Swimming with Pigs and Other Bucket List Trips for Animal Lovers

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If you love animals and you love to travel check these wildlife inspired adventures off your bucket list!

Cuddling koalas on Hamilton Island, Queensland, Australia


My very own koala! They didn’t let me leave with him. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)

You can see koalas all over Australia, but due to government regulations, there are only a few places you can actually hold and cuddle them. (Queensland and South Australia are the only two states that allow it.) Wild Life Hamilton Island, in Queensland, sort of like a mini-zoo, is one of those places. The experience is weird — you cuddle the koala in a corner of the park’s café area with potted plants for the pictures and you only get a few seconds. But holding a koala is one of the best things you’ll ever do. One caveat: The rest of the animals in their lonely little cages may make you feel sad and guilty. So you’ll have to weigh your desire to cuddle against your guilt.)

Swimming with wild pigs on Big Major Cay in the Exumas, Bahamas

Swim, piggies, swim! (Video: Leah Ginsberg)

Pigs may not fly, but in the Bahamas, they swim. It’s the strangest/cutest thing ever. Exactly how and when the pigs got there has been lost to history and is now more the stuff of local legend: Theories include that the pigs were cargo, which ended up shipwrecked on the island; that they escaped from a farm on a nearby cay; or that they were put there by a cay or resort owner. Whatever the truth, boat up to Big Major Cay, and before you even get to the shore, there will be a group of pigs swimming out to you. It’s not that they’re particularly friendly, they just want to be fed. So make sure to bring snacks. Any snacks. (I even fed them ham sandwiches. I know that somehow feels wrong and very meta, but it was all I had left and they didn’t seem to mind.) Also, remember that although these pigs are super adorable, but they’re also wild. So if you choose to swim with them, stay further off shore where you can stand but they can’t. And be cautious if there are baby piglets around. Oh, yeah — watch out for floating pig poop, too.

Swimming with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Whale sharks are actually whales, which means those things are big (some are like 40-feet long!). But they are also filter feeders, which means they prefer to eat plankton (luckily for us humans), so there’s nothing to be terrified of. Yahoo Travel editor Brittany Jones-Cooper described swimming alongside the creatures in open water like this: “I could see its mouth was wide-open gathering plankton, its gills where large and flowing, and its tail was as big as my body. This was, without a doubt, the most thrilling moment of my life.”

If 30 feet feels a bit long for your comfort or you’d rather stay in more shallow waters, you can swim with nurse sharks at Compass Cay Marina in the Exumas, Bahamas. Now these creatures actually are sharks and they eat meat — fish and shrimp are faves — so you have to watch your fingers when swimming with them (their eyesight isn’t great, and you don’t want them to mistake your digits for dinner). They can grow to about 14 feet long), but the truth is they are slow and lazy. In fact, when “swimming with the sharks” you’ll probably be the only one doing any swimming. The nurse sharks tend to just hang out on the bottom of the ocean. Swim up and give them a pet — though they look smooth they kind of feel like sandpaper.

Hanging out with sloths in Costa Rica


A bucket of baby sloths headed to the jungle gym. (Photo: Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica/Facebook)

The internet has changed the world, but perhaps one of the most important things it has done is bring the world baby sloth videos. At the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica near Limon, travelers can see them in person. Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for the sloths), visitors are not allowed to cuddle the animals. (It’s detrimental to their health and well-being for various reasons.) But what you can do is sign up for the Insider’s Tour, which takes you behind the scenes to visit meccas of adorableness like the baby sloth nursery and jungle gym. (Are you squealing with joy yet?) Bonus: Throughout Costa Rica, you are very likely to see many sloths hanging from trees in the wild (it’s amazing!). But don’t end up endangering these amazing creatures. Warns the Sanctuary website: “Please keep away from roadside scammers who let you hold a sloth for a photo. They simply knock an innocent sloth out of its tree, exploit it for quick money, then allow the animal to die from lack of nutrition. When the next tourist comes along who wants to hold a sloth for a photo, they repeat this inhumane practice…. Please do not perpetuate this cruelty.”

Having breakfast with kangaroos in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia


Kangaroos in the mist. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)

The Blue Mountains are beautiful and there are kangaroos are everywhere. They’re as ubiquitous as deer or squirrels in the U.S. Blue Mountain Guides offers a tour that will pick you up at the crack of dawn — because that’s when you see the most kangaroos, wallaroos, and wallabies — and take you to a secret little spot for kanga-watching with coffee and breakfast. While the guides set up camp, you can tiptoe through the grass and woods (so so as not to scare away the roos) scoping out the animals. You can get relatively close, and as you stare at them, they’ll stare right back. But do be careful — if you get too close, they’ll hop away, and in some circumstances, they can actually be dangerous. After breakfast, the Blue Mountain Guides’ excursion also includes a some hiking on other nearby terrains.

Now if we’re really talking bucket list here, another great way to see roos is to book a couple of nights at the Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley. Not only is the resort (on a majestic 7,000-acre reserve) ah-mazing, but there are daily wildlife drives for guests where you’ll see more marsupials than people. The resort even has a couple of albino wallaroos, as well as wombats and other critters.

