“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
This is just one of my absolute favorite quotes by renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough, a man whose life work inspires me every single day.
As far back as I can remember, animals have held a soft spot in my heart. Wildlife photos have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Whether I was falling asleep at night clutching my raggedy Blue Bunny stuffed animal or petting every dog I could find, there is just such a fundamental and straightforward pleasure that comes with the comfort of a pet. Reflecting, the cats and dogs I had as a kid were the light of my life. And I can still remember screaming my head off the first time I saw someone run over a squirrel as a kid, and I’m pretty the old film Old Yeller permanently scarred me (when the had to put down the namesake dog) – shivers, still makes me so upset.
Growing older, my love for the animal world only deepened. From a stint as a noisy vegetarian in high school fighting with PETA to end factory-farmed chickens to volunteering at my local animal shelter, I’ve always been drawn to animals. In many ways, as a deeply introverted person, animals have always been my friends.
I suppose it makes sense that taking wildlife photos and working with animals has become an integral part of my storytelling as I developed this wild career in travel blogging. As a society, we are collectively evolving to respect animals a lot more. Gone are the days of visiting the circus or poking the glass enclosures of zoos, instead replaced by a strong desire to protect animals in the wild.
Sure, the dream of cuddling a baby tiger is beautiful, but it’s ethically wrong. Now, it’s much better to dream of seeing tigers calling in the wild where they belong, to watch them hunt or nap in the grass.
The real beauty of an animal is best experienced out in the wild, where there are no guarantees of anything, and they are genuinely themselves.
As I found my voice, my passion, and motivation over the years on this blog, it quickly became apparent to me how important it was to share the stories of wildlife and the people who work in that sector. In general, conservation initiatives are underfunded, ignored, and quickly swept to the side, as louder people scream for attention for development schemes and more “present” issues.
After all, the roar of a lonely lion in Africa hunted by poachers isn’t heard in the dark halls of the Senate in Washington, D.C.
So as the years rolled by, I found myself taking on more and more work and travel with elements of wildlife conservation to them. Sharing the stories of animals in the wild is my great lifelong passion.
While we all may be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, let’s not forget that the world moves on, and the wildlife we love to observe continue living their lives, whether or not we are there to witness it. Here are 20 of my favorite wildlife photos I’ve taken over the years all over the world with a little story behind them, revealing just how profound those moments were to me. Enjoy.
1. Pilot whales – Stewart Island
I can easily pinpoint the exact moment where my entire attitude changed around wildlife conservation – the day I found 145 beaching pilot whales alone while tramping on Stewart Island. In no uncertain terms, it fucked me up big time. I still can’t believe I found the courage in myself to take a few photos to document the stranding, knowing the impact my wildlife photos could have on the world.
An emotional, painful, heartwrenching experience, those days with my dying whales, will forever shape who I am and who I want to be.
From that exact moment I vowed to myself, I would do all I can to help. I would use my voice for those wild creatures who can’t speak for themselves, supported in part by Project Jonah NZ.
2. King penguins – South Georgia
Visiting South Georgia with Intrepid Travel a few summers ago was one of those life-changing trips. I had been dreaming about visiting here one day for so long, and when it finally happened, I about died from joy.
One of the most remote places on earth, South Georgia is a wild uninhabited island once used by whalers in the Southern Ocean hundreds of kilometers off the coasts of Antarctica and Argentina.
As our zodiac boats cruised in and dropped us in St. Andrews Bay, my mouth gaped open as the sounds of tens of thousands of king penguins boomed in the background. An unimaginable scale of wildlife, it’s one of the most incredible places on the entire planet. And for wildlife photos? Couldn’t be better!
3. The kākāpō – New Zealand
If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I’m a bit of a bird nerd.
My deep love for our feathered friends was, in large part, inspired by New Zealand’s natural history as a land of only birds. Before humans arrived, there were no mammals here, minus a couple of bats. A land ruled by birds, New Zealand, is still home to some of the oddest and most curious of avian creatures, like the kākāpō, most of which teeter on the brink of extinction.
The kākāpō is my favorite animal. A flightless nocturnal (somewhat chubby) parrot that looks like an owl and an avocado had a baby; the kākāpō is both charming and quirky and extremely rare.
With only 210 kākāpō left in the world, their plight represents the dangers, so many of our beautiful creatures face today. Do we stand by and watch them go extinct on our watch (which is also our fault), or do we do all we can to save them?
4. The leopard – Botswana
If you ever visit southern Africa on safari, you’ll quickly learn about the Big Five – the five most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot – you know, back when that was normal. They include the lion, rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo, and leopard.
Nowadays, you’ll still want to shoot them, but just with a camera – is that joke in poor taste? Forgive me.
The hardest to spot is the elusive leopard. Quiet and shy and generally nocturnal, if you get to spend time with one on safari, you’ll count yourself very lucky.
5. Polar bears – Svalbard
For as far as I can remember, it was one of my biggest dreams to see polar bears in Svalbard, an icy wilderness north of Norway in the Arctic. Inspired by the Golden Compass books as a kid, it was a dream come true to voyage there by ship a few years ago, tracking polar bears.
Knowing polar bears are facing extinction through habitat loss, as the Arctic ice (their home) shrinks year by year due to global warming, made the trip all the more profound.
My wildlife photos from Svalbard helped shape my journey as a blogger to this day.
