AUSTRALIA IS BLESSED WITH more than its fair share of captivating creatures, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Unique species more than 80 per cent of our 378 mammals, 773 of our 869 reptiles, and almost half of our more than 800 birds.
You can, of course, see a respectable number of these species at zoos, conservation facilities, and wildlife parks, and, while there, you may even be able to participate in an animal encounter or two.
Still, the best, most memorable wildlife encounters are the ones that occur in the animal's natural habitat. This year, venture into the wild, or at least towards its edges, and give some of our resident and migratory species the chance to awe and inspire you. Some of the following experiences require an element of exertion, but others simply demand that you look, listen, and wonder.
1. See turtle hatchlings scrambling to the sea
Between November and February, sexually mature marine turtles nest along the south Queensland coast and some of its islands, laying perhaps 100 eggs per clutch. And about eight weeks later, usually at night, the tiny hatchlings emerge and race to the sea. Coming across a hatchling is largely a matter of luck, but you can increase your odds of success by travelling to nesting sites such as Heron Island, Lady Elliot Island, and Mon Repos Conservation Park, which supports the most significant nesting population of endangered loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) in the South Pacific Ocean. Staff in all three locations will provide you with turtle watching guidelines, which include not disorienting the hatchlings by using artificial light. Also consider joining Conservation Volunteers to monitor flatback turtles at Eco Beach in Western Australia.
Mon Repos Conservation Park runs guided tours nightly from November to late March, except for 25, 25, and 31 December. Bookings are essential. On Lady Elliot Island and Heron Island, you can scout for hatchlings on your own.
2. Swim with whale sharks
The whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the world's largest fish, can grow up to 18m in length. As filter feeders, they don't use their 3000 tiny teeth to feed...and, fortunately, they crave plankton, not humans. Swimming with these docile behemoths - which involves endeavouring to keep pace with their graceful glide while you observe, wide-eyed, via a snorkel mask - will leave you breathlessly elated and eager for more. To make it happen, head to Western Australia's Ningaloo Marine Park, where whale sharks appear following the mass coral spawning in March and April, and join a tour. A Code of Conduct, which protects the threatened species as well as its human admirers, applies; it includes keeping at least three metres from the shark's multi-tonne body and four metres from its gently flicking, but intensely powerful, tail.
Operators in Exmouth and Coral Bay run whale shark adventures from mid-March until mid-July.
3. Go whale watching
Whether you're scanning calm waters from a headland such as Cape Byron, New South Wales, gazing beyond the surf break from an open beach, or stationed, camera-ready, on a tour boat, it's difficult to refrain from jumping for joy when a whale appears and momentarily launches itself from the water in a spectacular breach. Since humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) travel along much of the Australian coastline during their annual migration north from Antarctica, you can observe them from many locations, including Sydney Harbour. South Australia's Encounter Bay, which southern right whales visit between mid May and early October, and Hervey Bay, Queensland, which receives a healthy number of migrating humpbacks between August and November, are safe bets.
For an exhilarating ride out to the action, step aboard Hervey Bay-based that's Awesome. In Victor Harbor, visit the South Australian Whale Centre for tips and tours.
4. Spot a platypus
They're Australia's most comically-featured native species, with dark brown fur, webbed feet, and a rubbery, duck-like bill. And they're one of only two types of egg-laying mammals on the planet. But if you've ever stood beside a freshwater creek in Tasmania or mainland Australia's eastern states, waiting in vain for a sign of their presence, you may have concluded that your chances of winning lotto were higher than the likelihood of glimpsing a platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in the wild. But nature is sometimes more benevolent than lotto, particularly if you visit reliable locations. Dawn and dusk are the best viewing times, and you should initially be looking for a circular ripple pattern, which appears on the water's surface when the platypus dives.
Position yourself on the Broken River viewing platform in Queensland's Eungella National Park, even at mid-day, and your chances of seeing a platypus will escalate.
