On a catamaran day trip to Icacos Island, Puerto Rico, this summer, everyone was enjoying the sunshine and the emerald-green waters when shrieks interrupted the splashes from snorkelers. Standing at the bow, I noticed a group of swimmers rapidly moving towards two dolphins, their slick bodies gliding in and out of the water in unison. The thought of jumping back in the water crossed my mind, but I didn’t want to join the herd already swarming the animals. I later learned that the scream was a result of a snorkeler getting hit in the face by the dolphin’s tail for attempting to grab its fin. While this karmic justice seemed comical at the moment, the sad reality of the situation soon sunk in. Unfortunately, this sort of harassing behavior towards wildlife has become all too common in recent years.
For nature and animal lovers, it’s a privilege to get up close to wildlife, be it the giant tortoise in the Galápagos Islands, or the king of the jungle on an African safari. However, it’s important to recognize that we are in their home and need to respect their space. Wild animals are unpredictable; any behavior perceived as a threat to their safety could result in severe harm to humans, and may even impede the chances for survival of the very animals we love.
To make things easier, we have put together ten things to remember when encountering wildlife during your travels.
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Do Not Approach or Touch Wildlife
Visitation to our national parks is reaching pre-pandemic levels. While this means more people are enjoying the great outdoors, it also increases undesirable behavior that could put humans and animals at risk.
In Yellowstone National Park, bison injure more people than any other animal. “In my 27 years as a Yellowstone tour guide, it seems to be getting more popular for tourists to try to see how close they can get to these animals,” according to Sunny Davidson, who operates Cody Wyoming Adventures, which gives tours in the park and surrounding areas. “The situation of tourists petting the bison, putting them in their cars, etc. is against the animal’s natural order.”
Davidson believes TV shows and movies where people interact or live with wild animals promote the sentiment that it’s acceptable to get close to or touch animals. The types of animals one encounters in national parks, such as bison and elk, are not to be messed with, she says. “Yellowstone is not a zoo and the animals are not in cages. These animals are very dangerous and turning your back on a 2,000-pound bison that can run 35 miles an hour and jump six feet in the air is not an intelligent thing to do.”
Last year, in two separate instances, individuals who got close to bison were gored. “Unfortunately, it happens a lot and people get killed and the animals die. This is not the way to protect them,” she adds.
Maintain a Safe Distance
Just as we like to feel safe in our home, animals, too, deserve to be comfortable in their habitats. Keeping a safe distance is the smart thing to do. When you see an elk or bison, stay at least 25 yards away (75 feet), recommends Davidson. That’s around two school buses long.
“I’ve seen elk charge people and do a lot of damage to vehicles,” she says. Cow elk are especially protective of their babies, and it’s imperative to find shelter in a vehicle or a nearby building if one charges. When encountering bison, it’s best to immediately walk or run away from the massive animal.
The Greater Yellowstone Area has around 1,000 grizzly bears, and approximately 100 gray wolves resulting from a successful reintroduction effort. It’s important to stay at least 100 yards (300 feet) away from these apex predators. If you happen upon animals as you hike through the 1,000 miles of trails at Yellowstone, carry a stick and bear spray. If a bear tries to come near your vehicle, honk the horn and drive away.
In Rwanda and Uganda, trekking to see the endangered mountain gorilla is one of the most sought-after experiences for animal lovers, and it comes with its own set of rules. “Masks are still mandatory, as is keeping seven meters (23 feet) away from the habituated gorilla family,” says Francis Kiwanuka, Head Guide at Volcanoes Safaris.
You may encounter some gorillas who are social, especially young ones who move around and may approach you. Kiwanuka recommends remaining calm and listening to the guide’s instructions as to whether to move out of their way or remain where you are. “If you can’t avoid them, stand still or crouch down. Refrain from any eye contact or touching.” More importantly, do not interfere or approach two fighting male gorillas.
