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Top 10 destinations for wildlife spotting in Australia
Australia is blessed with a unique richness of wildlife, including creatures found nowhere else on the planet. And while the zoos, sanctuaries, and conservation parks are all brilliant for a cheeky encounter, nothing beats venturing into the wild to see animals in their natural habitat. We head off to the most distinctive and diverse environments, all of which are perfect for tracking some of the country’s most amazing species.
Montague Island, New South Wales
The setting: Just six miles off the state’s southern coastline and only accessible by boat from the seaside town of Narooma, this remote playground looms larger than you may expect from its 82 hectares of protected nature reserve. Known as Barunguba by the local Yuin Aborigines, it comes with crystal-clear waters for divers, snorkellers, and anglers, a fascinating 19th-century lighthouse for history buffs, and a huge roll call of wildlife for those keen to connect with nature.
The wildlife: While there’s a formidable population of little penguins, fish (the rich East Australian Current brings tuna, marlin, baitfish, kingfish, and squid to the waters around the island) and whales (usually humpbacks, southern rights, minkes, and pilots), it’s the impossibly cute Montague seals that get all the love. Keep your eyes peeled for two varieties: the Australian Fur Seal that tend to hang out in tightly-packed groups on the rocks, and the less common New Zealand Fur Seal who has body space issues and is likely to bite any seal that gets too close.
Top viewing tips: If you don’t fancy plunging into the deep to snorkel with seals (around 1,000 of these cheeky creatures are found here from August to December), a boat tour will get you up-close to the island’s incredible wildlife. Equally rewarding is booking one of the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service’s year-round eco tours which include whale watching, visiting the seal colony on the island’s northern end, and watching the evening penguin parade (season depending).
Rottnest Island, Western Australia
The setting: Only a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle, Rottnest (otherwise known as Rotto) is the idyllic island playground chock-full of exquisite white-sand beaches, hidden bays, dive-worthy coral reefs, and a network of superb cycle paths. The famous furry marsupials that inhabit the island inspired its name; in 1696 Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh mistook quokka’s for “a kind of rat as big as a common cat” and likened the place to a rat's nest.
The wildlife: The smiley and super-cute quokkas (one of the smallest members of the macropod family that also includes kangaroos and wallabies) are Rottnest Island’s biggest draw (to be fair, they’re the only land mammal here). There’s typically between 8,000 and 17,000 of these much-loved cuddly creatures living here, all of whom lap up the attention bestowed up them from the locals who have nicknamed them the “happiest animal in the world”. Just don’t be fooled into feeding them (anyone caught will be issued an infringement by a Rottnest Island Ranger).
Top viewing tips: The Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association runs the Quokka Walk, a free 45-minute guided tour departing daily at 2:15pm from the Meeting Post located outside the Salt Store in the Main Settlement. Led by an island volunteer, you’ll have ample opportunity to learn fascinating facts about Rottnest's famous inhabitants who tend to spend most of their time eating leaves and grasses, snoozing in the shade, and shamelessly posing for selfies.
Phillip Island, Victoria
The setting: A 90-minute drive from Melbourne gets you to one of the coolest places on the planet to watch tuxedo-clad little penguins scurrying across the sand. Named for Admiral Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, this stunning island attracts three million wide-eyed visitors a year for its surfing scene, wildlife park, coastal views, and annual motor racing events, including the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix and the World Superbike Championship.
The wildlife: While the waddling little penguins steal the show at the nightly Penguin Parade (an enchanting 50-minute procession where hundreds of these cuties return to their sand dune homes at dusk after a day of fishing), there’s plenty more wildlife to please. Most impressive are the kolas at the Koala Conservation Centre, the kangaroos at the 60-acre Phillip Island Wildlife Park, and the huge fur seal colony (it ranks as Australian’s largest) at Seal Rocks, just offshore from The Nobbies - a magnificent headland on the island’s south-western tip.
Top viewing tips: There’s several ways to view the penguins, including the concreted terrace, elevated platforms, and a private ranger-led eco tours (all are organised by Philip Island Nature Park). Also head to the Koala Conservation Centre to watch koalas high in the crooks of trees - a favoured position that makes them hard to see in the wild (this is also a great place to see young joeys emerging from their mothers' pouches, usually between December and February).
Mary River, near Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
The setting: An hour’s drive east of Darwin and an easy detour on your way to Kakadu National Park, the Mary River is the Top End waterway where you’ll find vast wetlands, plunge pools, and epic waterfalls. But it’s most famous for its Saltwater Crocodiles (or Salties) - particularly around the Shady Camp Billabong where you’re guaranteed to spot these snap-happy creatures lining up in anticipation of an easy feed (swimming is 100 per cent forbidden).
