By Tammy Tour Guide and Tony van Diesel
Wildlife watching is a wonderful and thrilling experience – until it goes slightly pear-shaped.
It’s when you get a little too close to nature for comfort that the call of the wild can take on a more dangerous meaning!
So here’s some of the closest wildlife shaves we’ve experienced over the years from rampaging bison to grizzly bears at close quarters and even an attack of ants.
Read on and behold a cautionary tale for wildlife lovers around the world…
1. Bison breakfast – Antelope Island, Utah, USA
Waking up in the RV and throwing back the shutters I shouted across the van to my partner, “Bison for breakfast!”.
Tony thought this was the cue for a couple of sizzling buffalo burgers to appear, but in reality it was the sight of a very large buffalo standing right in front of the truck.
On closer inspection there were two animals, part of the large herd that roams the wild meadows of Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
So we popped out of the truck and took a few photos of these incredible animals.
But what happened next was slightly less expected.
As we walked down to the nearby beach, one of the curious creatures came ever nearer, sending one group of campers running for cover, leaving their picnic table with a sizzling hot breakfast cooking on a stove.
My biggest fear was that the bison would knock over the boiling hot kettle and scald itself – and would run amok through the campsite.
Bison or buffalo can weigh up to 2,000 pounds so you really don’t want to be caught in the direct line of a rampaging animal.
Fortunately, the male bison only sniffed the breakfast and concluded it wasn’t that tasty (perhaps bacon wasn’t its favourite meal) so ambled off in the other direction. A very close shave!
2. Brown bear watching – Yellowstone Park, Wyoming
Brown Bear watching is one of the most exciting nature watching experiences on the planet.
Coming into close contact with these incredible animals is a real thrill especially when you spot a bear in its natural habitat rather than on a reserve or zoo.
There’s just one small snag – an unexpected bear encounter can be a scary experience.
During a trip to Yellowstone National Park a few years agao, we stopped the car when we saw a group of visitors getting excited about something they’d spotted.
It was a brown bear foraging for berrries in the nearby bushes, but there was just one problem – the bear was only about 15 feet away, well below the recommended safe viewing distance.
Brown bears can run at 30 mph if they are disturbed or get annoyed. Fortunately, this one seemed oblivious to the visitors and carried on happily feeding in the autumn sunshine!
3. Ant attack – Store Mosse, Sweden
There’s nothing worse than ants in your pants!
A recent walk through Store Mosse National Park on a glorious summer’s day in Sweden had been idyllic and chilled-out.
There was the sight of a family of ospreys hunting for fish over the lake and we’d enjoyed great views of cranes making their way slowly through the meadows to feed at the water’s edge.
Then there was the ant hill.
My partner Tony was determined to take a picture of the ants (see above) but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was a really bad idea when he kneeled down to take the shot.
Minutes later, Tony had ants in his pants – literally.
Half jokingly, I suggested he might need to take off his trousers and shake them. Imagine my surprise when he did just that!
He waited till we were on top of a popular bird watching tower nearby – much to my embarrassment.
The offending ants fell out and crawled off back to their nest but not before Tony had experienced a hugely uncomfortable case of ‘ant angst’.
4. Elk experience – Montana, USA
I remember driving for miles across Montana and bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t seen any elk, even though they’re one of the commonest creatures in the countryside.
As I was venting my feelings, imagine my surprise as we were driving up to our remote lodge near Helena when a very large male elk appeared directly in front of the car and we came to a very sudden stop!
We were inches away from hitting this impressive-looking specimen who stood his ground like he was the Monarch of the Glen.
Then, a female appeared from the woods followed by several more specimens, as if they were making a point.
Strangely, we were heading for a inn called Elk View Lodge… perhaps the name should have given us a clue to the large number of these animals in this location!
5. Hippo hysteria – Malawi, Africa
Tony writes: On a break from a filming trip in Malawi we decided that an early morning boat trip on the Shire River would be a nice change.
Puttering along watching the birds on the trees on the riverbank we noticed a disturbance in the water just yards ahead of the boat. Then, an enormous hippopotamus broke the surface.
I thought it was quite fun, but changed my mind when the boatmen accelerated fast, putting distance between us and the giant beast.
Apparently they occasionally decide to emerge directly underneath boats, tipping the occupants into the water, which ruins the fun!