Related: Hotel Insider: Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley’s Rustic Australian Luxury

Swimming with penguins in the Galapagos


Think he knows he’s on your bucket list? (Photo: Les Williams/Flickr)

The Galapagos is teaming with amazing wildlife from blue footed boobies (birds) to colonies of sea lions. But true joy is snorkeling with a waddle of little Galapagos penguins playing around you, scooting through your legs, swimming past your shoulder, and buzzing by your ear. Whether you take a cruise around the Galapagos or take day trips to various islands, make sure to snorkel off Islas Bartolome and Santiago — it’s the area where one of the Galapagos’s largest population of penguins lives. You can also cruise or take a public speed boat to Isabela for penguin sightings.

Related: How to Do Galapagos if You Hates Boats

Having breakfast with giraffes in Nairobi, Kenya


Giraffe Manor’s breakfast (Photo: Jo Piazza)

The hotel Giraffe Manor on the outskirts of Nairobi is a grand, ivy-covered estate set on 12 acres of private land — where you’ll be greeted by four resident drafts (Helen, Daisy, Jacques, and Betty) meandering wandering the grounds. Go for breakfast at 7 a.m. sharp for the surreal experience of dining while giraffes stretch their long necks through the restaurant windows in search of food. You can also check out the giraffe center across the lawn, and if you’re brave enough, you can kiss a giraffe!

Related: The Best Way to Start the Day — Breakfast With Giraffes

Practicing falconry at Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland


One of Ashford Castle’s hawks. (Photo: Insight Vacations)

Not only can you meet and learn about the feathered family at Ashford Castle hotel in Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, you can also sign up for Hawk Walks at the falconry school on the property. Instructors will take out one of the hawks on property and teach you how to send off the birds, follow then through the amazing forested grounds, and have them return to your gloved fist. The hawks are amazing, as is the sheer enthusiasm of the knowledgeable instructors.

Cuddle a baby panda in Chengdu, China

Yahoo Travel Managing Editor Jo Piazza says her life completely changed the day she snuggled with a baby panda at the Giant Panda Research & Breeding Center in Chengdu, even thought the entire encounter lasted about 60 seconds. Holding a little panda is everything you’d dreamed it would be — all soft and cuddly and filled with giggles. You should know that there is some debate as to whether visitors playing with pandas is healthy for the animals. But at the center, doctors monitor how often each panda interacts with customers and proceeds are funneled back into breeding research.

Watch sea turtles nest in Nevis

Every year in July, Four Seasons Resort Nevis runs its conservation program in conjunction with Sea Turtle Conservancy. (The 2016 dates are July 15-19.) Along with staff and local volunteer conservationists, resort guests spend hours each night walking Nevis’s beaches in the complete darkness (no flashlights allowed) to spot a mama sea turtle digging her nest and dropping her eggs. After watching the turtle find the perfect spot, dig a hole, lay her eggs, and then bury them, the conservationists tag the turtle (for tracking) and keep her over night. The next day the turtle is released into the sea from the beach at the resort – to great fanfare. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that educates travelers and helps the experts collect valuable knowledge that will aid with future sea turtle conservation efforts.

Related: 5 Ways Your Vacation Is Killing Sea Turtles

Rounding up buffalo in Custer State Park, South Dakota


Round ‘em up! (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)

Every September, South Dakota holds its Buffalo Roundup, during which cowboys corral the publicly owned herd of about 1,300 bison that roam Custer State Park. The buffalo are then counted, vaccinated, and checked for pregnancy among other things. Go watch the roundup (Sept. 30, 2016) and then have a chuck wagon lunch with thousands of others. Bonus: Driving anywhere in Custer, you’ll also see lots of buffalo meandering the winding roads of the town. And there people break for buffalo.

Cage-diving with great whites in Shark Alley, South Africa

South Africa is the great white capital of the world and the epi-center is the seaside South African town of Gansbaai known for its Shark Alley — a shark-infested channel and great white hotspot, thanks to an abundance of (yummy) seals. It’s the only spot in the world where you can cage-dive with great whites year-round. At 12 to 16 feet long with 300 razor-sharp teeth, coming face-to-face with these underwater beasts is worth the hype, according to Jones-Cooper who faced her fears there last year. Just remember one very important rule: Keep your hands off the cage or the sharks will bite them off. Don’t end up a Shark Week cautionary tale.

Visit giant tortoise farms on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands


Holy tortoise! (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)

The Galápagos Islands are one of two places on earth where you can see giant land tortoises. (The other is in the Seychelles.) There are various places to see them, but two of the most popular are on Santa Cruz. The Charles Darwin Research Station is sort of a glorified zoo where you can learn about conservation and see hatchlings as well as adult tortoises. Or you can head to a tortoise farm in the highlands to see the creatures roaming freely. There are many, but Rancho El Manzanitto is one of the best, where the reptiles outnumber the humans many times over.

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