The wildlife: Hungry crocodiles aside, you can expect serendipitous sightings of buffalos, wild horses, and wallabies around the lush wetlands, freshwater billabongs, and paperbark and monsoon forests. There’s also plenty of birdlife (black-necked storks, sea eagles, magpie geese jabiru, jacana, pygmy geese, brolgas, ibis, egrets) at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve within the Mary River floodplains, as well as a decent selection of fish at Shady Camp and Corroboree Billabong (the southernmost strain of barramundi are a big draw for anglers across the globe).
Top viewing tips: Not only are the organised cruises, wildlife safaris, and riverside bushwalks the best way to get up-close(ish) with the huge saltwater crocs, but they’re also your safest bet. For those who’d rather answer to the call of the wild alone, head to the Couzen's Lookout Camping Area - one of the region’s most incredible spots for gorgeous Mary River views, Top End sunsets, and magnificent photographs of the surrounding plains.
Kangaroo Island, South Australia
The setting: Eight miles off the coast of South Australia and around 30 minutes by plane (or 45 minutes by ferry) from Adelaide, Down Under’s answer to The Galápagos plays host to some remarkable wildlife in its conservation areas and national parks. Known to the locals simply as KI, this surprisingly large island is divided into seven regions, with four major towns: Kingscote (the capital), Penneshaw (where daily ferries disembark), American River, and Parndana.
The wildlife: You can rely on seeing all manner of interesting bird species as well as large goannas, rare tammar wallabies, a unique subspecies of echidna, and the Kangaroo Island kangaroo (a shorter version of the western grey kangaroo found on the mainland). The island is also home to the Seal Bay Conservation Park - the only place in the world where you can walk among endangered Australian sea lions (take the 900-metre-long Boardwalk Tour or book the guided 45 minute Seal Bay Experience tour which takes place right on the beach).
Top viewing tips: Head to the Koala Walk at the Hansen Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on the island’s south-west coast for the best views of the cuddly creatures chilling out in eucalyptus trees, and make your way to Grassdale in Kelly Hill Conservation Park and Black Swamp in Flinders Chase National Park to see native kangaroos. Also factor in a visit to the wharf in Kingscote that attracts dozes of Australian pelicans (they come here daily at around 5pm for their fish supper).
The Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
The setting: Covering over 2,000 kilometres of South Australia’s western coast and bounded on the east by Spencer Gulf, the west by the Great Australian Bight, and the north by the Gawler Ranges, this triangular-shaped peninsula (named for 19th century English explorer Edward John Eyre) is the promised land for adventurers. Most head here to camp in the wilderness, swim with dolphins, come face-to-face with great white sharks, and explore the sublime national parks.
The wildlife: The marine life in this aptly-named Seafood Frontier is amazing, especially in the waters around the beautiful Port Lincoln (expect sea lions, sharks, dolphins, tuna, and cattlefish). Further inland, you’ll see kangaroos, emus, wombats and amazing birdlife whilst on safari in the stunning Gawler Ranges (this is also the stomping ground of the crimson mallee and the yellow-footed rock wallaby). Equally visit-worthy is the Bunda Cliffs on the Nullarbor Plain coastline for its Southern Right Whales who hang out here between May and October.
Top viewing tips: Mikkira Station is the wild koala colony just 30-kilometres southwest of Port Lincoln on the Fishery Bay Road. Open to public every day (except when the temperature hits over 30 degrees), this natural bush environment is loaded with Manna Gum trees with yummy leaves (so say the koalas). Also head to the Glen-Forest Tourist Park for old-fashion farmyard fun and a full line-up of Aussie animals (some of which are babies who can be cuddled and fed).
Cradle Mountain National Park-Lake St Clair National Park, Tasmania
The setting: Unlike anything you’ll find on Australia’s mainland, this ravishing nature park where ancient rainforests fringe glacial lakes and icy streams cascade down rugged mountains is one of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area's most standout. Home to the world-famous Overland Track and the dazzling Dove Lake, it provides an exciting landscape for wildlife fans, walkers, anglers, and hikers keen to spend the day tackling Cradle Mountain’s summit.
The wildlife: Reported cases of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (the aggressive non-viral clonally transmissible cancer which affects Tasmanian Devils), means that sightings of Australia's largest living carnivorous marsupial are not guaranteed. There are, however, around 78 species of bird (including the Green Rosella), three macropod species (Forester, Bennnett's wallaby, and Tasmanian pademelon), short-beaked echidna, quolls, and platypuses. Wombats are also plentiful, with most sightings taking place at dusk or dawn (they are nocturnal and crepuscular).
