efforts for the critically endangered felines. From $8,000 for five people. legendsofthewild.com —Celia Shatzman From the July/August 2017 Issue
  • 2 / 13
    Melba Gully
    Lavers Hill, Australia
    Save Place
    It’s not the world’s most adrenaline-pumping adventure, but happening upon a galaxy of glowworms twinkling like tiny blue lights in a pitch-black forest is nothing short of magical. Melba Gully, a dense rain forest within Great Otway National Park (about three hours from Melbourne), is home to a large colony of glowworms. Walking trails are clearly marked and free to wander. If you like what you see, come back in daylight hours: The Gully is a popular spot for bush walking, thanks to its enormous ferns and a 300-year-old tree blanketed in moss. parkstay.vic.gov.au —Celia Shatzman From the July/August 2017 Issue
  • 3 / 13
    Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
    Kinkiizi, Uganda
    Save Place
    “You are very lucky!” my guide told me. “You will have the gorillas all to yourself!” He seemed pleased for me in my rare situation of being the lone tracker to see one of the habituated gorilla families in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Typically there are 8 people per outing, and they have booked their permit ages ago, battling other safari company clients to clutch one of the limited permits in their sweaty hands. But through a happy set of circumstances, it was just little ol’ me and 12 mountain gorillas quietly passing the time together in a small ravine. Suddenly a loud crack above me and the brief whooshing sound of air rushing through leaves as my guide and I looked up in time to see the tree falling as if the gorilla had precision-aimed it right at our heads. Fortunately, the gorilla misjudged the length of the tree and it stopped short of our fragile craniums. Then he casually ambled down the slope and sat down a few feet away. He gazed rather stoically at his handiwork and I tried to catch his eyes with mine. He didn’t mind letting me peer into them, searching for his soul. Naturally, I couldn’t quite find it in such a short period of time. But I definitely found something rare and intense, standing in the jungle, eye-locked with a mountain gorilla, and nothing between us but a few swarms of flies.
  • 4 / 13
    Ngorongoro Crater
    Save Place
    Ngorongoro Crater is one of the world's greatest natural spectacles, its magical setting and abundant wildlife never failing to enthrall you. However the crater is just a small part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area which offers a whole range of attractions for the adventurous traveler. Superb accommodations—from excellent campsites to luxury lodges—ensure that you can relax at the end of each day in style. Everything about the Ngorongoro experience is designed to make your visit a real authentic and memorable African journey. Set in the nothern Tanzania, sharing part of the Serengeti plains to the northwest and with the towns of Arusha, Moshi and Mount Kilimanjaro to the east, Ngorongoro forms part of the unique Serengeti ecosystem. The terrain embraces several distinct habitats from open grassland to mountain forest, and from scrub bushland to highland heath. The area contains sites of international paleontological and archaeological importance. Around 25,000 animals live in the crater throughout the year.
  • 5 / 13
    Sir Bani Yas Island
    United Arab Emirates
    Save Place
    Sir Bani Yas Island is a quiet animal preserve combined with a world class resort. It was an amazing experience to get up close with these incredible creatures and then hang out on a beach with a frosty drink in hand.
  • 6 / 13
    Galápagos Province
    Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
    Save Place
    There are not many places in the world where you can capture three distinct species in a single frame. In the Galapagos you can, from just a few yards away. I especially liked watching (and photographing) the way very distant relatives interacted. Here, newborn sea lion pups chase the tails of marine iguanas while vibrant Sally Lightfoot crabs skitter from the Godzilla-like creatures.
    By Serena Renner, AFAR Contributor
  • 7 / 13
    Elephant Nature Park
    Pa Yup Nai, Thailand
    Save Place
    Accompany elephants as they make their way to a “retirement” park in Northern Thailand after careers in trekking camps. The project is an attempt both to give the elephants a more pleasant, natural life and to rebuild the bonds between the animals and the Karen people, who have traditionally worked closely with elephants. Volunteers stay in homes in Karen villages. —Kellie Schmitt Escort Elephants: $500 for one week, including food and homestays. 66/(0) 53-818754, elephantnaturepark.org. Other Trips to Help Animals
    Whales in Costa Rica
    Snow leopards in Central Asia 
    Orangutans in Indonesia
    Meerkats in South Africa
    Horses in California This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue. 
