Whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Australia is perhaps best known for its extraordinary wildlife and the possibility of close interactions with amazing animals, whether you're floating alongside a whale shark, spying koalas napping in trees or spotting a crocodile on the banks of a billabong.
By Fleur Bainger
Australia's wildlife is incredibly unique, with many species found nowhere else in the world. While zoos and wildlife parks offer great opportunities to see animals up close, there are also countless places to see Australian wildlife in their natural habitats. You can watch Tasmanian devils play-fight, spot kangaroos relaxing by the beach, get a photo with a quokka and, if your nerves are up to it, get nose to nose with a great white shark, with only a cage between you. Here are nine of Australia's most extraordinary wildlife experiences.
Swim with the ocean's gentle giants: whale sharks and humpbacks
About halfway up the West Australian coastline, Ningaloo Marine Park is the only place on the planet where large numbers of whale sharks are known to reliably visit so close to land. Join a one day marine tour in holiday towns of Exmouth or Coral Bay from April to July and snorkel alongside these 14 metre (46 feet) harmless vegetarians. Western Australia's whale sharks share the warm waters with tropical fish, manta rays, turtles, dolphins and whales, and from July to October, you can also swim with migrating humpback whales off Ningaloo Reef.
Spot koalas sleeping in the trees
Victoria's Great Ocean Road is one of Australia's most breathtaking drives. It winds along the state's south-west coast, taking in cliffs, forests, hairpin bends and seaside towns. It also leads to clusters of grey koalas, hidden high in the treetops. The best place to find them is along Lighthouse Road, Cape Otway, which diverts off the scenic route about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the town of Apollo Bay. Koalas are everywhere, but they're well camouflaged, so you may not see them at first. Train your eyes and soon you'll be spotting them like a pro. Here's a tip: don’t stop at the first bunch of cars parked beneath a tree – just beyond you should get koalas all to yourself. Continue to the end of the cape to visit Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse.
Meet a Tasmanian devil
Tasmania's Saffire Freycinet, one of Australia's top luxury hotels, runs a retirement home for Tasmanian devils, where guests can observe these endangered animals enjoy their daily feed in a one hectare (2 1/2 acre) enclosure that mimics their natural surrounds. If you're visiting Cradle Mountain, Devils@Cradle is another nearby sanctuary where you can see and learn more about these unique indigenous animals.
Snap kangaroos relaxing on the sand
It’s an unusual sight, and one you're not likely to forget. The eastern grey kangaroos at Pebbly Beach, on the South Coast of New South Wales, love to relax and soak up the sunshine. You'll see them in large numbers on the grass and sand. Many of them at the popular surfing and bushwalking spot, about 270 kilometres (168 miles) south of Sydney, don't mind posing for photographs, either.
Watch saltwater crocs swim by
Feel the hairs rise on your arms, even as the sun warms your skin, when you first lay eyes on the ridged back of a Northern Territory crocodile. These massive reptiles move through the water noiselessly, causing only minor ripples as they slide just beneath the surface. In the heart of Kakadu National Park, a two hour cruise on Yellow Water billabong is an unforgettable way to watch this proficient predator in its natural habitat.
Float over a reef with sea turtles
When you snorkel over the coral gardens of the Great Barrier Reef, you may feel as though your mask isn't big enough to take everything in. Just off the sandy shores of Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay at the southern end of the World Heritage-listed reef, sea turtles flit through the aquamarine waters. You'll likely encounter them along one of the many snorkelling trails, which you can swim on your own using a free map, or by joining a guided snorkel safari. The lagoon on the eastern side of the island is particularly rich with sea life. If you've never snorkelled before, you can take one of the island's free lessons. If you'd rather stay dry, jump aboard the glass-bottomed boat for views of tropical fish and colourful corals.
Smile at foraging wombats
As dusk falls over the beautiful Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria (a three hour drive south east from Melbourne), solid, rotund animals with short legs and twitching noses emerge. Wombats are naturally shy, nocturnal creatures, but at dusk they emerge from their burrows to feed on grasses, and can often be seen at the entrance to the main beach and thumping heavily through the camping grounds. While you're here, expect to also come across kangaroos, emus, echidnas and rosellas.
Snap a selfie with a quokka
Western Australia's quokkas are among the cutest marsupials around. On Rottnest Island, just off the coast of Perth, they hop around cheerfully, stopping to watch as people relax at the pub, play a round of golf or cycle on the car-free island. Rarely seen anywhere else in the state, they have a social nature and those in the settlement area are happy to pose for selfie photographs, something that’s become a trend after numerous celebrities, including Hugh Jackman and Martin Clunes, posted their snaps online.
Get face to face with a great white shark
This one is for the thrill seekers. If the chance to jump in a cage, be lowered underwater and face a great white shark powering towards meat dangled in front of you sounds like fun, then be our guest. In the deep waters off the coast of Port Lincoln, on the southern tip of South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, specialist charter boats steam out to shark infested waters for full day experiences. Safety is, naturally, priority number one, but that doesn't make the adrenaline rush any less acute. If you prefer to stay dry, a glass aqua-sub is another option, or for extra scare factor, go at twilight.
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