Top viewing tips: The 65-kilometre Overland Track that takes you on a six-day odyssey through temperate rainforest and crystalline glacial lakes before reaching the top of Mount Ossa (Tasmania’s highest peak at 1,617-metres) is a must-do for walkers with a good level of fitness. Alternatively, the Lake St Clair section of the park tempts with leisurely lakeside strolls, longer forest walks, and brilliant displays of wildflowers and orchids during the warmer months.
Daintree Rainforest, Queensland
The setting: Two hours north from Cairns, this World Heritage-listed continuous area of pristine tropical rainforest is the largest on the Australian continent and the oldest in the world (beating the Amazon Rainforest by 65 million years). The scope for wildlife-watching is seriously off-the-scale, not least because a third of the country’s frog, marsupial and reptile species and almost two-thirds of its bat and butterfly species can be found beneath the Daintree's dense canopy.
The wildlife: This vast chunk of biologically diverse rainforest is home to around 430 species of bird (including 13 found nowhere else in the world) as well as a large number of rare and unusual animals such as the Southern Cassowary, Bennett’s and Lumholtz Tree Kangaroos, Musky Rat-Kangaroo, and Spotted-Tailed Quoll. And it’s all just as exciting along the mangrove-lined Daintree River, especially for those hopping board the Daintree River Ferry to get a good look at the fearsome saltwater crocodiles (the ferry operates daily from 6am to midnight).
Top viewing tips: Any Daintree River cruise will get you up-close with exciting wildlife. Another fun way to see this awe-inspiring place from a completely new perspective is on a Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour - a unique guided zip lining experience that takes you into the beating heart of the Daintree Rainforest where you’ll be hoisted up by the world's very first Human Hamster Wheel cable lift to a series of six eco-friendly tree platforms.
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
The setting: Set in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area that cover over 708,350 hectares of coastal waters and land (it was singled out by UNESCO in 2011 for its natural beauty and biological diversity), the 300-kilometre-long reef at Ningaloo Marine Park is a rich treasure trove of underwater life. Known as Western Australia's answer to the Great Barrier Reef, this incredible place is home to 200 species of hard coral, 50 species of soft coral, and over 500 species of fish.
The wildlife: Whale sharks weighing 20 tons and measuring in excess of 40-feet-long are a likely sighting for those who fancy plunging into the deep. There’s also four species of turtle (loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and leatherback), two species of mantra ray, six species of toothed whale, and eight species of baleen whale. Those heading to the adjacent Cape Range National Park will see emus, red kangaroos, rare black-flanked rock wallabies, euros, five types of bat, 80 species of reptile, and over 200 species of bird.
Top viewing tip: It’s possible to dive and snorkel with the world’s largest fish off Ningaloo Reef from March to August each year. To enrol in a PADI Open Water Diver course (or Junior Open Water Diver course) you must be at least 10-years-old and have competent swimming skills. Alternatively, book a glass-bottomed boat tour to glide along the turquoise-tinted waters (most operators run one-hour viewing tours or longer sessions that combine snorkelling adventures).
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
The setting: Stretching for 2,300 kilometres along the northeast coast of Australia, the world’s largest living structure measures 135,135 square miles and encompasses 2,900 reef systems, 600 islands, and 300 coral cays. Not only is this World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef the most bio-diverse coral reef ecosystem on the planet, but it’s even visible from outer space.
The wildlife: The animals that call the Great Barrier Reef home include 1,800 species of rainbow-coloured fish, 134 species of shark and ray, six of the world's seven species of threatened marine turtle, 17 species of sea snake, and over 30 species of marine mammal. There’s also a vast expanse of hard and soft coral spread across the three broadly defined regions: Ribbon Reef, Northern Coral Sea, and Southern Great Barrier Reef. Equally visit-worthy is Fraser Island for dingoes and baby humpback whales, and the beach at Heron Island (one of Sir David Attenborough’s favoured places) for hundreds of green and loggerhead turtles.
Top viewing tip: For diving enthusiasts, nothing comes close to the Great Barrier Beef and the dizzying array of marine life it supports. As you’d imagine, there’s an enormous selection of organised activities and attractions available here; from well-priced boat tours with diving and snorkelling itineraries for adventurous types, to semi-submersibles and comfortable underwater observatories for non-swimmers (or simply for anyone who doesn’t fancy getting wet).