Do Not Meddle With Marine Animals
My trip to the Galápagos Islands on an Ecoventura cruise was a decade ago, but I still remember the early morning greetings from my guide, Ivan Lopez: “Welcome to Paradise!” It’s such a special place, he says on a recent call. “You can get unique species, like marine iguanas, sea lions, penguins, and cormorants all in one picture here. Some of the species are endangered and this is one of the few places where we can share space and swim with them.”
Protected places like the Galápagos Islands have regulations that must be followed, like keeping seven feet from any kind of wildlife and following specifically marked paths. “It is best to be a witness and not interact or interfere with the natural way. If someone grabs or tries to touch a sea lion, it is going to cause a reaction. It may bite, and their bite is three times stronger than people,” adds Lopez. Furthermore, attempting to touch a baby sea lion could cause the pup to walk away from its safe space out of fear, and “this could put them at risk because it is now an easy prey for a predator like the Galápagos shark, blacktip reef shark, silky shark, or a hammerhead shark,” says Lopez.
Lopez has been a guide for 22 years and runs his own dive shop, Wreck Bay Dive Center, based on San Cristobal Island. His number one piece of advice to snorkelers and swimmers is to avoid interacting with the wildlife in the water. “The pattern of behavior of the wildlife kingdom under water is defensive. So, if a shark or another marine animal feels trapped, it will try to confront or attack.”
Give Plenty of Space
Lauren Kennedy, Marine Biologist at Coco Bodu Hithi in the Maldives, says certain codes of conduct must be followed when snorkeling and diving with turtles, manta rays, and whale sharks–all of which can be seen in the waters surrounding the idyllic islands. Most importantly, “never touch, pet, ride or chase the animals, as this will make them stressed,” she adds.
“Keep a distance of around 2 meters (6.5 feet) for turtles and 3 meters (10 feet) for manta rays. For whale sharks–stay 3 meters away from their head and 4 meters (13 feet) from their tail,” says Kennedy.
Dolphins should never be approached directly from the front or back. “Never chase dolphins–they may choose to approach your boat to bow-ride, but if they choose to leave, do not chase after them.” A distance of more than 50 meters (164 feet) needs to be maintained when mothers with calves are present. The distance between you and a whale should be 100 meters (300 feet).
Act Calmly and Quietly in and on the Water
Kennedy suggests swimmers and snorkelers act calmly and move slowly, avoiding splashing of fins and shouting in the water or onboard the vessel, as this can scare away animals. Stay to the side of the animal and do not block their exit in any way. One must never hover above a sea turtle, as it can prevent it from accessing the surface for air.
Dolphins, in particular, rely heavily on sound for navigation; loud engine noise can interfere with their delicate hearing, Kennedy adds. “Where possible, engine revving should be minimized. If you have a drone, do not fly too close to the dolphins.”
Do Not Disturb Turtles and Nests
One of my most memorable experiences was witnessing a giant Pacific green sea turtle dig a hole with its flippers and lay eggs on a beach in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, under the cover of darkness. Turtle mothers often crawl onto the very beach they were born to lay their own eggs. While it’s exciting to see this miracle of life, it’s easy to miss turtle nests once the eggs have been buried on your beach outings. If you notice a nest on a beach near a resort, alert a staff member who can call the relevant authorities to ensure that proper precautions are taken to protect it from being tampered with.
If you happen upon a turtle laying eggs or afterward, Kennedy recommends staying quiet and low to the ground. Do not approach the turtle or block its access to the water. Never touch the turtle, its nest, the eggs, or hatchlings. When you see turtles or babies trying to reach the water, do not use cameras with flash or other lights, as that could make them disoriented and lose their direction.
While all turtles are not tortoises, all tortoises are turtles. The giant tortoise, the emblematic species of the Galápagos Islands, is a rare sight; spotting them in their natural habitat on the highlands of Santa Cruz is a privilege. When visiting these longest-living land vertebrates, it’s important to do so calmly, without speaking too loudly, says Lopez. “Even if they do not hear, they can feel the vibrations. If you are walking too fast, or getting too close to them, they will retract their neck and limbs.”