6. Close-up with crocodiles – Nepal
Tony writes: Much to Tammy’s disgust, I managed to get to a beautiful national park in southern Nepal for a quick weekend, and secured the services of an expert birdwatcher as a guide.
After using water buffalo as transport, he announced that the next leg of the journey would be up river in a dugout canoe.
I gingerly stepped into the wobbly craft, clutching my camera and looking for hornbills.
Then I spotted a group of crocodiles on the far bank, sunning themselves, and (probably) licking their lips at the sight of the well-fed tourists.
I made sure that I did nothing to set the canoe wobbling, especially as there were no life jackets and the water was lapping right up against the edge of the boat.
We steered rather closer to the crocodiles than felt comfortable but managed to escape without a mauling.
7. Tern territory – Farne Islands, UK
The Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast is one of the best places to watch Arctic, sandwich and common terns in the summer when the birds migrate to breed on these remote islands.
A boat trip to the islands is a must for any keen birdwatcher, but it comes with a number of dangers because the birds are very edgy at this time of year.
If you invade their territory, you’ll find yourself being dive-bombed and pecked by the terns in one of the most aggressive bird attacks I’ve seen.
A hard hat is essential in the summer months. If you don’t have any headgear you can expect to be pecked by a real life angry bird!
8. Swimming with seals – St Andrews, Scotland
A trip to a remote beach at Tentsmuir wildlife reserve near St Andrews in Scotland turned into a closer experience with seals than we’d bargained for.
As Tony plunged into the waves an increasing number of curious seals gathered around to check out the human visitor, bobbing up and down in the water around him.
Every time Tony turned his back on them, more seals popped up and surrounded him, encouraging more of their mates to do the same.
Seals are naturally curious creatures but their growing proximity scared poor Tony who retreated from the waters fast.
Apparently they’ll swim with you if they’re feeling playful – although nature experts tend to advise against it, not least because you’re in their territory.
They’ve also been known to nibble divers’s feet in an affectionate bonding ritual. Sadly, Tony didn’t wait around to see how playful or otherwise they were feeling that day!
9. Alligator alley, Florida, USA
Everyone knows that alligators are creatures you give a wide berth to, largely because of their razor-sharp teeth and heavy duty jaws that can kill a human being in seconds.
There are 1.3 million alligators in Florida, most of them living in the wild swamps and wetlands.
On a trip to the Everglades in Florida, we stopped in a small town to grab a sandwich from a local cafe, passing on the alligator burgers at the hot food counter in favour of a giant American sandwich.
Walking back to our car, we were surprised to see a large alligator slithering its way down the main road past our truck.
We hid in the bushes for all of half an hour as the reptile made its way by very slowly along the road. But at one point it speeded up as if it had detected our presence.
Its unpredictable behaviour was disturbing, even from what we thought was a safe distance.
Now I know why they call this part of Florida ‘alligator alley’!
10. Whale watching, Quebec, Canada
Whale watching is one of nature’s best experiences if you’re lucky enough to see killer whales, belugas or blue whales in the wild.
A recent whale watching trip along the St Lawrence River in a small boat became interesting when one of the larger whales in a nearby pod decided to come closer to inspect the whale watchers.
As we yelped with joy on seeing the impressive animal breaching and displaying, it became obvious that this whale was coming a little bit close for comfort.
Next thing we knew, the boat shook as the enormous whale disappeared right under its bottom, causing a large backwash and a rocking motion.
We remained upright but it was a closer shave with nature than you might have liked in the middle of a major waterway!
Close-up with nature
Most of the incidents above involved large mammals or marine creatures but it’s easy to forget that even smaller reptiles, snakes and even ants can cause as much havoc.
Personally, some of my most thrilling wildlife watching experiencs have involved small, slow-moving creatures which don’t pose any threat to my well-being.
Take the koala bear which just sits around looking dopey and sleeps for a large chunk of the day… it’s hard to get these cuddly marsupials to be active or take an interest in anything human.
Or the yellow-bellied marmot which is a lot more active but has a curious streak, making it one of my favourite cuddly critters to watch.
I’ll be telling you more about my more sedate, yet equally thrilling, close-up wildlife encounters later this month on the Tammy Tour Guide blog – from birds of prey and dolphin displays to kangaroos and wild beavers.
Perhaps you’d like to share some of your wildlife watching experiences with me too?