    Yvette Cardozo/Photolibrary
  • 8 / 13
    Katangsky District
    Save Place
    In Land Rovers and on foot, climb Central Asia’s mountains in pursuit of snow leopards. Volunteers search for the elusive green-eyed cats by tracking their footprints, scat, and prey: the argali (mountain sheep) and the Altai ibex. The expeditions provide data that can be used to help protect the endangered cats. At night, retreat to a base camp at 7,500 feet. Snowy peaks tower overhead, and the immense, open steppe stretches out below. —Kellie Schmitt Mountain Ghosts: About $2,700 for two weeks, including food and lodging. (800) 407-5761, biosphere-expeditions.org. Other Trips to Help Animals
    Whales in Costa Rica
    Orangutans in Indonesia
    Meerkats in South Africa
    Elephants in Thailand 
    Horses in California Photo from Biosphere Expeditions. This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.  
  • 9 / 13
    Seal Bay Conservation Park
    Seal Bay, Australia
    Save Place
    One of my top must-do things for Australia was to see a kangaroo in the wild. After a short road trip, that was checked off my bucket list and then changed to feeding one. We were lucky enough to arrive at Parndana Animal Park, where there were hundreds of kangaroos ready to be feed. It had just started raining, so no other visitors were in the park, and we just hung out under the trees with the kangaroos for an hour. It was amazing. I highly suggest if you go to Kangaroo Island.
  • 10 / 13
    Orangutan Foundation
    Save Place
    This riverside orangutan rehabilitation camp is usually reachable only by boat. For times when the Sekonyer Kanan River runs dry, volunteers are building a 2.5-mile boardwalk to the camp. Workers are often approached by two curious orangutans, a welcome interruption following a busy day in the humid rain forest. —Kellie Schmitt The Orangutan Foundation: About $1,400 for six weeks, including building materials, lodging, and food. 44/(0) 207-724-2912, orangutan.org.uk. Other Trips to Help Animals
    Whales in Costa Rica
    Snow leopards in Central Asia 
    Meerkats in South Africa
    Elephants in Thailand 
    Horses in California This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue. 
  • 11 / 13
    Magdalena Bay
    Save Place
    The ocean churns as a 36-ton mammal swims up to the boat. With your arm plunged into the cool water, you await the touch of a California gray whale. Like a house cat craving a scratch on the head, the whale pushes its rubbery skin, rough with barnacles and battle scars from boats and orcas, against your palm. From January through March, hundreds of gray whales settle in Magdalena Bay, on the southwest coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. From their feeding grounds off the coast of Alaska, they’ve made one of the longest animal migrations—more than 5,000 miles—to mate, give birth, and raise their young here. Visitors who join local fishermen and outfitters in the bay are practically guaranteed to see whales, and the luckiest will encounter “friendlies,” including proud mothers who nudge their wrinkly black calves toward the surface. Sea Kayak Adventures offers a new trip that combines gray whale sightings in Magdalena Bay with blue and fin whale watching in the Sea of Cortez. From $1,495. (800) 616-1943, This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.
    By Ariel Ramchandani, AFAR Contributor
    Tui de Roy/Minden Pictures
  • 12 / 13
    Meerkats of the Kalahari Project
    Van Zylsrus, South Africa
    Save Place
    Just south of the Botswana border, in the Kuruman River Reserve, you’ll find meerkats so friendly they occasionally jump on volunteers’ heads. Visitors study the effects of the mammals’ cooperative breeding, in which adults help raise each other’s pups. You’ll learn how to weigh a meerkat and observe the intriguing interactions between the meerkat and the fork-tailed drongo, a bird that steals the meerkat’s food. At night, stargaze in the vast Kalahari skies before retreating to a thatched-roof hut. —Kellie Schmitt  
  • 13 / 13
    Adventure Life
    Omaheke Region, Namibia
    Save Place
    Namibia’s Palmwag Concession is home to one of the world’s largest populations of rare, free-roaming black rhinos, not to mention Hartmann’s mountain zebras, desert-adapted lions, leopards, and cheetahs. With Adventure Life’s 15-day Namibia tour, you’ll track the rhinos on foot. The excursion also includes a two-night Tok Tokkie desert walk, sea kayaking with seals and dolphins in Walvis Bay, a visit to a nomadic Himba village, and a game drive in Etosha National Park. From $7,995. adventure-life.com/namibia —Celia Shatzman From the July/August 2017 Issue

article continues below ad

>>Next: Why a Trip to Canada’s Remote Northern Territories Is Worth the Effort