Australia is celebrated for its extraordinary wildlife and provides many opportunities for close and personal interactions with some amazing animals, from floating beside a magnificent whale shark, cuddling a koala or spotting a crocodile on the banks of a billabong.
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 plenty of other places to see Australian animals 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. Here are just a few of Australia's most extraordinary wildlife experiences.
Dive 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-foot) 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. These gentle whales are also found migrating along the coast of Queensland between July and November, known as the ‘Humpback Highway’ among locals, offering another chance to see them up close. Sunreef departs from Mooloolaba, just a 15-minute drive from Sunshine Coast Airport, and offer half-day tours.
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 enjoying their daily feed in a one-hectare (2.5-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 native 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. In Western Australia, head to Lucky Bay (just a 40-minute drive from Esperance) to see them lounging on the white sands, while in Queensland you’re guaranteed to spot ‘roos and wallabies on the beach at Cape Hillsborough, near Mackay.
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 of 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, Chris Hemsworth and Margot Robbie, 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 some extra scare factor, go at twilight.
Dive with the dwarf minke whales
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef offers many wonders, but there’s no way you should pass up the opportunity to swim with pods of dwarf minke whales. Famous for being highly inquisitive, minke whales have been known to spend hours swimming with humans, even bringing their calves with them for an introduction. The Great Barrier Reef is the only place on Earth they’re known to congregate and feed between the months of May and August each year. You can meet them on a day trip or overnight expedition departing from Cairns or Port Douglas.
Tiny Turtle hatching
Green and loggerhead turtles love Heron Island, just off the Gladstone coast, because the reef here touches the shoreline, meaning the shallow waters are full of food for nesting season. The coastal reef makes Heron an excellent place for daytime snorkelling, too, but you’ll want to stay overnight during hatching season. Heron Island Resort – the only accommodation on the island – has spacious rooms with reef views and an al fresco restaurant worth writing home about. Back on the mainland, the beach within Mon Repos Conservation Park, on the outskirts of picturesque Bundaberg, is another haven for turtles – in fact, more mothers nest at Mon Repos than anywhere else on the east coast. The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service run ranger-guided night-time turtle encounters during hatching season.
Penguins on Phillip Island
Located just a 90-minute drive south of Melbourne, Phillip Island is a wildlife haven. One of the area’s most popular events, the Penguin Parade allows visitors to catch a glimpse of the island's native little penguins as they come back ashore after a day of fishing. Head to Summerland Beach for a 180-degree viewing of the parade on their tiered seating. There are also several VIP and guided tours on offer for up-close viewing and ranger commentary. Alternatively, try to catch a glimpse of them in their burrows from the elevated timber boardwalks around the island. With over 32,000 little penguins living on the island, you've got a good chance of spotting a few.
Salute the sea lions
If their name isn’t already a dead giveaway, Australian sea lions are endemic to Australia. These friendly ‘puppies of the sea’ are incredibly playful, and naturally inquisitive, and will often swim right up to humans nearby. They patrol the waters off the West Australian coast, Victoria, and South Australia. You can get up close and personal on the Coral Coast (three hours north of Perth), where the local sea lions are commonly spotted sunbathing on the beaches of Jurien Bay Marine Park, or you can take a boat from Jurien Bay or Green Head and jump in the water for a snorkel as they swirl around you. There’s also a large colony that live in Kangaroo Island’s Seal Bay, and visitors are encouraged to take a research tour held at either sunrise or twilight led by an experienced guide.
Play with a platypus
In Queensland’s Mackay region – a tropical area known for its waterfalls, rainforests and ancient volcanic soils – you’ll find a very rare, very special experience indeed. The native Australian platypus (famous for its duck-like bill and webbed feet) is notoriously shy, but in a remote rainforest you can dive with them. Dives take place at dawn and dusk, when these beautiful animals are most active. Slip underwater and look out for turtles, fish and other fascinating marine life, too. If you’d rather not get wet, then head to the Healesville Sanctuary in Badger Creek, where you can play zookeeper for the day to touch, play and feed the platypus on site.
Glide with manta rays
With a wingspan of up to seven metres (22 feet), the manta ray is the world’s largest ray. Despite their impressive size, these majestic creatures are safe to swim, snorkel or dive with as they don’t have the sharp barb of other rays. The giant rays can be found feeding throughout the year at Lady Elliot Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef or at Coral Bay on the famous Ningaloo Reef. Watch closely and you may see the acrobatic skills of the males on display as they compete for female attention.
Spot wild dingoes
Not quite a dog, and definitely not a wolf – the Australian dingo is a wild animal and an Australian icon. While they are generally recognised by their rich copper coat, they come in whole heap of colours. They can be white, which means the dingo comes from the alpine regions of Australia, and they can also be black, usually found in forest and rainforest areas. You can find them at the Australian Reptile Park (just outside of Sydney) and at most zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, but if your heart is set on seeing them in the wild, your best bet is to visit Queensland’s Fraser Island where visitors can observe the local wildlife in their own habitat.