6. Golden eagles – Kyrgyzstan
Central Asia is a spectacular place, and nowhere is more impressive than Kyrgyzstan. Mountainous and beautiful, here you can still find the nomadic traditions going strong, from bride-napping (awful) to eagle hunting (epic).
Seeing their culture of hunting with golden eagles is nothing short of impressive. Getting to hold Ak Zholtoi, the champion eagle queen of Kyrgyzstan, was a once in a lifetime I’ll never forget. Especially since I dropped her. Fuck.
7. Camels – Jordan
Not all wildlife encounters are fabulous and Instagrammable. Some just plain suck, like that one time I fell off a camel in Jordan, thoroughly breaking myself and my new camera.
Now, whenever I see camels, I just see this bright white light of pain and go “UGHHHH.” Even though it was my fault, it still can’t make me love camels. I hate them.
8. Koalas – Australia
Koalas are cute and furry, the total grandpas of the marsupial world, especially with their furry ears.
While they aren’t endangered (yet), they are listed as vulnerable, especially after the devastating bushfires in Australia halved their population and decimated the highly-flammable eucalyptus forests they love.
Oh, and they all have chlamydia. WTF.
9. Asian elephants – Sri Lanka
Is there anything more enjoyable than seeing an elephant in the wild? Nope.
Intelligent, beautiful, and caring creatures, I can (and often do) sit and observe elephants for hours and hours on safari. I’ve seen many of them both in Africa and also in Asia, having my first significant experience with elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka, where they charged us.
10. Adelie Penguins – Antarctica
Penguins in Antarctica? Enough said.
11. Monkeys – Bali
Unpopular opinion – monkeys are little devils.
I’ve never shied away from controversy, so I’m not even fazed to say this. Monkeys are evil. This is coming from personal experience. They look cute and stuff, but they are not. Do not be fooled.
12. Reindeer – Finland
You can’t journey into the Arctic circle and not see some reindeer!
One of the highlights of visiting Finnish Lapland in winter was seeing all of the iconic reindeer. I spent time with local reindeer farmers, even going on a sleigh ride in the snow. While it might not technically count as wildlife photos, they still are some of my favorite.
13. Lions – South Africa
Seeing lions on safari in Africa is something unimaginably amazing. Majestic and scary, getting a glimpse of them in the wild is pretty special.
I celebrated by 27th birthday on a trip to South Africa, totally amazing, I know.
Seeing a pride of lions was the icing on the cake. To be honest, they aren’t always hard to find. The thugs of the big cats, they aren’t shy, and you can smell them and their kill long before you see them. Unfazed by humans in safari trucks, no matter how many times you’ve watched the Lion King, you aren’t prepared for how spectacular it is to see these guys up close and personal.
14. Horses – Mongolia
Perhaps one of the most heartfelt blog posts I’ve ever written is about how Mongolia changed my life. Six years later, and I still remember how much it meant to me. I spent close to a month here riding horses with the Khazak nomads around the Altai region. Nothing has come close to this before or since.
The horses in Mongolia are almost half-wild. Unnamed, they are small and fierce mountain ponies.
15. Southern Royal Albatross – Campbell Island
Albatross are one of my favorite seabirds and with good reason. They are so majestic and beautiful. Watching them soar and sweep in the sky is mesmerizing.
Seeing one of the largest species of albatross, the Southern Royal, nesting on Campbell Island was an experience I’ll never forget. Enormous and graceful, they are some of the most beautiful birds in the world. Above all, now more than ever, we need to work on protecting them.
My shots of albatross are some of my favorite wildlife photos I’ve ever taken.
16. Sea turtles – Australia
Nothing beats snorkeling with sea turtles on the Great Barrier Reef. Fingers crossed it’s still there in 20 years.
17. Kea – New Zealand
You have got to love a creature that is highly intelligent yet chooses to be evil.
The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot and calls the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island home. Incredibly smart and incredibly cheeky, they are so much fun to see in the wild, even though their numbers are endangered. Unafraid of humans, kea make for excellent wildlife photos too.
Keep an eye on your stuff. Kea love to steal things or rip things apart.
18. Rockhopper penguins – Falkland Islands
I’m such a sucker for crested penguins. Famous for their wily bright eyebrows, I always think of these guys as the rockstars of the penguin world.
Visiting a colony of rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands was a total dream come true, especially since there were baby chicks everywhere!
19. Elephant seals – Macquarie Island
Man, I love elephant seals. Why? Because the babies are cute, and they fart like crazy.
The largest species of seals in the world, the southern elephant seal, can be found around the subantarctic islands like Macquarie Island. Now recovering from being hunted close to extinction for their blubber, they lounge around on the beach and can be roughly the size of a truck.
Seriously, they are enormous. Once they’re grown, their nose takes on that elephant “trunk” look, giving them their name. Giant and dangerous, you give them a wide berth when visiting their turf.
20. Manta Rays – Maldives
The Maldives are a real paradise on earth, both below sea levels and above too.
A place I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice, I can still remember sinking beneath the bath temperature waves to an incredible wilderness below while on dive trips.
The Maldives is an underwater mecca for diving enthusiasts, and it’s a great place to spot manta rays, eagle rays, and whale sharks. I can’t wait to return.
Have you been to any of these places? Where’s your favorite destination for wildlife photos? What creature do you dream of seeing in the wild? Share!