Be Mindful and Patient on Safaris
An African safari is a wildlife lover’s dream and provides unbeatable game-viewing experiences. Whether you are on the trip of a lifetime witnessing the Great Migration in Tanzania or herds of elephants gathering around the Chobe River in Botswana, it makes for special moments. It’s truly a wonder to set eyes on the Big Five, or any of the incredible bird species on a safari, which is why it’s important to be mindful on game drives.
“The noise level on the vehicle has to be kept to a minimum, for the benefit of the animal and other people around,” says Grace Godchance Matemba, a guide at Asilia Africa’s all-female-run Dunia Camp in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. “We are in their home. If we call them to get their attention, it might disturb their normal behavior and they might react unexpectedly,” warns Matemba.
On a safari, the best viewing experience is possible when we are patient and follow the direction of the guide. “Always listen to the guide before doing certain things like getting out of the vehicle. She or he is the one who will tell if the area is safe or not,” says Matemba.
Some game drives seem to go on for hours without any sightings and this may cause some visitors to become restless. “If the guests are not patient, then [they] won’t enjoy the safari and might miss seeing the natural beauty and activity of the park,” says Matemba. “Nothing is guaranteed in nature, so we all have to be patient.”
Do Not Litter or Throw Items at the Animals
It’s forbidden to litter in the national parks, reminds Matemba. Not only does this add to the pollution, some animals can consume trash such as plastics that can block their digestive systems, which may lead to death.
Some visitors, in an attempt to get the attention of a sleeping lion or another predator, have resorted to throwing water bottles and other items. This behavior might cause the animal to perceive the act as a threat and react by attacking, warns Matemba. “If you throw something edible at them, they can eat the stuff and it could destroy their nature; and, at the end of the day, they will be expecting people to feed them.”
Similarly, when trekking to see mountain gorillas, it’s paramount to not throw anything at these majestic beings. “These gorillas are habituated to be around human visitors, but aggressive behavior, such as throwing something unfamiliar at them, could be seen as a threat, which they need to protect themselves from,” says Kiwanuka. “We must respect their home and space by observing them with as little impact or stress on them as possible.”
Do Not Attempt Selfies
When seeing animals in remote places, it’s tempting to capture the special moments by taking selfies to share on social media. However, in the quest for that perfect picture, travelers are putting themselves and the animals at risk. In a video from May 2023, a woman was seen attempting to get close to a bison in Yellowstone National Park for a selfie. “People trying to get those selfies and close-up photos with the wildlife [in Yellowstone] has become a multi-times-a-day act,” says Davidson.
It’s not advisable to take selfies with marine animals either, because this would involve swimming close to the animals, says Kennedy. “This can cause them stress and disturb their natural behaviors. You also put yourself at risk of injury if the animal feels threatened.”
However, if you would like a picture with a marine animal, ask a fellow snorkeler to take it for you, while keeping a safe distance from the animal.
Do Not Interfere With Nature
Earlier this year, a well-intentioned man vacationing in Yellowstone tried to save a bison calf from crossing the river. Unfortunately, the animal ended up being euthanized to preserve the natural process of the park. Another good samaritan put a lost baby elk in the back of a car to find help, but it ran away.
On my trip to the Galápagos Islands, we saw an abandoned baby sea lion on a beach, searching for her mother and going from one sea lion to another for milk. It was a heartbreaking sight, and as much as we all wanted this baby to survive, our guide instructed us that we needed to let nature be.
“One should never feed marine life,” says Kennedy. This not only increases the risk of accidental or deliberate injury, it can also do the animal more harm than good. “Wild turtles, fish, sharks, and other animals do not need our help to feed and, in doing so, we disrupt their natural instincts.”
Feeding animals also makes them reliant on us and that negatively impacts their role in the ecosystem. In the Maldives, it’s illegal to feed rays and sharks. In Yellowstone National Park and other parks, animals that get dependent on human food become aggressive toward people and end up being euthanized.
It is better to admire the animals from afar than to disturb or hurt them, says Davidson.