“It’s exciting to watch the natural behaviors of animals,” said my friend Chris Kratt, creator of the wildly popular shows Wild Kratts, Kratts’ Creatures, Be The Creature, and Zoboomafoo. “Kids grow up caring more about animals and the environment they live in if they’ve had real, up-close, tangible experiences.” Authentic experiences that broaden our perspective of the world is a big part of the reason we travel, so I was really interested to know which destinations were on the top of his list for families. Chris has two boys who are lucky enough to go on location with him from time to time, so his perspective is not only as a “creature adventurer,” but also as a Dad. Hope you find Chris’ Top Picks for Animal Experiences as inspiring as I do!
1. The Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos seem to top just about every list these days, and for good reason. Chris talked about jumping into the water to swim with penguins, sea lions and even whale sharks. On these islands, the animals haven’t learned to be afraid of humans, so you can have really close encounters with marine iguanas, Darwin’s finches, blue-footed boobies, and giant tortoises. While there, Chris was able to film Vampire finches that actually peck other animals and drink their blood, but you’d need special permission for that. It’s really important to hook up with a good operator for the Galapagos, both for the safety of the animals and to make sure you get the most out of your trip.
2. Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks topped Chris’ list for “seeing really cool animals” within the United States. Throughout the park, pronghorn antelope, moose, elk, coyotes, and bison are all fairly common sights. On the eastern side of the park, you might even get lucky and see a wolf pack or grizzly bear. Kids between the ages of 5-12 can become Junior Rangers— my kids did this in Moab a few years ago and it was a great way to get them engaged in the Park’s educational mission.
3. The Pantanal, Brazil. The Pantanal is one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands and home to caimans, giant river otters, giant ant eaters, anacondas, howler monkeys, and macaws. It also has one of the largest and healthiest jaguar populations on the earth, and may offer a rare glimpse of endangered and threatened species such as the Crowned Solitary eagle and the South American tapir. In contrast to the Amazon, where the animals stay fairly well hidden according to Chris, the Pantanal offers great wildlife viewing opportunities.
4. Oregon’s Rogue River. Chris learned to whitewater kayak on this river and says there are a number of good operators that can teach the sport while giving you the opportunity to explore a wild, creature-filled river. “It’s the best kind of vacation,” said Chris. “You’re in nature, viewing wildlife, and learning a new sport.” After spending a few days working on skills like rolling and strokes with Sundance Kayak, you head off on an “instructional expedition” down the river where you’re likely to see otters, black bears, osprey, and eagles. “It’s a really beautiful, really wild river.” This one is on my short list!
5. Belize. Chris took his family to Belize last year while he was filming Spider monkeys and jaguars for Wild Kratts. He mentioned Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company & Jungle Lodge as one good place to base an exploration of this Central American hotspot. From there, you can explore Mayan ruins, go on river cave expeditions, and zipline through the rainforest– experiences no kid would soon forget! Another one for my short list!
6. Botswana. Chris and Tania were married in Botswana among the elephants, leopards and lions, and it remains one of the top places he’d like to return with his children. He’s particularly keen on exploring the Okvango Delta, a wildlife mecca and one of the only places in the world with a pride of lions that hunts elephants, but suggested that most people should visit Botswana through a reputable tour company. Not only do they help visitors maintain a safe and healthy respect for the wildlife, they also set up tent camps for a wide range of budgets– some fully equipped with plush beds and hot water showers. That’s my kind of camping.
7. Kangaroo Island, Australia. Last, but certainly not least, Chris recommended Kangaroo Island in South Australia. As the name would imply, kangaroos are the main attraction, but the island is also home to Tammar wallabies, Little Blue Fairy Penguins, New Zealand Fur seals, sea lions, koalas, emus, echidnas, and black swans. The island has several nature preserves, with the largest and best-known being Flinders Chase National Park. Kangaroo Island is also noted for its honey, said to be made by a pure colony of Ligurian honey bees. If you’ve made it all the way to Kangaroo Island, you can also add the Great Barrier Reef to your itinerary, another place Chris says has a wide variety of accommodations for viewing spectacular wildlife.
On a parting note, Chris added that it’s really important to follow the established rules around animals of all kinds. Whether that’s “not tapping the glass” at a zoo, or adhering to the strict guidelines at the Galapagos, those rules are there to protect the animals. “There are constant forces of tourism on animals,” said Chris, “and too much pressure can be a real a hardship. It’s really wonderful to go on creature adventures, and the best way to do it is to give animals space and let them do their thing.”
And if you’re looking for an educational game for the kiddos while traveling to one of these incredible animal experiences, check out the Kratt Brothers new “Wild Kratts Creature Power” app released with PBS in January. Kids explore creature powers to learn about animals including bees, elephants and raccoons.