We recently reached out to our field staff, to find out what their favorite wildlife experiences of 2016 were. From South America to Australia’s Kimberley, our staff have traveled the world this year. Below, enjoy their stories.
Mark Brazil, Ornithologist
“What is your favorite wildlife destination?” It’s a common question, but a tough one to answer as there are so many great places. However, one springs to mind; each year I am fortunate to re-visit my namesake, Brazil, leading a dedicated wildlife-watching trip for Zegrahm Expeditions. This year, my wife Mayumi and I had an amazing time in the Pantanal, with just about the best wildlife experiences I have ever had there: more mammals sighted with longer-viewing opportunities than ever before, and particularly fantastic—multiple views of jaguars! See above for just a few of the incredible images I managed to take.
Chris Done, Naturalist
Snakes have a bad public profile and, unfortunately here in Australia, any serpent deciding to either cross a road—or worse still, to lie on the road basking in the early morning sun—runs the risk of being subject to the average Aussie trying out his car’s brakes on it.
Back in April, while driving along the Great Northern Highway in Australia’s Kimberley region, I saw a large dead snake stretched across the road. As I approached it I was feeling both sad and angry at yet another needless death. As there was no other traffic, I decided to avoid the carcass; I could, by now, see that it had been a beautiful black-headed python, non-venomous snakes though sometimes aggressive. Its black head was glossy and the whole body shone with alternating gold and brown stripes. As I slowly passed by I realized there wasn’t too much damage; in fact, I could see no damage at all, and it slowly dawned on me that it may not be dead!
I parked nearby and walked back to take a closer look; there was still no movement, but I was now sure that it was well and truly alive, and simply soaking up the abundant solar energy. The job now was to remove it from the road so it survived the (admittedly sparse) traffic hazards, which would surely come. Eventually, it acknowledged my presence by displaying some aggression; though it certainly was reluctant to leave its “hot spot”! With lots of encouragement, and in its own good time, it slid into the nearby Spinifex savannah. Just how long stayed it off the road I don’t know, but I was pleased that it did not venture back out of the scrub during the time I stayed there, having a break in my long drive south.
Jack Grove, Cofounder & Expedition Leader
Hurricane force winds pounded the eastern end of Cuba and the path of Matthew included my home in Key Largo. Shutters were up, my boat secured, and like all of my neighbors, I was prepared for hurricane-force winds. As I contemplated the forces of nature before the storm, I took refuge on my dock, reflecting on the joys of traveling around the world over recent decades. During this calm before the storm, a female manatee and her calf visited me at the edge of the dock. I am reminded that world travel may be filled with wonder; but there is always beauty in our own back yard.
Lex Hes, Expedition Leader
Zegrahm’s overland adventures to Africa always produce many incredible wildlife sightings. One of my favorite encounters of the past year happened on our Wildlife Along the Zambezi expedition, which took us from Victoria Falls in Zambia, down to Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks in Zimbabwe, and back into Zambia where we visited South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks. We saw massive herds of elephants, sable and eland antelope, a pride of lions on a zebra kill, two magnificent cheetahs, and a pack of endangered African wild dogs with nine pups; but I want to talk about a particular encounter with a clever adult female leopard in South Luangwa.
South Luangwa National Park is rightfully acknowledged as one of the best places to see leopards in all of Africa; it certainly lived up to expectations with no less than five leopard sightings during our three-day stay. One of the leopards living on the bank of the Luangwa River is an adult female, well-known to the guides in the area (in particular because of her specialty in hunting guineafowl, see above images). We found her on our early morning game drive resting on the bank of the river in the shade of a bush, and decided to return to her on the afternoon drive to watch her put her specialty into practice.
When we found her, about an hour before sunset, she was resting on one of the highest branches of an African ebony tree on the bank of the river, fairly well-concealed by the leaves of the tree. We sat quietly and waited, looking at birds in the surrounding bush, and watching hippos wake from their daily slumber. Just as it started to get dark, a flock of guineafowl came out of the scrub and flew across the river to the wide sandy bank opposite us, where they landed and scuttled down to the water to drink. They milled around on the sandbank for what seemed like ages before slowly, one by one, they flew up into the large ebony trees on our bank of the river.
We watched and waited and eventually a few guineafowl landed in the tree that our leopard was resting in, apparently unaware of her presence. It was getting quite dark, so it was hard to see what was going on, but it seemed as though most of the birds were landing out of reach of the leopard.
Then suddenly, and much to our surprise, the leopard leapt through the branches! There was a loud cackling and fluttering of wings, and the leopard calmly walked down the branch of the ebony tree with a guineafowl in her mouth. She climbed down from the tree, walked into a little open space, and began to pluck feathers out of the bird. As we sat there watching her feed, our guide pointed out two other piles of feathers nearby, where she had clearly caught guineafowl on previous nights.
It was amazing to be able to watch this and to get some insight into the behavior of this beautiful and intelligent cat. It is sights like this that keep bringing me back to the African wilderness again and again.
Rich Pagen, Conservation Marine Biologist
The saying, “When it rains it pours,” certainly held water on our recent Zegrahm expedition from Iceland to Greenland. As is often the case, the excitement level on the ship was off-the-charts when we spotted our first polar bear of the trip, swimming among the ice floes in Greenland’s Nansen Fjord. But we had no idea that just further into the fjord, we would come across another six bears, all visible at the same time! There were three individuals on one side of the fjord, and a mother with two calves on the other, and we quickly boarded Zodiacs to head out and have a look.
By the end of the trip, our polar bear total hung at 15 different bears! And the highlight of them all was most certainly the curious mother and cub we spotted in Napassorssuaq Fjord. We moved at a snail’s pace in our boats, creeping closer to the shoreline, watching these magnificent bears as intently as they were watching us. On two occasions, the mother’s curiosity got the best of her, and she walked down the hill, followed by her adorable cub, to the edge of the water to get a better sense of what exactly we were. The second time she came down, she actually got in the water and swam slowly and inquisitively out in our direction. For the vast majority of us, this will go down as the best polar bear sighting we will ever have!
Pepper Trail, Forensic Ornithologist
Tenararo is a tiny, uninhabited atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago of French Polynesia, and one of only three or four islets in the world where the unique Tuamotu sandpiper still survives. “Unique” is an over-used word, but in this case it is entirely appropriate; the Tuamotu sandpiper is the only nectar-feeding shorebird in the world, and the only one that nests on atolls. Once widespread in the South Pacific, it has been eliminated almost everywhere by introduced rats, but on rat-free Tenararo, Tuamotu sandpipers were everywhere—on the coral beach, in the thick pandanus forest, and especially where the beach naupaka shrub, or Scaevola, offers its nectar-rich flowers. As I stood still in a patch of Scaevola, amazed, the sandpipers calmly walked around my feet, moving from flower to flower. They were often too close for my telephoto to focus! The day we spent on Tenararo among these confiding and charismatic little sandpipers is one I will never forget.
Jim Wilson, Ornithologist
It is a really tough job, picking just one favorite wildlife experience of the year, when my travels with Zegrahm constantly share something new and amazing! If I have to choose, one extraordinary encounter of the year was sailing along the west coast of Peru, in seas just teeming with life. We watched waved albatross soar, thousands of Peruvian boobies rain down on shoals of fish, Peruvian pelicans relax at literally every stop, and hundreds, if not thousands of dolphins along with sperm and blue whales, thrown in for good measure. An unforgettable experience.