Arms crossed rigidly over my Neoprene-covered chest, terrified of moving but desperate to manoeuvre for a better view of the more than 1,500 fish teeming around me, I floated at the top of the massive oceanarium at the National Aquarium in Napier, New Zealand.
Enormous stingrays floated by as I attempted to breathe normally through my snorkel. When the metre-and-a -half long sevengill shark bumped my leg before smoothly gliding past, I'd had enough. I signalled to the diving instructor accompanying me (wide, panicked eyes did the trick) and he pulled me back to the safety of the tank entrance.
Viewing wild animals in a native habitat, especially one as foreign to North Americans as far-flung New Zealand, is an adventure in itself. However, many travelers take the opportunity to elevate the experience by facing animal encounters in the wild or in special preserves.
Here are five exciting animal encounter itineraries that visitors to New Zealand can experience:
National Aquarium of New ZealandThe National Aquarium crouches low on edge of the Pacific Ocean, spreading out like the huge stingrays on display within. Visitors don wetsuits and snorkelling gear for a half hour float in 1.5 million litres of fresh seawater pumped in from the ocean in the aquarium's spectacular oceanarium. Certified divers may experience diving in the tank to interact with the fish or feed a kahawhai or snapper.
Wilderness Safaris Hawke's Bay
The 2,200 hectare Cape Kidnappers Wildlife Preserve in Hawke's Bay is the largest predator-safe area of its type in New Zealand and home to the largest mainland gannet colony in the world. The preserve manages a kiwi breeding-and-release program designed to save the endangered North Island Brown Kiwi, and sightings of the awkward, flightless bird are common. Tours in a 4WD Jeep also offer glimpses of the smallest species of penguin, the Little Blue Penguin.
Orana Wildlife ParkIn New Zealand's only open-range zoo, Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, more than 400 animals of 70 different species are on show within 80 hectares of park-like grounds. Visitors can opt to board a caged feeding wagon and ride through the African Lion Habitat, meet white rhinoceros from a mere five feet away or hand-feed a giraffe or lemur. Visitors willing to shell out a little extra coin can experience a personal encounter with a hand-raised cheetah accompanied by a keeper in the cheetah's habitat.
Swimming with Dolphins in Akoroa HarbourSwim with wild dolphins in the only place on the planet where you can meet the world's smallest and very rare dolphin, the Hector Dolphin, in the stunning Akaroa Harbour in New Zealand's South Island. Visitors will experience an hour in deep water with these gentle mammals in their natural habitat. Swims takes place with free dolphins in the harbour, a long flooded crater of an extinct volcano.
Zealandia Karori Sanctuary Again with the kiwi. At Zealandia, Wellington's urban eco sanctuary, visitors take a night tour to see the country's official bird, the kiwi, on what's been described by Lonely Planet as a "life-changing experience" in its Best in Travel Guide 2011. This living ecosystem contains 225 hectares of bush with 32 km of tracks and is home to some of New Zealand's most rare and extraordinary creatures. Visitors can ask a ranger to point out a tuatara -- this "living fossil" reptile is one of two surviving members of its order, which flourished around 200 million years ago, or the highly intelligent kaka (bush parrot).
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