5. Watch wombats
In the running for 'Australia's cutest marsupial' award, the wombat is the world's largest burrowing herbivorous mammal, growing up to 1.3m long, with stubby, powerful legs, a pudgy body, and a prominent, adorable snout. Australia is home to three species - the endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), the southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), and the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus). The latter, which has three subspecies, is found in Tasmania as well as in areas of Victoria, New South Wales, southern Queensland, and southeast South Australia. Although wombats are nocturnal, you don't necessarily have to go spotlighting to see one. On a cold day, you might stumble upon one basking in the sun, grazing on native grasses and bark, or diving into a burrow to avoid your attention.
On Maria Island, Tasmania, introduced Flinders Island wombats (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) regularly graze just outside the circa-1837 penitentiary - even on a summer day.
6. Welcome home fairy penguins
Imagine standing on a boardwalk, quietly waiting as the sky steadily shifts from blue to pink to black. You can just make out several cute little creatures, maybe 33cm tall, waddling out of the water and scurrying towards the dunes before pausing to catch their breath. More blue feathered shapes exit the sea and wails fill the air, as weary parents greet the hungry chicks waiting within rocky burrows. Little or fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor) are the smallest of the world's 17 penguin species; their breeding range in Australia extends along the southern coast from Fremantle (WA) all the way to Sydney (NSW) and includes Tasmania. However, most colonies occur on offshore islands, with some locations operating guided penguin tours. For the best show, visit during breeding season, which varies according to location.
Welcome home the penguins by joining tours on Kangaroo Island (SA), Granite Island (SA), Philip Island (Vic), Montague Island (NSW) or in Bicheno (Tas).
7. Dive with minke whales
Fancy exchanging meaningful glances with a friendly dwarf minke whale in between snorkelling and diving the Great Barrier Reef? If you have some spare cash and several days available this winter, you're in for a treat. For a few weeks in June and July, this subspecies of the northern or common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is commonly seen along the Ribbon Reefs north of Cairns. To observe the inquisitive cetaceans as they observe you, you can either float on the surface, using a snorkel and mask as you hang onto a line, or go on a guided dive.
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and Eye to Eye Marine Encounters run multi-day, live-aboard minke whale expeditions. As very little is known about this species, participants are encouraged to assist with research during these trips.
8. Snorkel with manta rays and sea turtles
When snorkelling and diving the Great Barrier Reef (Qld) or Ningaloo Reef (WA), many visitors keep fingers and flippers crossed that they'll witness the water dance of that wise and adept mariner, the sea turtle, as well as the graceful motions of the exquisitely elegant manta ray (Manta birostris). Manta rays, which can have a wing span of up to 7m, are spotted year-round in Coral Bay (WA), as well as in parts of the Great Barrier Reef, in particular, Lady Elliot Island. The latter location is also fabulous for viewing sea turtles; some will return your gaze with a thoughtful, and even bemused, expression as you swim alongside them.
Between scouting for Lady Elliot Island's 40 resident manta rays and developing a seriously soft spot for turtles, you may only exit the water to eat, sleep, and pay homage to the sunset.
9. Encounter a cassowary
When driving near the southern cassowary's (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) north Queensland territories (parts of the Wet Tropics, for example, Mission Beach, as well as the Cape York Peninsula), proceed slowly. If you notice a human-sized, flightless bird with a brilliant blue head and neck, high brown helmet, drooping red wattles, and long, black feathers, be suitably excited but continue on your way. If you're hiking, large piles of fresh, seed-filled dung and three-toed footprints are solid indicators that the endangered bird has recently traversed the area. Be aware, though, that its dagger-shaped claws are capable of causing serious injury or worse. If you do encounter a cassowary when outside your vehicle, back away slowly, keeping a tree or another large object between the big bird and you.
For more safety tips, check out the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Resource Management's Be... Cass-o-Wary! flier.
10. Walk among quokkas
In 1696, Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh named an offshore island after the nest of a sweet little marsupial, which he mistook for a large rat. Well over three hundred years later, Rottnest Island supports Australia's largest quokka (Setonix brachyurus) population, with anywhere from 4000 to 17,000 living there depending on the availability of food and water. You can spot them on the outskirts of Thomson Bay settlement, among other places. Ask staff at the visitor centre to point you in the right direction or join the free guided quokka walk, which departs the Salt store daily at 1pm.
Rottnest Island is located 19km off the coast of Perth. To explore the island and its 63 bays, consider hiring a bike as well as a mask and snorkel.